Des conseils de carrière
PhDs’ mental health
Let’s talk about depression
among grad students
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Melonie Fullick is a PhD
candidate at York University
policy. You can read her blog
by Melonie Fullick
he period from November to March
seems to be prime time for academic
burnout in graduate programs. For some,
this is a seasonal problem; it can be easy
to sink into a trough of exhaustion and
stress and not climb out of it for months. But
rather than just the winter doldrums, it seems
that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and
other mental health issues are becoming more
common in graduate programs.
I asked one fellow student her opinion of
this, and she replied, “it seems like everyone I
know in academia is depressed.” On another
occasion, I was told that “everyone” has some
kind of breakdown during the PhD.
So I posed the question on Twitter this past
December and wrote a post on my blog, Specula-
tive Diction, about PhD students, depression and
attrition. What followed was a huge reaction
from the online academic community, with more
than 5,000 hits in a three-day span and several
dozen comments – a record for University Affairs,
which hosts my blog.
Is depression among grad students a serious
structural (and normalized) issue, rather than
an anecdotal one? And if so, why is no one dis-
Here are some ways that it might be structural.
Within their programs, students face a more
intense workload than in their undergraduate
degrees. They may for the first time be around
students with as much academic aptitude as them-
selves. These factors can contribute to “imposter
syndrome,” the sense that one is about to be
found out for not really being smart enough. As
adults placed in a subordinate position, some
PhD students experience a sense of infantilization
alongside the conflicting expectation that they
develop a professional identity.
In terms of the student’s academic experi-
ence, the PhD emphasizes a transition to auto-
nomous work that is often a new challenge.
Unclear boundaries about responsibilities mean
that some students are unsure what help they
are allowed to ask for from supervisors. Their
uncertainty is compounded by the lengthy isola-
tion from peers that often occurs in the later
stages of research.
Some commenters to my blog post discussed
an assumed ideal of a PhD student, and their
sense of guilt and self-doubt when they failed to
live up to this. This too can be exacerbated by
the isolation of the process and by the apparent
lack of structure in advanced academic work.
Graduate programs in Canada and elsewhere
have increased enrolments, often without pro-
portional increases to the tenured faculty who
provide supervision or to non-repayable fund-
ing. Fewer tenured faculty means that students
may need to compete for academic mentorship
and support as well. And all these changes have
helped to feed further competition in the form
of a tightened market for academic (i.e., tenure-
track faculty) jobs; this kind of competition can
be depressing and stressful.
While a relatively small proportion of PhD
graduates obtain permanent faculty positions,
there is still a deeply held assumption in many
PhD programs that students can or should strive
to engage in research-oriented academic careers.
Thus the definition of success tends to be narrow,
making it easier to feel like a failure.