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PhD education and mental health: A follow-up

Posted on January 3, 2012 by

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As my first post for 2012, I want to provide a bit of a follow-up to my previous piece about PhD students and mental health issues.

Though I always had the sense there was a problem with mental health in grad school and especially during the PhD, I was still surprised by the intense reaction to my post. As I write this, there are 38 comments (not counting the one I left myself). Some of these comments are very moving and all of them are refreshingly honest, and I’m extremely thankful that so many of you shared your experiences and insights. Throughout this post I will link to your comments directly.

Through Twitter, Facebook, and the comments on my post, many relevant points were raised. Some people discussed an assumed “ideal” for PhD students, and a sense of guilt and self-doubt they felt when they “failed” to live up to this, which in turn can be exacerbated by the isolation of the process and by the apparent lack of structure in advanced academic work. Others mentioned the persistently gendered (masculine) nature of the scholarly ideal, with women being affected by systemic biases that implicate them differently in academic work as well as in parenthood and family life. Bumblebee wrote that the effect of PhD problems on intimate relationships could be disastrous, particularly without institutional support.

I focused on some of the structural issues in PhD education because I think they contribute to a “pluralistic ignorance” — the fact that a student may believe that she is the only one with a problem, and blame herself for it as well, even while others are experiencing the same thing. Several people commented that compounded by insecurity and isolation, the lack of acknowledgment of and open discussion about depression and mental health issues — the “silence” associated with stigma — is actually the most significant problem because it prevents students from seeking help either from the university or from their peers.

Another effect of silence is that prospective students cannot necessarily make an informed decision about whether to enter a PhD program at the outset (and which program and supervisor to choose). Marketization of higher education is problematic because it encourages institutions to persuade students to enroll rather than informing them about their “best fit” for the program or department. A PhD program tends to be a “black box” in terms of information about problematic aspects of the course and/or the negative experiences of students. This is only compounded by not asking students who leave about the reasons for their departure (reasons that are not always negative—as noted by Alex O).

In another comment, Lil makes the crucial point that accessing support services on campuses can be a trial in itself. Students need somewhere else to turn for support and perspective when significant academic relationships begin to turn sour. But it can take time — sometimes weeks — to land an appointment with a counsellor, and in some cases students will be speaking with a trainee rather than an experienced professional. Usually they will be speaking with someone who is not familiar with the PhD process and the kinds of issues that can arise during it. Often there are a limited number of appointments available to each student in a given period, and since these services tend not to be covered by available health benefits, the student may not be able to afford to go anywhere else for help. Some students may feel too uncomfortable even to seek out professional assistance, which requires a kind of self-exposure that can be off-putting.

Of course not everyone who enters a PhD program will suffer from mental health problems. Students with a lack of social and academic support and/or past histories of depression are more likely to be vulnerable (and this applies to other high-level forms of education as well). But it’s important to consider carefully the nature of academic environment and the ways in which it can affect students’ experiences, both the good and the bad. Graduate students, like all students, are not only learning but also becoming different people; they are “changed” by their experience, and this includes the psychological and the emotional as well as the academic and professional.

Many of the comments I received thanked me for being brave enough to write publicly about this issue. On the one hand it’s disturbing to me that there is such a lack of public discussion in spite of the apparent pervasiveness of the problem. Then again, if my posts can be used as a way to open the door to that discussion, then I’m happy about it indeed.

Melonie Fullick

About Melonie Fullick

Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.


31 Responses to “PhD education and mental health: A follow-up”

  1. Dale Reardon says:


    I don’t know if it works this way in Canada but maybe you need to investigate similar issues. If you follow my link you’ll read my comments on the Australian PhD funding system. It adversely effects those who have suffered mental health problems.

    Universities receive the majority of their funding for a PhD student only once the person completes so the University is reluctant to take on a person who has had problems in the past as they may fail to complete again and then the University receives no funding for the time they invest.

    Special situations need to be worked out to encourage Universities to take on such students.

    There are also problems with scholarships which I discuss.

    Really glad to see you discussing such issues.

    Twitter: @DaleReardon

  2. Erik says:

    Your sense and concern is most correct; student health issues have been rapidly growing since 2008. I love your blog, keep up the great work! You have a keen sense for sniffing out contentious and taboo subjects that Universities should be seriously paying attention too.

