Redesigning the PhD experience

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If nothing changes in the system PhD’s will continue to break. Dom Weinberg suggests a way to reduce the mental suffering: a PhD should be less about solitary labour and more about collaboration with others.

There’s plenty to be grateful for as a PhD student in the Netherlands. Spending your days with considerable freedom (intellectually and practically) to indulge your thirst for knowledge and curiosity, being surrounded by people doing work you admire, having four years of job security...

And yet a worryingly large number of us struggle with our mental health. Prout (the PhD Network in Utrecht) has found that up to 30 percent of UU PhD candidates experience significant stress-related mental health problems during their PhD. Research from Leiden University suggests that number could be even higher, and shows that PhD candidates have two to three times the level of mental health problems of a comparable group of highly-educated people.

Personality traits useful in research - a questioning attitude, attention to detail, self-motivation and taking personal responsibility - can easily become self-doubt, perfectionism, an absence of external motivation and self-blame. All clear risk factors for mental health problems. Yet, at a meeting earlier this year organised by Prout, the Utrecht PhD Party and the University Council, I had the impression that some senior academics just seemed to take an unhealthy amount of stress for granted, there was a sense of, “We found it tough, why shouldn’t you?”

Of course, PhD students know they’re in for challenge. I imagine for many of us that was part of the attraction. We are motivated by the possibility of learning and we realise that means changing how we think, which is never an easy thing to do. But that’s no excuse for academia to ignore the fact that there is something systemically wrong: doing a PhD is commonly accepted as being bad for your health. Yet, as many of my colleagues in social sciences know, psychological well-being is of prime importance to a healthy work and life, and employers must take some responsibility. And as I’m discovering in my own research on adolescent health, there is evidence (contested, of course) that mental health is increasingly an issue for young people.

I fear that if universities don’t do something about the PhD system, the problem will only get worse. More psychological support is important, but I do wonder whether it’s possible to redesign the PhD experience so that, while remaining rigorous, it doesn’t break so many people? One radical option would be to make the apprenticeship into research a little less about solitary labour in these ivory towers (progressively working ourselves into depression and/or societal irrelevance) and a little more about collaboration with our fellow citizens. The future of higher education depends on researchers “striving for wisdom rather than for knowledge” (to steal a line from former rector Bert van der Zwaan’s recent book). Which means acknowledging that the brains of the supposed intellectual elite don’t have all the answers.

Many of the stories of mental problems seem to be about poor supervision, extreme expectations and a lack of autonomy. Yet even with supportive and capable supervisors, a great project, and an environment which hasn’t (yet) made me feel that sixty-hour weeks should be the norm, I’ve still found myself at times mentally drained. Perhaps it’s to do with the additional challenges attached to being an international student (a suggestion backed up by Leiden University’s research). But fortunately, I’ve realised that the support system out there might actually be for me too. And there was further good news this week; Prout’s recent petition, signed by over 1,000 people, has led to confirmation from our university that it will provide psychological support to PhDs. The future already seems a bit rosier.

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