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The mental health of doctoral students requires urgent attention



  Frank B. Gilbreth Motion Study Photos of a Typist and a Lab Assistant

Performance Management – Captured in Photographs by Frank Gilbreth – has a long history Credit: Kheel Center 1

9659005] Two years ago, a student attending the biennial Doctoral Survey of Nature called on universities to create a quiet room for "crying." when the pressure of study is overwhelming. At this time, 29% of the 5,700 respondents reported their mental health as a cause for concern – and nearly half of the respondents sought help with anxiety or depression caused by their doctoral thesis.

The situation seems to be worsening. [19659006] The survey of 6,300 graduates from all over the world released this week found that 71% were generally satisfied with their research experience, but 36% had sought help with anxiety or depression related to their doctoral studies. [19659006] These results reflect the results of a survey published this week among 50,000 students in the UK. Those surveyed by Advance HE, a York-based organization for university management, shared similarly positive research findings, but 86% said they had a high level of anxiety – a much higher percentage than in the general population. Similar data contributed to the first international conference on mental health and well-being of junior researchers in May. Significantly, the event was sold out.

How can PhD students be generally satisfied and – and increasingly – unwell? You will find a hint elsewhere in our survey. One in five respondents said they had been bullied. and a fifth also reported harassment or discrimination.

Could universities be more effective? Undoubtedly. Are you? Not enough. Of the respondents who raised concerns, a quarter said that their institution had provided support, but a third said they needed to seek help elsewhere.

There is another and probably overarching reason why otherwise satisfied students are stressed to the point of illness. In many countries, career success is increasingly measured by a series of measurements that include publications, quotes, funding, conference contributions, and now whether a person's research has a positive impact on people, the economy, or the environment. Early career jobs are usually precarious. To move forward, a researcher needs to get the right scores in terms of the above measures and get to know the basics of his research topics – concerns expressed in a series of last month's columns and blog posts from the research community.

Most students start a doctorate as the foundation of an academic career. They choose such careers partly because of the freedom and autonomy to discover and invent them. However, problems may arise if autonomy in such matters is restricted or suspended. This is the case when funding, impact and publication objectives become part of the university's formal monitoring and evaluation systems. Moreover, it is not surprising that when a student's supervisor also decides on success or failure, many students feel unable to open themselves to weaknesses or mental health problems.

The solution to this emerging crisis lies not only in institutions that do more to support mental health on campus and more for the training of regulators – although such measures are essential. It also lies in recognizing that mental illness is at least in part a consequence of over-concentration on performance measurement – something that sponsors, academic institutions, journals and publishers must shoulder.

Much has been written about how the system can be revised and a better way can be found to define success in research, including promoting the many non-academic careers open to researchers. But on the ground, the truth is that the system makes young people sick and they need our help. The research community must protect and strengthen the next generation of researchers. Without systemic changes in research cultures, we will otherwise drive them out.


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