  3. Amelia Kennedy says:

    Hi Melanie – Perhaps you would be interested in submitting an abstract for the 13th Canadian Collaborative Mental Healthcare Conference taking place June 2012 in Vancouver, BC. You can find more information at

  4. Laura says:

    Thank you for raising this complex and often avoided topic across university campuses (and as a PhD candidate no less)! Upon entering the PhD program @ the University of Alberta, the Education professor responsible for many of the required doctoral courses often told us about the strains of doing PhD studies on marriages and close personal relationships. In fact, I recall him beginning his doctoral seminars with such a statement and quoting statistics! He also encouraged us to seek help on campus, if required. After our 1st seminar, I remember sharing this professor’s insights with my husband (we’re still happily married) and making a conscious decision to periodically review my social and family support system through this competitive and demanding program. Studying at a research-intensive university had its pros, but also disadvantages. I will always be grateful for the Thursday group of women who met religiously at The Sugar Bowl for beverages and conversation.

  5. Sarah says:

    Thank you Melonie for doing a follow up piece. It seems such a taboo subject for fear of showing ‘weakness’. One approach which really experienced academics shared with me when I first started lecturing was the importance of ‘mental health days’. They encouraged me to feel that this was not ‘pulling a sicky’ but actually an important way of recharging the batteries. This meant leaving all work behind and doing something which makes you feel happy, relaxed and at peace without feeling guilty about the work you might be missing. It was a very valid piece of information which I definitely took on board, although realising when I needed a mental health day took a long time to learn!!

  6. meaghen says:

    Thanks Melonie

    It is great to know that we are not alone in our emotional experiences, not just related to graduate work but in our personal lives as well.

  7. Daryoush Shiri says:

    Great Job Melonie,

    I have a long story of what depression did to me during my PhD. I will share it with you as soon as I graduate.


  8. BITEME! says:

    Melonie…I cannot thank you enough for your dissertation interests and for this and the original post. Finally…someone has validated the experience I’ve had while working on my PhD (I’m only in my 2nd year due to extenuating circumstances) and is speaking on it armed with academic, health and personal expertise. I can only hope that your work will inspire systemic shifts in the insttituional environment so that students like so many of us can actually get support from our schools and our faculty as we navigate healthy balances and expectations for ourselves as students. Most importantly it MUST be remembered that we are HUMANS first…not academics! Way to go melonie. I am so proud someone is talking!

  9. Mature student says:

    I’m not sure I understand in which way PhD studies are ‘gendered’ but I do know that as an older student doing a masters degree is a very isolating experience, because of age, not gender. In fact my mental health challenges are part of the reason I am doing the work now rather than when I was in my 20s and unassisted with therapy or pharma. Anyway, let’s hear more about the gender aspects, they certainly are relevant to mental health but men are more likely to commit suicide or spiral into addiction anyway – uncertain if this is exacerbated by grad school. My anedcotal observation is that people with mental health problems self-exclude from many activities in life. The entire life of a post-grad academic is in such stark contrast to that of an undergrad. That must be difficult for people. I’m also the only member of my extended family to attend university of any sort. Grad school is way outside my frame of reference for most of my life. Anyway thanks for your work. Good topic.

  10. anonymous says:

    Very good piece Mel. What I am experiencing for someone who is interested in going on with my studies is the black box as well. There is no advice as to where to apply for Phd more so some profs are surprised that I am applying at all and other have been very supportive. Which begs the same question already asked??….who should go and take on a Phd study? The other major problem is the unwritten rules of the supervisor who can make or break a students career. The supervisory relationship remains an area in which the culture of fraternization is dominant. There is no channels to address this relationship. After all this amazing work that you have done it will be nice to hear from professors themselves unless if they do not care that nothing will change and the status qou will continue. Hearing their side of the story will further enhance your research.

