7 Reasons Why Your PhD Is Causing Stress And Depression
Written by Gemma Paech, Ph.D.
It was during the second year of my PhD when I started to realize that things weren’t quite right.
I was working all the time and at all hours of the day.
I was barely sleeping.
I was crying nearly every day.
Somehow, I managed to push on with my PhD work, because I was determined to be a successful academic.
I was driven to write multiple publications, do multiple conference presentations, win awards, and accomplish this all in a timely fashion of three years.
But it seemed that no matter how much work I did, or how hard I tried, it was never good enough for my advisor.
I felt the pressure to do more and more.
I was disappointed in myself for my apparent inability to handle doing a PhD.
Things got worse quicker than they got better.
I had lost the will to continue on.
At my very lowest point, I wanted to die.
Although it took me several months to realize, I was suffering from academic stress .
Eventually, I went to see my doctor, who diagnosed me with anxiety and severe depression and put me on antidepressants.
I’ll never forget the empathetic sigh my doctor gave when I told her of my problems.
It was like she knew all too well how difficult a PhD was on students.
With time, medication, and thoughtful action to help me deal with my stress, anxiety, and depression , I got better.
I thought I was on my way to becoming the successful academic I so desperately wanted to be.
However, as a postdoc I realized that the underlying causes of my depression and anxiety were never going to go away unless I ditched academia forever.
Over the last few years, I have seen similar symptoms in other PhD students, postdocs, and even assistant professors.
It became clear that depression and anxiety were widespread, and not just something I was suffering from.
I was not alone.
Why PhD Students Are More Likely To Experience Depression Than Other Students
A recent study that looked at over 3,500 PhD students in Belgium found that one in two PhD students experienced psychological distress during their PhD.
More than 30% were at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, especially depression.
Critically, the prevalence of psychological distress was much higher in PhD students compared to other highly educated individuals and higher education students.
The authors showed that high job demands, low job control, and laissez-faire leadership style (delegative leadership, or “hands-off” leadership), were associated with the risk of experiencing psychological distress.
This study is not the only one to show high risk of depression in PhD students.
The Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report released by the University of California, Berkeley also found that almost 50% of doctoral students met the clinical criteria for depression.
A lack of positive career prospects, space, and resources to succeed, and a general feeling that they were less valued and not included in their departments, contributed to doctoral students experiencing depression and a lower life satisfaction compared to masters’ students.
Academia has unfortunately become a breeding ground for anxiety and depression because of its lack of support for graduate students.
But, all is not lost.
PhDs can and will be supported in industry, where their talent is valued and companies take pride in ensuring their employees are satisfied.
7 Signals That You Are Suffering From Depression And Need To Seek Help
Unfortunately, the causes behind the increased depression and anxiety experienced by PhD students do not end when you defend your thesis.
These problems are prevalent at all levels of academia.
Even if you finished your PhD without experiencing psychological distress, you are still at risk to develop mental health issues as a postdoc, or even as a faculty member, if you are lucky enough to make it that far!
While depression is common among PhD students, early detection is key to helping you complete your PhD and leave academia .
The most important thing is to know the symptoms.
If you find yourself experiencing several of these at once, it may be time to seek advice from your healthcare provider.
A licensed mental health provider, as referred by your family doctor, is the best place to get started.
They will help you get diagnosed and work out appropriate treatment options.
Keep in mind that there are multiple treatment options and it takes time and effort to find the best fit and show improvement, so it’s important to not wait too long to see a mental health professional to help you get started.
Here are 7 symptoms of depression that you must watch for in academia…
1. Constantly feeling sad, anxious, or “empty”.
Do you find yourself feeling sad every day, easily brought to tears, and unable to come out of it?
Maybe you feel anxious about everything, where even the simplest tasks (like getting out of bed) fill you with dread and worry.
You may also feel like you are “emotionless” — numbed out, feeling neither happy nor sad.
While these symptoms may seem contradictory, they can be expressed all at once.
Deep emotional distress, combined with lasting melancholy while you move in and out of a state of feeling flat or numb, are not uncommon.
If these states, and the inability to move out of them and feel happiness and optimism, last for more than a month or get progressively worse, it’s time to talk to an expert.
This is the first indication that your PhD is taking a serious toll on your mental health.
2. Feeling hopeless, guilty, and worthless.
Although at some point, many PhD students and postdocs will be made to feel like they are worthless, if this becomes a regular occurrence, it is time to take note.
This may be combined with a feeling of guilt and worthlessness.
It is important to remember your value as a PhD.
Mistakes are normal.
No one is perfect and research in particular is filled with endless dead-ends and experiments that yield negative results.
It is not your fault.
You have nothing to feel ashamed of.
