by Wei Li
figures by Wei Wu
Trigger warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.
What do the lead scientists behind the COVID-19 vaccine, the current first lady of the United States, and the students at Science in the News have in common? They all did (or are currently doing) academic research in graduate schools.
Academic research is undeniably important to society. For example, much of the basic biology research done in academia complements the drug development efforts in pharmaceutical companies, while many advanced technologies we hear about in the news, like CRISPR, were also developed in an academic lab. Academia —a community of professors, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and other researchers— not only facilitates important research, but also serves to train a new generation of graduate students, or academic trainees, on valuable research skills and expertise.
Behind the grandeur, however, academia has a (not so hidden) problem: there is a mental health crisis. Graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population, with a whopping 36% of them have sought help for depression or anxiety caused by their studies. This is corroborated by other independent surveys done by individual schools: more than 40% of graduate students in STEM (degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in University of California, Berkeley are depressed, while 50% of doctoral students in University of Arizona reported high stress. The COVID-19 pandemic also, unsurprisingly, worsened the situation, with a more than 10% jump in the number of students with depression and anxiety symptoms.
This mental health crisis has been such a big problem that mental health is the major factor behind the high attrition rates in PhD programs. If this issue is left unresolved, the academic research community might have a massive brain drain, which will likely have serious consequences for the future of academic research. But why is there such a crisis in the first place? In order to understand this, we need to understand how academic research works, and how that may lead to a mental health crisis. The focus of this article will be on STEM academic research in the US.
Money, money, money
As with many fields across the world, a competitive environment often leads to depression, anxiety and stress, and the field of STEM academic research has indeed become more and more competitive over the years, especially in terms of obtaining funds.
In order to conduct research in a STEM academic lab, money is needed to purchase equipment and materials, hire and train researchers, or maintain certain laboratory facilities. Particularly, in the US, STEM academic research is largely funded by the federal government, with grants from government agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institute of Health (NIH). Therefore, researchers would typically apply for grants from these places to obtain funding for research. Over the past two decades, the number of people applying for grants have steadily increased, while funding for these grants has remained mostly stagnant. As such, the success rates for getting the grants are also decreasing, and these grants are becoming more and more competitive over time (Figure 1).
Researchers can certainly apply for other funding sources, but they are much smaller in size than the billions of dollars provided by federal funding. Funding sources from private industry are a possible alternative, but there is usually a conflict of interest, where private companies-funded research have been found to bias results of the study. Thus, these alternate funding sources will not be a good long-term solution.
As it becomes more and more difficult to obtain funding for research, academic researchers have to work a lot harder and publish a lot more to make themselves stand out. Graduate students, being part of academic research, are impacted by this rise in competitiveness as well.
Publish or perish
The term “publish or perish” was first coined in a 1932 comic, but, with the increasing competition for grants and fundings, it has become a harsh reality for all of academia. Academic researchers are now feeling the pressure to not only publish extensively, but also to publish in high impact journals —journals considered to be highly influential in their fields. This pressure generates many issues for the scientific community as a whole (such as increasing the tendency to avoid novel research, overestimate results’ significance, and, in more severe cases, commit research fraud), and also plays a huge role in affecting graduate students’ stress in academia.
The pressure to produce research results and publish in a good journal may result in a stressful work environment, where graduate students may be pushed by their professors to work far beyond their ability. A quick Google search of “overworked PhD students” gives a myriad of articles, op-eds and anonymous reports about the potentially toxic work cultures in graduate schools. In some cases, the situation can be so severe that it leads to tragic consequences. For example, there have been multiple reports of suicide cases over the years, due to reasons such as excessive pressures from professor, and even being urged to commit academic fraud in order to publish. On top of needing to meet the academic requirements of graduate school and fulfill teaching duties, the added pressure from this “publish or perish” mentality is definitely not helping with the already existing workload from being a graduate student.
Instabilities and insecurities
In addition to the stresses that result from trying to publish and remain competitive, graduate students face other pressing stresses on a more individual level: little to no financial security. PhD students earn in the range of $15,000 to $30,000 a year while working for more than 41 hours a week, for an average of 8.2 years of degree completion. Thus, graduate students are underpaid and overworked for a degree that takes up a good chunk of their life; since lower income is associated with mental disorders, it’s no wonder their mental health takes a hit.
Furthermore, for those wanting to remain in academia (which includes the majority of PhD students), the financial insecurity extends beyond graduate school. Post-doctoral researchers, the typical next step for graduate students on the academia path, are also considerably underpaid and suffer from similar insecurities and distress that PhD students would face.
Even if these students get through the life of graduate school and post-doc, they will be hit with yet another wall: job insecurity. Indeed, the number of open faculty jobs have been dwindling, especially in the midst of the pandemic, while the number of PhD students have been increasing over the years. And even if one wants to get out of academia, there is not enough training in the PhD program to teach students to get non-academic jobs; PhD programs are still extremely focused on preparing students for academic positions. Job insecurities have been linked to many adverse mental health outcomes such as anxieties and loss of self-esteem, and the roads of a graduate student are filled with job insecurities.
Overall, the competitive landscape, publication pressure, lack of financial stability and job security are some of the factors that may contribute to PhD students’ overall worsening mental health in academia (Figure 2).
What can we do to help?
In an attempt to combat the mental health crisis, many schools have implemented their own mental health awareness campaigns or task forces in an attempt to combat this issue. The Council of Graduate Schools has also teamed up with a non-profit organization, the Jed Foundation, to start a 22-month initiative where they will create a foundation to support graduate student mental health and well-being, and provide an expert-guided action plan. Furthermore, many graduate students have volunteered their time to create online communities for helping fellow students with their mental health.
In addition to these initiatives aimed to provide support and resources for graduate students, some of the causes of the mental health crisis need to be addressed as well. For example, if negative results can be published and be recognized, the pressure to overwork and obtain positive results might be reduced. In fact, some publishers have already created a journal for negative results to encourage this trend.
Furthermore, grant reviewers should stop placing too much emphasis on the publications of the lab. In fact, there have even been calls to make funding allocation lottery-based to reduce any staggering publication pressure, although the idea is still highly debated. Lastly, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking the world by storm, federal funding has significantly increased for the research for COVID. Even though this currently only benefits research labs that work on COVID or other infectious diseases, hopefully the pandemic has revealed the importance of funding basic academic research in general, and there will be more federal grants available in the aftermath for graduate students and other academics.
Finally, what can graduate students do on their part? As a graduate student myself, this is something I’m struggling with as well. Studies have shown that a strong social support can greatly mitigate stress or burnout from school, and thus building up a supportive network of friends is crucial in graduate school (for example, by joining a fun organization like Science in the News!). Importantly, don’t be afraid to seek help from the people around you when needed. With increasing awareness around mental health in academia as well as initiatives from both institutions and students, one day, the memes about the “overworked PhD students” will become a thing of the past. For now, let us all get through graduate school together.
Wei Li is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Chemistry and Chemical Biology program at Harvard University.
Wei Wu is a graduate student in the Design Studies program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her concentration is Art, Design and the Public Domain.
For More Information:
- Read about the survey of over 6,000 graduate students on their views of their PhD life.
- A review of research behind mental health issues in academia.
- Here are some tips on getting a non-academic job for PhD students.
- If you’re a Harvard student, you can check out the Office of Career Services for help with job hunting, as well as Counseling and Mental Health Services for help with mental health.