PhD Depression (A complete guide)

This article talks about PhD Depression, its prevalence, causes, symptoms, ways to overcome and prevent depression as a result of PhD stress. The article also answers some frequently asked question about this phenomenon. 

Is PhD Depression a real thing?

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Yes, PhD depression exists! A PhD is a doctoral research degree and it is considered as the apex level of academic qualification anyone can achieve. PhD students struggle with depression associated with their academic turnouts. 

A study done in 2019 with PhD students found that around 23.7% of the participants had symptoms of depression and around 20% had clinical signs of anxiety. 

Another multicultural survey done with over 6000 doctoral students had results parallel to the one mentioned above. The results of the survey stated that 36% of the respondents had sought help for depression and anxiety related symptoms. While one third of them seeked help from sources away from their institution, 18% sought help from their university resources/ personnel and found it not very helpful. 

The Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report  by the University of California, Berkeley also found that almost 50% of doctoral students met the clinical criteria for depression.

What is the cause for these statistics?

PhD is a long term investment- of mental and physical efforts, financial resources and it is considered a rather lonely journey. 

One might still wonder what exactly is leading to this difficulty in mental health states of students. 

Earning a PhD involves conquering many summits. The ones mentioned below are the most commonly stated reasons for PhD Depression. 

Work culture and demands 

Working towards a PhD includes being on the tip of one’s toes when it comes to learning. Students are expected to read lots, attend lectures and seminars and be well-versed with all the current trends of their field of work. They have a set timeline for when what has to be accomplished, deadline-triggered submissions and publications, hope for citations and have results from their research that has some substantial benefits to the university and the country either economically or environmentally. The more the student’s study gets attention from the community the more the student is glorified.

This hunger for fame and publicity, constant pressure to achieve targets has adverse effects on the doctoral candidates mental health. 

Being expected to work long hours, sometimes even throughout the night, was another complaint about the work culture at academic institutions. 

A research guide, for a PhD student, can be an important asset or a pain-causing liability. Having a good mentoring relationship is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety among students. 

Lack of resources 

Students often spend a lot of their time and energy seeking grants for their study from the university and other sponsors. This comes as an added stressor to their already hectic schedule. Researches often have high demands for space, finances, lab equipments and assistant personnels. Another huge resource is the time they get to spend with their research guides. Having to beg for these resources deems to be a huge challenge for the students.   

Imbalanced work-life conditions    

Pursuing a PhD an be an all-consuming journey. Doctoral students often complain having a tough time balancing their research work, teaching duties that most PhDs are expected to do and at the same time trying to have a healthy social life. Students often finding it exhausting to meet their family and friends regularly because there is always a new deadline at work to chase. Many complain having little or no time to pursue their other interests. Such scenarios clearly indicate the lack of a healthy balance between work and life balance which triggers disadvantageous mental and emotional states. 

Fear of failure and not meeting expectations

PhD students often have the fear of failure hovering above their heads. Fear of disappointing their research guides, the dissertation approval committee, the fear of their proposals being rejected, the fear of performing poorly during their final viva defense are among the high-ranking fears. 

Bullying and harassment

Doctoral students report instances of discrimination based on gender, racial, age, disability, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Sexual offenses were also commonplace in institutions. Most of these reports of harassment were against the supervisors. 

Moving from home country for pursuing PhD

Over 40% of respondents of the multicultural survey mentioned above, stated that they were away from their home country to pursue their PhD degree. Adapting to a new culture, staying away from family members for a long stretch of time, managing finances and loans taken to make studying and living possible are all concerns they reported.  

Uncertainties about what lies ahead

Having a PhD does not guarantee a secure future. Though the advantages stated are many, one cannot be sure about all the benefits coming their way. Lack of positive career aspects, recovering PhD expenses from a well paying job are some uncertainties that students wrestle with. 

Symptoms to watch out for PHD depression

Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety or emptiness

Being in a constant state of worry, dread, feeling overburdened with simplest tasks, crying easily, feeling numb, having deep emotional distress, inability to think optimistically are some common signs of depression but, when these symptoms are triggered or revolving around one’s PhD work, it is depression caused because of PhD. 

Feelings of hopelessness, regret and worthlessness

Persistent feelings of regret about the repercussions of one’s decisions, feeling stuck in a place, feeling hopeless and completely worthless at every downfall or rejection can be an indication of PhD depression.

Falling interest in tasks previously considered enjoyable

Distancing themselves from socialising, spending time engaged in hobbies and recreation, not seeking pleasure from sex are all alarming signs of depression. 

Changes in body weight, having diseases because of lifestyle

Because of the work demands of a PhD student, they may significantly neglect their health. They may skip meals, have sleepless nights, have little or no exercise. All these are sirens of depressive traits.  