If your advisor makes you feel like this, it might be worthwhile trying to approach them, a senior mentor, committee member, or ombudsperson, about how their behavior is affecting you.
This is not easy, but it is for your own well-being and confidence to be able to set boundaries and protect yourself from a negative environment.
There are ways to overcome difficult advisors so you can finish your PhD.
3. A loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities.
While people (a.k.a. your advisor) may tell you that you should only be working on your PhD, know that this is a lie!
One of the first pieces of advice new PhD students need to be reminded of is the need to find something that they enjoy doing outside of the lab and fit this into their daily or weekly routine.
Regardless of how much work there may be on your plate, make time to remove yourself from your research and recharge.
Self-care including a healthy lifestyle of good nutrition, daily exercise, pleasurable hobbies, and social interactions are essential for the protection and maintenance of good mental health.
If you notice that you no longer have an interest in doing your favorite hobbies or activities, this is a sign you may be suffering from depression.
Having other activities outside of your PhD is critical to completing your PhD.
When you no longer take an interest in these activities, it’s a good time to seek help from your mental health professional or doctor.
4. Issues with sleep, irritability, and memory.
Although depression can leave you feeling fatigued and completely drained, it can also disturb your sleep.
While you can struggle to stay awake during the day, the moment you get into bed, you simply cannot fall asleep.
When you do fall asleep, you toss and turn all night, or wake up early in the morning and can’t fall back asleep again.
Disturbed sleep can lead to decreased energy and fatigue, difficulty concentrating, remembering things, and making decisions.
It can also lead to irritability and restlessness.
Poor sleep alone can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Each of these things individually can be an indication of depression — however, sometimes it can be hard to determine the cause.
Lack of sleep can cause a decrease in productivity, which adds more strain when you’re trying to finish a PhD.
Increased irritability is common for PhD students because of the demands placed them, but this also causes a strain on personal relationships, making it even more challenging to get through your PhD.
Importantly, these symptoms can creep up on you slowly, and so may be difficult to detect at first.
For students who have a supportive advisor, let them know what you are going through.
They may give you some time off, or reduce your workload temporarily, which can help you recover.
5. Changes in appetite and weight.
Changes to your appetite — either losing your appetite altogether, or wanting to eat all the time, are also signs of depression.
Even in the absence of changes to eating behaviors, people with depression can experience weight loss or gain.
These symptoms may seem relatively minor compared to some of the other signs of depression, but they are important indicators for diagnosis and treatment.
It is important to make time for meals.
Proper hydration and nutrition are as important as getting enough sleep and rest.
There are probably countless days where you decided to skip lunch or replace a meal with a coffee because you were simply too busy.
Eating and eating well is important to keep your energy levels stable.
Ensuring you drink more water than coffee is also equally important to stabilize your mood and keep you at your best.
6. Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
In order to cope with the stress of a PhD, many turn to substances in an attempt to self-medicate.
Not only does this not help the problem, it can make the symptoms worse in the long-run.
While they can temporarily make you feel better, they are not real solutions to the problem.
The additional consequences and risks that come with substance abuse make it a poor coping choice.
When you see your doctor or mental health professional, it is important to be completely honest with them and to mention if you are using drugs and/or alcohol on a regular basis, or at all.
They are not there to judge you but to help you and be empathetic, and knowing all of the substances that you take is important for them to be able to make safe recommendations for your care.
7. Suicidal thoughts or attempts.
If you have thought about wanting to die as a way to exit the stress of your life or have thought about ways you could hasten death yourself through suicidal fantasy or attempts, you are in critical need of professional help.
These signs are the most serious, but despite this, many people, especially PhDs, overlook it.
At most, people will mention it in passing, without any realization about how serious it is.
If you have ever thought about killing yourself, have thought about self-harm, or have attempted suicide, you need to see someone as soon as possible.
This applies even if it is just a passing thought.
Call a crisis line or go to the emergency room if you cannot get help immediately from your doctor.
There are also many suicide prevention hotlines that you can call to speak with someone if you feel alone.
At the very least let a family member, or close friend who you trust, know that you have been feeling this way.
The people who love you want to look after you and will do what they can to help you out.
PhDs can be hard to complete, but they do not need to take a toll on your mental health. However, if you do find yourself in the group of PhD students who experience depression and anxiety, know that you are not alone. Know the signs and symptoms to look out for and do not be afraid to ask for help when and if you need it. Once you have a treatment plan in place, you can continue on with your PhD and get out of academia and into a position where you will be valued and where you can thrive.
If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.
Hi, I'm Isaiah Hankel, PhD
I am CEO of Cheeky Scientist, the world's premier career training platform for PhDs. If you want free insights on resumes, LinkedIn, interviewing, careers and more, just enter your details below.
