Article of the month – Issue 4, 2021

‘Drowning in the shallows: an Australian study of the PhD experience of wellbeing’, by Kim Beasy, Sherridan Emery and Joseph Crawford (free to view until 31st July 2021)

For the article of the month, I have selected this article by Beasy, Emery, and Crawford. Though the research was conducted and the article was first published online before the pandemic (see the authors’ own excellent blog post), the findings resonate as the topic of doctoral students’ wellbeing has become even more pressing to discuss as we continue to navigate a global pandemic.

Beasy, Emery and Crawford wrote about the theme of dehumanisation of the doctoral process within their data and the impact of that process on the wellbeing of students:

‘The experiences shared by candidates suggest that processes of doctoral study were, at times, a dehumanising experience. This was most succinctly encapsulated in one candidate’s request for ‘compassion’ and perhaps more tellingly revealed in the comment: ‘None of us expected this to be easy but we did expect to be treated with respect, to be treated like humans’ (2021, 610).

Their article explores the ‘machines’ that our institutions have become, in which our doctoral students simply become ‘commodities’ to ‘produce’ as economically and efficiently as possible, without concern for the people churning through the machine, many of whom feel pressured to perform under sometimes inhumane expectations.

The impact of the current neoliberal models of doctoral studies can be seen in rising student ill health. A survey conducted in the US in 2020 included 15,346 graduate and professional students (including 7,565 doctoral research students and 1,940 professional doctoral students) found higher rates of generalised anxiety disorder symptoms and major depressive disorder symptoms than were found before the pandemic:

‘Research doctoral students have higher overall prevalence of major depressive disorder (36%) and generalized anxiety disorder (43%) than students in other types of graduate and professional programs’ (Chirikov et al., 2020, 2).

Rates of symptoms of both generalised anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder symptoms were higher amongst particular student group populations, including graduate students who are low-income, Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ+, and those who are care givers for other adults.

In the UK, research conducted before the pandemic found that more than one in three PhD students have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD (Cornell, 2020). Findings from the 2019 Advance HE Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, with over 50,000 postgraduate researchers responding, indicated that only 14% of postgraduate research students reported having low anxiety, compared with 41% of the general population (Williams, 2019). A US study in 2018 indicated that one in 10 doctoral students studying economics reported experiencing suicidal ideation over a two-week period (Barreira, Basilico and Bolotnyy, 2018).

The crisis of doctoral student wellbeing may be explained, in part, by limited time and ever-increasing demands and expectations. A survey conducted by Nature found that more than three out of four (75%) PhD students indicated that they are working 41 or more hours a week on their PhD (Woolston, 2019). With the rise of the ‘busy brag’, overwork and burnout have become normalised in academia, so it is no surprise that PhD students are pressured to do the same. The pressure to work long hours can take a toll on doctoral students’ wellbeing, as revealed in findings in Beasy, Emery and Crawford’s (2021, 608) article, in which they indicated that the most cited word in their data was ‘time’:

‘Some candidates suggested that satisfying doctoral demands compromised the amount of time they could devote to family and friends … Candidates suggested that competing demands for time lead to anxiety and ill-being, a phenomenon reported in other studies on postgraduate wellbeing (Verlie et al. 2017).’

Not every PhD student can endure the overwork that now seems required for academic success (for example, PhD students with caring responsibilities or disabled PhD students) and, more importantly, no one should have to work hours that are not conducive to good health and wellbeing.

Academic career goalposts have changed, pressuring today’s PhD students to achieve far more than previous cohorts. For example, a study by Warren (2019) in the US found that recent early career sociologists had to publish, on average, 4.8 peer-reviewed articles before being promoted to assistant professors, compared with only 2.5 articles required for promotion to the same role in the early 1990s. In a recent post titled: ‘Who’s Responsible for Rising Research KPIs in Academia? We All Are.’ Professor Andrew R. Timming wrote:

‘If I tried to enter academia today with the same CV that I had then, I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting shortlisted, at least not at a research-intensive university … Let there be no mistake. Every year, the requirements for entry into academia, as well as for promotion once in, have noticeably gone up. Today’s PhD students have multiple publications in the world’s leading journals, and even they struggle to find a tenure-track position.’

With rising redundancies during the pandemic, the demands of our institutional ‘machines’ are getting much worse, not better.  Beasy, Emery and Crawford conclude their article with a call for a transformation of doctoral study to a new model that prioritises doctoral students’ wellbeing and humanity:

‘We contend there is a need to rehumanise the PhD experience, to better account for the ‘human’ undertaking the study and for greater ‘humanity’ in the provision of institutional supports. Accounting for the ‘human’ may require better recognition of candidates as people, respected and valued for the skills, knowledge and experience they bring with them and are developing with institutions’ (2021, 614).

For those of us responsible for doctoral supervision, their conclusion is a call to action. I encourage you to read and share their article and to consider sharing it with doctoral students to open up discussions about their experiences, the systemic changes that are needed, and the future of higher education we could co-create together if people were prioritised before profit.

Jessica Gagnon (Assistant Editor: Social Media)