Substance abuse or addiction 

Seeking comfort in substances like alcohol, psychoactive drugs, tobacco or self medicating oneself using medicinal drugs can be detrimental to one’s health. If one is found seeking comfort in the above mentioned things during stressful times concerning their PhD, it is a sign of PhD depression.  

Suicidal thoughts or attempts

When one thinks that the only way to relieve themselves from the stressors of PhD is by ending their life, even as a fleeting thought, it is a cause of high concern. Immediate action needs to be taken by the person or the support system of the person to guide them to a professional source of help.  

What can be done to recover from PhD depression?

There are a few things that can be done to recover from PhD depression.

Once the symptoms are identified, one needs to take action towards their difficulties. 

Suicide prevention helplines

Across the globe, governments hae set up suicide prevention helpline numbers for emergency services. In case of suicidal attempts or thoughts, one must seek help from these helpline numbers.   

Psychiatric medication

Depending on the severity of the symptoms a person may be required to take psychiatric drugs to relieve their symptoms of depression. To seek these prescribed drugs, one must visit a psychiatrist and have regular follow-ups as advised. 

Psychological intervention

Most people feel better with psychological help from a mental health therapist or a counsellor. The counsellor ensures a safe and confidential space for the student to vent out about their problems, efficiently engage in problem solving and encourage developing healthy coping strategies.  Most universities have student counsellors on-campus. Just in case there has been a disappointing experience with one counsellor, one must push themselves to find another one outside the campus.  

Support groups 

Support groups are where other doctoral fellows feeling equally frustrated and depressed get together to talk about their concerns. This can be a very helpful platform especially when reforms have to be made at the university level against a supervisor or an unhealthy work culture the university dictates. 

Healthy lifestyle 

Connections between the mind and the body have been discussed umpteen number of times. Having a healthy diet, healthy sleep cycle and consistent exercise regimen have proven to be of help for people struggling with depression. Engaging in pleasurable tasks and hobbies can go a long way too.  

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What can be done to prevent PhD depression. 

First of all, being aware of what pursuing a PhD can entail has many benefits. One must make an informed decision before enrolling for the course. This prevents feelings of regrets to a large extent. 

It is essential to consciously make an effort to have a life apart from work. Having a social life, spending time doing recreational activities, exercising all ensure good mental and emotional health.   

Have a good foundation to the relationship with the research guide. If the mentoring relationship is detrimental, attempt to change the guide by consulting the university authorities by stating your concerns. Minutes of courage required to speak up can be fruitful than suffering in silence for months and years. 

Being organised and disciplined can minimize the stressors arising from deadlines. 

The supervisors and university authorities need to be trained and educated at the ill effects of the work culture they develop in the workspace and how the young researchers are significantly discouraged from putting more efforts because of existing conditions.

BetterHelp: A Better Alternative

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Conclusion

This article brought into attention the phenomenon of PhD Depression. We understood its prevalence, causes leading to the mental distress in this disorder, symptoms to pay attention to, recovery options and ways to prevent depression as a result of PhD stress. 

What we recommend for Depression

Professional counselling

If you are suffering from depression then ongoing professional counselling could be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.

Frequently asked questions: PhD depression

Is doing a PhD stressful?

Yes, the journey of completing a PhD can be very stressful and at the same time a very lonely one. As one goes up the academic ladder, the onus of learning on the student increases. PhD researches are long term projects which demand a lot of mental, physical, financial investment. The deadlines that a student has to live upto and the fact that everything about the project is reliant on only one person, makes the whole experience a highly challenging one. 

How intense is a PhD?

Some experts say, a PhD learning experience is more a discipline and stamina testing one than it is intellectually rigorous. 

How long is a PhD?

One can pursue a PhD degree either full time or part-time. Full time PhDs complete their work in 3 to 4 years, whereas a person who is enrolled part time may take upto 6 to 7 years. The deadline for the work completion is set by the universities and can be changed only when the university approves it. 

Why do people get PhDs?

Most students decide on getting a PhD because they are passionate about their field of work and wish to make remarkable contributions to the same, they wish to do researches on questions that they find intriguing and demonstrate their intellectual potential.

References:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03459-7

https://cheekyscientist.com/reasons-your-phd-causes-stress-and-depression/

Liu, C. W., Jia, S., Shang, D., Shao, Y., Yu, M., Zhu, X., Yan, S., Chang, Q., & Zhao, Y. (2019). Prevalence and associated factors of depression and anxiety among doctoral students: the mediating effect of mentoring relationships on the association between research self-efficacy and depression/anxiety. Psychology research and behavior management, 12, 195–208. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S195131 

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