Last month, Nature published the results of their 2017 PhD survey. They drew responses from more than 5,700 science PhD students from around the world for this report. The respondents came from diverse scientific fields. The results give us a better understanding of the benefits and the drawbacks of “PhD life.”
On the whole, these doctoral students love what they do. However, many also feel racked with worry and uncertainty. In fact, 12 percent said they’d sought help for anxiety or depression as a result of their PhD studies.
Most Are Happy With Their Choice
More than three-quarters of the respondents said that they were at least “somewhat satisfied” with their decision to work toward a doctoral degree.
Most respondents, 52 percent, said they hope to land a job in academia after graduation. This is true despite the “global dearth of university research posts,” as the report dubbed it. Still, this path was students’ first choice by far. The next most popular post-graduation plan was to pursue an industry job, which was favored by just 22 percent of those surveyed.
The desire to work in a dwindling field creates pressure for students who aren’t sure that the job market will be able to support their goals.
12% of students said they'd sought help for anxiety or depression as a result of their PhD studies.
Uncertainty, Pressure and Debt
The fact that PhD students want to work in academia despite a difficult job market is only one challenge these doctoral candidates face. Factors like debt, and the pressure of the program itself, might also have a significant impact.
“I was running the day through my head. At three in the morning, I’d be thinking about data sets,” Andrew Proppe, who studies physical chemistry at the University of Toronto, said in the report. Once he realized how much the program was impacting his life, he made some changes. “I stopped trying to stay at work until 11, to instead make more time to play guitar, exercise and be with my girlfriend.”
Other research from the National Science Foundation found that looming debt exacerbates pressures for PhD students. On average, new doctoral degree graduates shouldered $22,392 of debt in 2014, and 12.6 percent held a debt greater than $70,000.
Mental Health Challenges Aren’t Uncommon
It’s not difficult to understand why many PhD students in science struggle with mental health issues while working toward their degrees. The study found that more than a quarter listed mental health as one of their top concerns since starting their program. Among this group, 45 percent said they’d sought help for anxiety or depression as a result.
Among those who sought assistance, 35 percent said they found helpful resources at their institution. The majority of those found some value in the process. Nearly 50 percent said they were still satisfied or very satisfied with their doctoral program.
It’s always a good idea to seek support for mental health matters when they arise, and it helps to do it early before the problem worsens. Additionally, other factors were noted to have a positive impact.
This research concluded that having a positive relationship with a mentor — specifically, guidance and recognition from an adviser — was the single most significant variable to a PhD student’s overall satisfaction with their program.
PhD students should be on the lookout for these challenges. The pressures of PhD life aren’t to be underestimated. And, neither is the value of the guidance of a good mentor. If mental health challenges do arise, students should seek support. They should also know they aren’t alone.
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