Recently I’ve been concerned with mental health issues in academia, particularly amongst Ph.D students.
This blog appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network’s “Academics Anonymous” page early in March 2014.
At this stage (mid March 2014), the blog has nearly 200 comments, it’s been shared nearly 65,000 times, and I have been informed that it has had 300,000 views.
I wrote it.
This is me ‘coming out’ as the author, explaining myself, justifying myself, and talking about the effect that the blog and the response has had on me.
It was a bit of a whirlwind experience, because the events I describe in the blog and the subsequent publication of the blog happened in a week.
It’s an exceptionally tricky thing to be proud of a piece of writing, and yet saddened by the contents and subsequent conversations it provokes.
Although I’ve told many of my friends that I was the author, I’ve not yet told my family. After all, they were at the centre of the events and it was their response to J’s death that prompted the creative outflow. I don’t know if I’ve caused any upset to my family, or to J’s family, but I can tell you that his death has marked the beginning of the end of Ph.D student suffering, and I would hope that we can all be pleased about that.
This was a conversation that desperately needed to happen, and apparently it’s a conversation that many people have been waiting to have.
People have commented on how the blog has acted as a catalyst for ‘having that conversation’.
People have shared stories that will hopefully serve to remind people that they are not alone, and also serve as signposts towards good sources of help.
Whilst I feel proud to have empowered people to admit that they are not ok, other comments have left me quite conflicted.
One respondent thanked me for inspiring a ‘phychological ephiphany’, and said they would not be returning to university to do a Ph.D as they were not confident that they would be able to complete. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Many people were quick to point out the fact that it isn’t just Ph.D students who suffer, that, in fact, the problem of decreased wellbeing and increased acceptance about this fact continues waaay up the academic heirachy.
I totally agree. That was a point I failed to consider in my blog. Forgive me, I was a bit upset when I wrote it.
Thankfully, the journalist who published the blog followed it up with a fantastic piece that looked the problem of mental health in academia as a whole. She worked really hard to gather what (scant) evidence there is and gave a great overview about the causes of the problem.
Between the two pieces, I hope we have formed an argument that is hard to counter.
Some arguments are fairly easy to counter, however. In fact, I’m going to counter one right now:
Matron28 fell into the ‘Academics suffer too’ category of respondents.
In a very open and detailed way, Matron28 talked about their excessive academic workload, unreasonable expectations that were being made of them, and how this was affecting their mental health. I almost sympathised with them until they added their own Ph.D students to the list of stressors, and described systematic failure to support and motivate their ‘least favourite’ students, removing themselves of the responsibility of basic care for another human being and almost certainly driving the students to the brink of complete and utter hoplessness.
“A PhD student, who is motivated, has the necessary research skills and a clear vision of his research topic is a joy to work with and makes much of my academic life worthwhile. Of my four students, one falls into this category (I love him, he’s my favourite). The other three arrived with almost no research skills, little subject specific knowledge in their chosen field, insufficient English language skills and no clear idea what they want to write about. They look to me as an expert in their chosen field to give them some sort of indication of whether or not they are on the right track. Often they are not.
I am required to meet each of them at least four times a year, most of them I meet monthly or every six weeks. I read through chapters and work plans, give advice on sources, research methodology and structure, correct their spelling mistakes and their bad grammar. I point out gaps and obvious mistakes in their work. I ask for a revised draft but what I get back that is often only superficially changed. I schedule another meeting. The cycle repeats itself. Each turnaround of a draft takes around five hours of my time. The meetings must continue regardless of the time of year, i.e. whether or not I am marking exams and essays, supervise Masters dissertations, am expected to have pastoral meetings or while carrying out my own research.
I feel for them and I would like to do more. I would like to share my research and co-write articles with them, introduce them to colleagues who work in their field, encourage them to present their work at conferences, introduce them to my network, get their face known in their academic community. If I did all that with each of them, I’d do nothing else.”