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5 min read

A few weeks ago, Nature published the results of its biennial graduate student survey, an elaborate exercise where they canvassed thousands of PhD students about their experiences with their programme, their career ambitions and their views on their future. The summary of the results confirmed and validated many of the experiences and impressions I had of academia, particularly those pertaining to the precarious uncertainty of subsequent careers and the excruciating impact it has on one’s mental health. I have already addressed the pernicious nature of work-life balance in academia in a previous post. But while the article made for fascinating reading as well as the basis of an interesting discussion on the Nature podcast, I couldn’t help feeling that some of the insights into academia that the survey gave me invited scepticism: I feel the issues around mental health in academia is much bigger than the survey suggests. Besides, the methodology of the Nature survey highlights a much more concerning schism in the perception of academia within the sciences and humanities.

A Much Bigger Problem

The survey found that 28% of students listed mental health as their biggest concerns during their PhD, of whom 45% (i.e. 12% of all respondents) said that they had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies. This sheds light on the stressful nature of PhD studies. Katia Levecque, an industrial-relations specialist at Ghent University in Belgium, is quoted as saying what contributes to this stress is that ‘you’re expected to take responsibility, but you aren’t given control over a lot of issues’ like careers, finances, et cetera. And because this statistic reflects only those students who sought support for their mental health, it does not represent those who have mental health issues but do not seek support, thereby understating the prevalence of mental health issues within academia.

Besides, what I am most sceptical of is the way the survey framed the question on mental health. It is rather misleading for the discussion to be framed solely in terms of ‘mental health as a result of PhD study’, especially since there are indirect ways in which graduate student life can adversely affect one’s mental health which is not immediately or obviously to do with one’s studies, programme or research. I rummaged through the anonymised raw data of the survey and found that the survey gave issues like ‘maintaining work-life balance’, ‘financial issues’, ‘impostor syndrome’ and ‘number of research jobs available’ as competing options with ‘mental health as a result of PhD study’ in the same question. Respondents could select multiple responses (and 1,574, i.e. 28% of respondents, cited mental health as a concern), but would then have to narrow down their responses to which of these options they thought was most important (where the number citing ‘mental health’ in general dwindled compared to other, more particular and acute difficulties): 263 said mental health was the most important concern, 639 said financial issues, 584 said a lack of funding, 667 said work-life balance and 206 said impostor syndrome. But really, all of these individual issues contribute to difficulties with one’s mental health, so it is erroneous to treat them as independent of each other.

Furthermore, the question regarding support for anxiety or depression was only asked to students who cited mental health as a concern in the above question. It is highly likely that there are many students who would have been treated for anxiety or depression but would not have cited their mental health as one of their concerns during their PhD. This could be for several reasons, because other concerns seem more important, or because students would see their mental health as separate from their academic work and therefore not within the purview of this study. If the question was asked to more than the 28% who cited mental health as a concern, then I would expect a much larger figure than 12% of all respondents would have reported seeking support for mental health issues.

What About the Humanities?

However, my biggest issue with the survey is that it is focussed entirely on science PhD students. That is unsurprising considering this is a scientific journal surveying its readership via its website. But the restriction to scientific disciplines speaks to a much wider problem that science seems to be fighting the battle for the whole of academia and research. And whenever I consider the representation of academia and research over a lot of popular media, things like Shit Academics Say, Academia Obscura, PhD Comics, et cetera, all of this is heavily skewed towards scientific disciplines (jokes about lab work, hierarchies between post-docs and PhDs, primary authorship, et cetera).

The specific problems that scholars in the humanities face are easily overlooked when the sciences are the sole mouthpiece of academia: worthwhile post-PhD employment is made a lot harder by the comparative lack of ‘industry’ jobs, the dearth of funding and funding sources, the value of Humanities research is more easily underestimated because of its lack of immediate ‘impact’, and academics are under increasing pressure to generate ‘public engagement’ and ‘impact’ through systems that are often opaque or exhausting. Moreover, unlike daily lab work, Humanities research is more isolating because it involves endless reading in seclusion, which aggravates loneliness, depression and anxiety. This is where the aforementioned failure to account for how individual circumstances contribute to depression or anxiety becomes more pressing: there is a wider lack of understanding of how research conditions in the Humanities can further exacerbate mental illness.

If our understanding of mental health issues in academia are geared primarily towards the concerns faced by scientists, then the structures and forms of support might not be best suited to scholars in the humanities. For that reason, I wish there was a similar exercise carried out within the Arts and Humanities, and within the social sciences, in which all students’ experiences of academia and their plans for their futures are surveyed, so we can know a better picture of what is at stake. As fascinating as the Nature survey was, I feel a large part of the discussion doesn’t apply to me because I am from a different discipline, but I wish my discipline was as proactive about knowing its research students as the Editorial Board of Nature.