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ABOUT GEMMA PAECH, PH.D.
Gemma has a PhD in Social Sciences specializing in sleep and circadian rhythms with a background in genetics and immunology. She is currently transitioning from academia into industry. She has experience in communicating science to lay audiences and believes in sharing scientific knowledge with the public. She is passionate about educating the public about the importance of sleep and the effects of sleep loss and disruption on general health and wellbeing to increase quality of life and work productivity. She is also committed to mentoring students across all demographics, helping them reach their full potential.
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‘You have to suffer for your PhD’: poor mental health among doctoral researchers – new research
Lecturer in Social Sciences, University of Westminster
Cassie Hazell has received funding from the Office for Students.
University of Westminster provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.
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PhD students are the future of research, innovation and teaching at universities and beyond – but this future is at risk. There are already indications from previous research that there is a mental health crisis brewing among PhD researchers.
My colleagues and I studied the mental health of PhD researchers in the UK and discovered that, compared with working professionals, PhD students were more likely to meet the criteria for clinical levels of depression and anxiety. They were also more likely to have significantly more severe symptoms than the working-professional control group.
We surveyed 3,352 PhD students, as well as 1,256 working professionals who served as a matched comparison group . We used the questionnaires used by NHS mental health services to assess several mental health symptoms.
More than 40% of PhD students met the criteria for moderate to severe depression or anxiety. In contrast, 32% of working professionals met these criteria for depression, and 26% for anxiety.
The groups reported an equally high risk of suicide. Between 33% and 35% of both PhD students and working professionals met the criteria for “suicide risk”. The figures for suicide risk might be so high because of the high rates of depression found in our sample.
We also asked PhD students what they thought about their own and their peers’ mental health. More than 40% of PhD students believed that experiencing a mental health problem during your PhD is the norm. A similar number (41%) told us that most of their PhD colleagues had mental health problems.
Just over a third of PhD students had considered ending their studies altogether for mental health reasons.
There is clearly a high prevalence of mental health problems among PhD students, beyond those rates seen in the general public. Our results indicate a problem with the current system of PhD study – or perhaps with academic more widely. Academia notoriously encourages a culture of overwork and under-appreciation.
This mindset is present among PhD students. In our focus groups and surveys for other research , PhD students reported wearing their suffering as a badge of honour and a marker that they are working hard enough rather than too much. One student told us :
“There is a common belief … you have to suffer for the sake of your PhD, if you aren’t anxious or suffering from impostor syndrome, then you aren’t doing it "properly”.
We explored the potential risk factors that could lead to poor mental health among PhD students and the things that could protect their mental health.
Financial insecurity was one risk factor. Not all researchers receive funding to cover their course and personal expenses, and once their PhD is complete, there is no guarantee of a job. The number of people studying for a PhD is increasing without an equivalent increase in postdoctoral positions .
Another risk factor was conflict in their relationship with their academic supervisor . An analogy offered by one of our PhD student collaborators likened the academic supervisor to a “sword” that you can use to defeat the “PhD monster”. If your weapon is ineffective, then it makes tackling the monster a difficult – if not impossible – task. Supervisor difficulties can take many forms. These can include a supervisor being inaccessible, overly critical or lacking expertise.
A lack of interests or relationships outside PhD study, or the presence of stressors in students’ personal lives were also risk factors.
We have also found an association between poor mental health and high levels of perfectionism, impostor syndrome (feeling like you don’t belong or deserve to be studying for your PhD) and the sense of being isolated .
Doctoral research is not all doom and gloom. There are many students who find studying for a PhD to be both enjoyable and fulfilling , and there are many examples of cooperative and nurturing research environments across academia.
Studying for a PhD is an opportunity for researchers to spend several years learning and exploring a topic they are passionate about. It is a training programme intended to equip students with the skills and expertise to further the world’s knowledge. These examples of good practice provide opportunities for us to learn about what works well and disseminate them more widely.
The wellbeing and mental health of PhD students is a subject that we must continue to talk about and reflect on. However, these conversations need to happen in a way that considers the evidence, offers balance, and avoids perpetuating unhelpful myths.
Indeed, in our own study, we found that the percentage of PhD students who believed their peers had mental health problems and that poor mental health was the norm, exceeded the rates of students who actually met diagnostic criteria for a common mental health problem . That is, PhD students may be overestimating the already high number of their peers who experienced mental health problems.
We therefore need to be careful about the messages we put out on this topic, as we may inadvertently make the situation worse. If messages are too negative, we may add to the myth that all PhD students experience mental health problems and help maintain the toxicity of academic culture.
- Mental health
- Academic life
- PhD research
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