There is a large-scale crisis of mental ill-health at doctoral and postdoctoral levels that demands wider attention and action.

Catherine Oakley
Nov 9, 2017 · 9 min read

Discussions about mental ill-health among postgraduates and early career academics focus disproportionately on individual responsibility. Here’s what UK Universities and Funding Bodies must do.

My academic biography sketches a narrative of successive past achievements and future promise. My work affords me extraordinary privileges, and opportunities for intellectual and personal growth. But those close to me can read another story between the lines of my success. I suffer from mixed anxiety and depression, leading to cyclical episodes of physical and mental burnout. The symptoms manifest in all areas of my life. I’ve worked in other jobs and other sectors, but my worst periods of mental ill-health have been during my time as a PhD student and as a postdoc.

I am not alone. Whilst recent headlines have focused on university mental health problems among the undergraduate student body, there is a distinct crisis of mental ill-health at doctoral and postdoctoral level that demands wider attention and action. A recent study authored by academics across four countries showed that more than half of PhD students experience symptoms of psychological distress, and one in three is at risk of developing a common psychiatric disorder. PhD students are 2.8 times more likely to develop mental health problems than other university employees with a higher education qualification, and 2.4 times more likely than degree-holders in the general population. No equivalent study has been undertaken to assess levels of mental-ill health among postdoctoral researchers, teaching fellows, and those employed on part-time and/or zero-hours academic contracts. But some empirical studies have indicated significant levels of emotional stress within these groups.

In the absence of hard data, we must pay attention to the anecdotal evidence of lived experience. It is here that the true personal cost of the neoliberal academy is expressed. Testimony from the crisis is catalogued in posts — often contributed anonymously — on blogs such as The New Academic, Chronically Academic, and Thesis Whisperer. Yet, all too often, institutional discourses and interventions to address mental ill-health among doctoral and postdoctoral researchers do not engage with the realities of these lived experiences. In-line with the general tenor of discussions about mental health in politics and the media, we are fed the rhetoric of “self-care”. We are told that the difficulties we are experiencing constitute a failure to manage our lives responsibly and efficiently. We are encouraged to “build resilience” and overcome our “fragility” by exercising regularly, getting more sleep, taking up yoga.

This guidance does not recognize that many individuals with psychological problems already know and implement this advice. Those of us who have been managing our mental health for extended periods of time know that these practices in themselves do not offer a sufficient solution. The burden of responsibility for action should not lie solely with individuals who suffer from mental ill-health. Their experiences cannot be divorced from the structural problems that generate and exacerbate them. The crisis of mental ill-health at postgraduate and postdoctoral levels must therefore also be addressed through structural changes.

The political nature of these problems is clear from the lived experiences of doctoral and postdoctoral students I spoke to in developing this article. Respondents highlighted a range of structural factors that they feel are contributing to the mental health difficulties they face. Many emphasized the same issues: isolation, imposter syndrome, competitiveness, unclear measures of progress and success, a lack of structure, and “toxic” institutional cultures of overwork and ableism. Others pointed to the absence of robust programmes of training and support. Laura* completed a PhD in English Literature last year. In her second year, her mental health began to suffer after she took on teaching responsibilities in her department for the first time. “There was no training for teaching undergraduates beyond a single generic afternoon session for tutors from all disciplines”, she says. “We had no guidance on lesson-plans or classroom management and the workload felt overwhelming” she says. “I had to take time off for depression. I felt like an absolute failure, like I wasn’t cut out for an academic career.” Laura cites “a general expectation that you learn the ropes as you go along” as an institutional attitude that needs to change.

It’s also clear that there are fundamental oversights in the current model of doctoral studentships that leave students with caring responsibilities facing significant material and emotional difficulties. Sarah*, who is in her third year of a PhD in History, had a baby in her first year, and suffered with hyperemesis, postnatal depression, and anxiety. She claimed maternity pay from her funding body for six months, but since her return to work, her mental health has deteriorated. “The PhD journey so far has been terrible”, she says. “It’s made worse by the fact that despite my husband having a good salary, we cannot afford full-time childcare. We don’t get help with childcare tax credits because I’m not classed as either ‘employed’ or ‘unemployed’ by the HMRC. I’m doing my ‘full-time’ PhD in the mornings.” The situation is “incredibly tough”, she adds; “the worry about not submitting on time, and what lies beyond that, is awful.”

Obtaining a PhD may represent a huge milestone, but the transition into the postdoctoral jobs market brings further significant challenges that many respondents were keen to highlight. For Rachel*, things took a turn for worse after she completed her PhD in Linguistics and was working overtime in a fixed-term, part-time teaching post. “I started having panic attacks; despite having anxiety and OCD I’d never experienced a panic attack before. I put it down to the stress of finishing. But it all came to a head when I was working in a temporary lecturing job a few months later, being paid for 27 hours a week, but working up to 45.” Rachel had a panic attack during a lecture, and then again during a seminar. “It got to the point where I was struggling to leave the house, having panic attacks every day”, she says.