  11. Sarah K says:

    Thank you Melonie. Lots to say but let me focus on one aspect: the tremendous value that getting together with a few likeminded students can have in combatting isolation, reinforcing healthy ego, knowledge-sharing, strategizing, and goal-setting. In other words, a writing group, a support group, a reading group–whatever you want to call it. Get together with people you trust in a non-competitive low-stakes atmosphere, establish that what is said in the room stays in the room (confidentiality), set regular meeting times and parameters, talk, listen to one another, set goals related to projects and report on those goals. Meeting regularly with a fellow PhD student is what enabled me to finish my PhD some ten years ago. At the institution where I now work I have facilitated two writing groups for graduate students, and have started a wiki to share information about writing groups. No, they’re not a panacea, but they sure do make a difference for anyone feeling isolated. So please–check out the wiki, contribute to it, start a writing group…

  12. Frustrated UofT student says:

    Frankly, it seems that professors and academic supervisors do not care about their students’ mental health. As a student who has not taken an academic break (e.g., going straight from highschool to undergrad, undergrad to masters, masters to PhD) I need vacation and holiday times to rejuvenate my mental processes and avoid feelings of burning out. However, rather than allowing students to rest on their holidays, I often feel bombarded with extra work and commitments on my “time-off.”
    For the sake of my mental health, I need time away from consistent academic thinking. So then why is my supervisor (who apparently is quite knowledgeable about mental health) putting me into a position where I am staying up until 4am on a daily basis doing academic work during my December break? Not only am I being deprived of the rest I need, I am also feeling trapped within an abusive relationship with my supervisor since she is in a position of political power over the completion of my PhD.
    The problem in my opinion, is that academic institutions such as UofT are too concerned with “performance” or “excellence” rather than student learning and the overall student experience. This pressure trickles down to the students’ mental health.

    Thanks for opening up this forum allowing me to feel less isolated concerning this issue. This article is not only informative, it is also a step forward towards improving the management of our mental health.

  13. Haydee Peralta says:

    It is very interesting to me that this problem is not just restricted to Canada but it could be also common in Mexico. I remember during my masters degree students that abandoned their degree as a consequence of mental issues related to the stressful environtment experienced during their degree. As well as the increased lower gratuadion efficiency of science grad students that may suggest depression problems.
    It was common for me to hear among students about abusive supervisors that treat them as “slaves” or “data mills” (myself included). And in most of the cases just for supervisors personal interests. In Mexico a researcher is valuted by the number of both publications and graduated students, which give researchers status and obviously money.
    Just imagine Melonie the variety of issues that come from such a way to train science students. Just to mention one, this kind of “students exploitation” sometimes leads to them to alter their data in order to finish on time, have a “succesful scientific career” and get a decent job.
    Thanks for arising this relevant issue!

  14. tjp says:

    Thank-you for this.

  15. Chris says:

    Hi Melonie, thank you very much for this. I started my undergrad in my late 20s and have recently completed a masters. I am looking at PhD options, but need a break first and the time to very carefully consider where I go.

    The masters and PhD programs in my department tend to burn out their students. The university publishes statistics on completion times by department, faculty and gender. 3+ year FULL TIME MSc averages dominated my department and 4 years or more is not unusual. Mine took 3. PhDs run 5 to 7+ years. The dept still seems operate under the assumption they run 2 and 4 year programs and makes loud noises about how much better their program is compared to every other one on campus (there are parallel disciplines/depts at the uni) and at other universities. I can’t think of any current student who wants to continue in academia after our PhD or thinks joining the dept was a good idea.
    One PhD candidate nearing defence has stopped putting her PhD candidature on her CV as it is actually inhibiting her from getting jobs outside academia.

    There is a pretty strong collective agreement covering work and pay conditions for graduate students. The department seemed to ignore it. I took them to task and won when I was told twice to do teaching and research work I was entitled to be paid for although it took some time. They initially tried to tell me it was “opportunity” and I was being ungrateful, before reviewing the documentation conceding I had a point. Since that, I was shocked by the number other students who came to me with stories being openly exploited, bullied, or harrassed with inappropriate sexual comments, or like me ordered to do work beyond the conditions of their degree or funding. When I suggested avenues of redress, I found many were too afraid to take the steps as it might mean challenging their supervisor or the dept and they feared the consequences.

    Many gradstudents may have never found themselves in a situation where they’ve been bullied or exploited or over-stressed and really don’t know how to react. They will elect to endure an unacceptable situation for years at the great personal costs which are highlighted here. It might be hard for some to recognise that supervisors, departments, etc do not have absolute power, especially when years of education beginning in kindergarten have conditioned students to defer to authority and not challenge it. The conditioning is such that I think many students feel they must forever meet someone else’s standards without regard for their own. So they/we sacrifice much in our personal lives and mental health in an effort to please. Shift the perspective a little and consider whether the situation actually meets your standard!

