PhD Students & Mental Health

I don’t think I had ever experienced real stress related to doing PhD.
I was never close to a PhD burnout either.
I never wished I hadn’t started my PhD in the first place.
My PhD was pretty much a stress-free experience.
However, I am aware that:

  • I was lucky to have a good supervisor
  • I had a full scholarship for three years (no financial worries)
  • I had an interesting project and no major complications along the way
  • I did not really want to have PhD
  • I was treating PhD more like a by-product of my project
  • I was always aware that I might have to quit
  • I had a ‘Plan B’ (life without PhD)

In the last five years, I have seen so many of PhD students stressed, depressed and crying that I know I was merely lucky.
Would I have been able to quit my PhD if I had invested several thousands of pounds in education as many international students do?
Would I have been able to finish my project if not for my supportive wife?
What if things with my project and life had gone differently?
No matter how we look at that, doing PhD is a stressful experience and prospective students should take this seriously into consideration before embarking on this ‘journey’.
If you think I am exaggerating, please read the journal article I summarised below.

Levecque at al. (2017) in an interesting study on mental problems in PhD students in Belgium (N = 3659)  concluded that  PhD students are at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. The researchers employed  GHQ – the General Health Questionnaire, a popular instrument in health research on psychological distress and depression. More exactly, they found out that:

51% of the PhD students in Flanders report at least two symptoms on the GHQ-12 (GHQ2+), 40% report at least three symptoms (GHQ3+), while 32% experience at least four symptoms (GHQ4+).
The prevalence of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder (e.g. depression) was 2.43 times higher in PhD students compared to the highly educated in the general population. It was 2.84 times higher compared to highly educated employees and 1.85 times higher compared to higher education students

Levecque and the colleagues attributed the problem to several factors:

Especially work-family interface, job demands and job control, the supervisor’s leadership style, team decision-making culture, and perception of a career outside academia are linked to mental health problems.

Highlights of the study:

• One in two PhD students experiences psychological distress; one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.
• The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students.
• Work and organizational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health.

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy46(4), 868-879