These accounts represent just a few examples of the avoidable difficulties that junior researchers in UK Higher Education are facing. The late Mark Fisher offered an important critical framework for understanding these experiences in his eloquent and perceptive analysis of his own mental health issues. Fisher, a cultural theorist, wrote about “politicized depression”, arguing that the epidemic of mental ill-health in our societies cannot be fully understood as a private problem. He insisted that instead of addressing mental ill-health primarily as a pathological issue, we must focus on our diminished agency within the labour market, including the issues of precarious employment, the cult of productivity, and the decline of workplace unionism. It’s a critique that is palpably relevant to the accelerated, metrics-driven academy of the twenty-first century.

For those working towards a doctorate, or seeking a place in the academy as postdoctoral researchers, the conditions of labour that disempower and damage us can seem entrenched. Pushing back against them may feel an impossible task; our energies are finite, and sometimes it’s all we can do to just keep our heads above water. But Fisher’s message is a compelling one, a call-to-arms that begins with consciousness-raising; “We must recover confidence that we can change things while recognizing the many reasons why we don’t recognize our own power”.

However, we cannot address the crisis on our own. Policy-makers, funding bodies, and university leaders hold the power and influence to make the structural changes that are desperately required. Recent commitments by Higher Education institutions to prioritize student mental health are welcome. But the perspectives of university leaders on how to relieve the pressure on young academics are often all-too removed from the first-hand experiences of those at the bottom who are most vulnerable to systemic problems: those with chronic mental health problems and physical disabilities, women, BAME academics, and those whose economic status does not provide them with a financial security net.

A recent Vitae report on professional development for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers working in Humanities disciplines recommends a culture change in how the doctorate is conceived, funded, and supported. Its findings confirm what many of us in positions of institutional disadvantage feel all-too-keenly: that the academic model — from PhD to professorship — is still run with a default scholar in mind: young, male, mentally and physically healthy, and with independent means.

How, then, might we begin this cultural change, and start the work of fixing our broken doctoral and postdoctoral models? Below are some suggestions for actions that policy-makers, institutions, funders, and senior colleagues can take towards this end.

At policy level

Policy-makers in UK Higher Education should follow their European counterparts in offering PhD students the same legal status and rights as other workers, including childcare provisions, pensions, and access to occupational health assessments.

Government spending on research councils must be adjusted, so that funding bodies can offer improved terms of employment for doctoral and postdoctoral roles, and particularly those in Humanities disciplines.

At funding level

Major doctoral and postdoctoral funding bodies have issued calls for new academic projects that will address mental health as a major societal challenge in the UK. They must also commit money and resources into addressing those very issues as they are experienced by the junior researchers whose work they support and champion.

Given that most PhD students — with or without mental health conditions — take nearly four years to complete their thesis, funders should offer flexible, full-time funding for this duration, with possibilities for a further extension. Postgraduates who have a contractual obligation to teach under the terms of their studentship should receive additional payment for these duties. Funders should also recognize that because postgraduates are not currently classified as employees, they are often placed in precarious financial positions. The extraordinary scandal of inadequate medical leave for PhD students is laid bare by three cancer survivors in a recent article published in the journal Nature. The UK Research Staff Association has recently undertaken a survey designed to collate a national picture of how researchers — particularly those on short-term contracts — feel they are supported in taking periods of leave relating to childcare. A major review of childcare support for PhD students, and of sick leave provisions at both doctoral and postdoctoral levels, is also urgently required.

In addition, funders must also develop new transition and bridge funding opportunities for postdoctoral researchers. The tasks of consolidating and publishing research findings from a PhD and developing innovative new ideas for large postdoctoral research fellowships require both time and financial support.

At institutional level

Institutions must recognize the scale and seriousness of the crisis of mental ill-health in postgraduate and postdoctoral communities, and acknowledge its distinctive character in relation to the broader mental health crises in higher education and in wider society. Universities must create spaces for the voices of those with lived experience of mental ill-health to be heard.

New training programmes should be developed for postgraduate teachers to ensure that PhD students have the subject-specific support and pedagogical resources to develop their confidence and competence in the classroom.

To access postdoctoral opportunities, researchers need continuing structured support after they finish the PhD. Universities must provide their recently-graduated PhD students with an institutional affiliation and library access, and prioritize the development of paid transition fellowships.

Universities must also create full-time contracts for Teaching Fellows with built-in research time, career support, and travel allowance, in line with the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.

In the meantime, those of us who are managing the significant challenges of the current academic system can find support through informal networks and communities. But there has never been a better time for us to unionize and begin the work of ensuring that our local and national branches recognize and prioritize the issues we face. The University and College Union (UCU) now offers free membership to postgraduate students who teach. Casualised academic workers can also join the academic precariat, a new activist collective uniting those who are experiencing conditions of precarity and their negative consequences in UK Higher Education.

As postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, we have the talent, creativity, and vision to make significant contributions both within and beyond academia. We deserve better than a system that holds us back, and disavows its role in doing so.

*Names have been changed.

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