    Every institution has established avenues of redress through unions, mediation services, graduate coordinators, etc. It can help immensely to learn what these are and use them and maybe more importantly, understand that gradstudents also have the power to decide when a situation is unacceptable and how they might fix it.

    Ultimately departments and supervisors really do not want to lose gradstudents or get the reputation of being awful places to work with or join. It is a very long way from initially raising a concern to actually jeopardizing a PhDship. Also, if you’re going to challenge your working conditions, then it helps go in with as much knowledge of redress avenues as possible, and a sense of how far you’re willing to take things if push comes to shove.

    And frankly, at the end of the day, if the supervisor or department does not meet YOUR standards for support and working conditions, you can walk away and feel good about it. They failed, you didn’t.

  16. Gunnar Hochstetler says:

    This is one awesome blog article.Much thanks again. Keep writing.

  17. alias says:

    I found this blog when Google-ing around about madness, “mental illness”, and PhDing. I completed my Master’s with the support of the Mad Students Society, a peer support and advocacy group of/for “Mad Students” – folks who have experiences with mental health/psychiatric systems. I was recently accepted into a PhD program and am now freaking out about the craziness that lies ahead…

  18. Carol Cubellis says:

    Thank you for these informative and instructive comments. As the mother of a struggling graduate student, its a validation of our experience…

  19. [...] with two posts around the holidays on PhD students, depression and attrition (read them here and here). Melonie wrote that she felt that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health [...]

  20. Have any scientific studies been done on the effects of the PhD and what is involved on mental health and psychology?

  21. Jack says:

    Thank you for bringing up this topic. I completed a PhD a couple years back. I was hoping to get an academic job – something I am more suited for. I ended up working in the private sector and I cannot stand it. Academic trains you to be a thinker which has nothing to do with the private sector rush rush environment. I have experienced severe depression requiring medication througout the PhD and more so in the last couple of years. Part of the depression comes from realizing I completely wasted 5-6 years of my life. This is the reward for trying to be amitious and accomplish something.

  22. Vincenzo Politi says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, but I would like to give my little contribution about the factors which may perpetuate the feelings of isolation and exclusion. Perhaps, and in a sense, it’s easier to speak in terms of “gendered” academic environment: one can look at an average department, consider the males/females ration and draw some conclusion. But Gender is not the only rubric under which the issue must be discussed.

    In the department were I am doing my PhD, I felt excluded and isolated for a number of reasons. First, I am a foreigner and many people spent two years mocking my accent and making fun of my way of speaking. It’s like they’ve started only recently to listen to “what” I say – instead of paying attention to just “how” I say it. Try to imagine how this “innocent humor” can affect someone who is supposed to give presentation and speak during seminars.

    Second, I am “almost” a mature student. I say “almost” in the sense that I am relatively young, but not as young as many other PhD students. I started my PhD later for a number of reasons – I had to took some years off academia to work (as a waiter!) and save some money, I did my master as a part-time student instead of full-time for the same reason (i.e., I had to work), not to mention the fact that I needed some time to improve my English to an acceptable level and so on. However, people seem to assume that if you are “late” in your academic career somehow you are not as good as the young rising promises.

    Third, and finally, I am gay and openly so. Academia, I am afraid, is not a very open-minded place. In my experience I found it rather conservative. If there are not many women in academia, the openly gay men are much fewer. If you are gay, people expect you to be either an hair-dresser or a dancer, not an academic. Of course this has never been “explicit”, but I felt many times that I was being excluded or intellectually underrated because of my sexual orientation (from other PhD students and members of teaching staff alike).

  23. SBP says:

    I am so happy to see more attention being dedicated to the issue of postgraduate study and mental health.

    Like most of the people, I know, who are also in the process of doing a PhD, I have had a quite miserable time during the past four years. Now I am finally in last stages of the PhD and finding that entry level academic jobs are few and far in between and the market outside academia are not particular keen on PhD graduates. Seriously wondering why I have wasted the last four years of my life on this, and really wish I had not.

    I think the universities and supervising staff are somewhat blinded by revenue/publishing potential and fail to take their responsibility seriously. They build up a glamorous image before you start, but between myself and my colleagues the stories of poor supervision are endless; lack of interest, lack of appropriate guidance, abuse of power – in short, students left to wander when it comes to their PhD. But the same time PhD candidates are being encouraged to take up essential career development opportunities*, all adding to the stress and workload (*Read as; Teaching and research assistant work for measly pay; write articles independently (while your supervisor will naturally have their name on it for political reasons, without having listed a finger).

    I hope the development of an open debate will (1) provide some transparency about the university system in general and what might be expected (realistically) when taking up a PhD. (2) Make it more transparent where people, who want to do a PhD, should not go. Ratings for individual teaching staff for undergraduate courses already exist in some places; maybe enough disgruntled PhDs can form the “rate your supervisor/department” equivalent. Given the small number of PhDs, naturally “the name and shame” approach is not straightforward. However, an ongoing problem is, that it is currently quite difficult to find out (honest) information prior to commencing PhD study – and once you are there and have started, it is so difficult to give up on.

    Good luck to all fellow PhDs out there battling with their thesis.

  24. Gary says:

    Let’s not forget other compounding factors – a few of which have surfaced in previous comments. The idea of forming a support group is great, but rural students like me, at the tail end of the writing stage, don’t have that option.

    I am struggling to finish in the next month or two. I live with my wife and work from my (separate) studio, but the loneliness is tough for both of us as I stuff myself through revisions and watch our bedroom light go out most nights. I have a great cttee, but at this point no matter what or how they recommend, it is a profound imposition. And I thought being a carpenter in a previous life was hard on the body until I started to sit at a computer for 8 hours a day, then 12 then 14 hours a day with the RA and TA.

    I now understand how many academics became so stunted. I would not get through this without depression meds, and I am praying that I can finish before I do permanent physical damage. And when I see how hard my cttee members work, I think one would need to be a masochist to want to teach. Not going there, un unh.

    Thanks for doing this Melonie. It’s comforting to know that others are in the same situation. Now I have to get up and stretch my aching back and shoulders!

  25. C says:

    A great resource for graduate students in Ph.D. programs and early career stages is PhinisheD:

    It is
    “a discussion and support group for people trying to finish their dissertations or theses, and those who have been there.”

    A vitrual community of us.

  26. [...] effort as physical health from both sexes. The prevalence of mental health issues in academia – even if only publicized for grad school – are staggering. Several of my friends have been crippled by mental health issues both in grad [...]

  27. Ed says:

    I’m nearly at the end of a long and tortuous DPhil process at Oxford University. It’s certainly been an eye-opener in terms of how poor supervision for graduate students can be, and how little the academics care for either your health or well being. Unfortunately it seems that at this level supervisors are a law unto themselves. My supervisor has been confrontational about the research, has not responded for months at a time to work sent and sent me in directions which have basically been a waste of time. In hindsight I realise my supervisor was never really qualified to supervise me since I do modelling and he is an experimentalist.

    The worst part has been the social isolation, because I had to move back home to continue with the course. As a result I am basically unknown to fellow students in my college and department. The whole process has left me feeling bitter, but I’m glad it’s nearly over. One thing’s for sure – I won’t be leaving any of the code or other intellectual property I created with him!

  28. Nadine says:

    Thanks Melonie

    I honestly was unsure whether my thoughts and feelings while working on my PhD was singular until one evening ago a friend, also working on his PhD, told me that we should speak more because his friends do not understand since they are not enrolled in PhD programs. Also, I knew that I needed the support even though most of my friends are already PhD holders or currently enrolled in PhD programs.

    For me, the lack of social support, a stable spousal relationship (whether married on unmarried) is important even though you have great friends. It has truly been a challenge for me, especially studying in a location 24 hours away from home by flight, not having a community of persons from my side of the world, a academic environment that does not meet my social, emotional and spiritual needs also contributed to a person I did not recognize. Sadly, none of my feelings had to do with my academic skills and abilities; just the externals. But it took a toll on me. I am working on rebuilding myself and finding me again. The joyful and driven person I use to be, before my final defense in the next two months.

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