Earlier this month, The Tab published a short piece by a first year PhD student purporting to describe “what it’s actually like to do a PhD.” While undoubtedly well-intentioned, the accounts of exotic travel, lucrative opportunities for tutoring, excellent post-degree job security and a relaxed and flexible work schedule seems at odds with my experience and that of many of my colleagues.
Moreover, it runs contradictory to a vast swathe of the research dealing with post-degree employment, job security, and mental health concerns amongst PhD candidates and early career researchers. The point of this short article is not to lament the situation of PhD students or to wallow in self-pity, far from it, but rather to shed light on some of the challenges which are, in many ways, specific to PhD candidates and early career researchers. My wish is to not only facilitate some discussions around the challenges we as research students face, but also to provide undergraduate students here at St Andrews with a better under-standing of the challenges faced by their tutors and the wider PhD candidate cohort at the university.
One third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder
It’s common knowledge that get-ting a PhD is hard; in fact, it is meant to be and while, I would venture, few PhD students are as naive as to enter a program expecting an easy ride, the struggles associated with the path that eventually leads to a blue gown and the coveted title of “Dr.” are rarely talked about openly. Perhaps this has something to do with the still-taboo nature of mental health concerns. A recent study reported that approximately one third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder like depression, and although these results come from a fairly small sample – 3659 students at universities in Belgium – they are nonetheless an important addition to the growing literature about the prevalence of mental health issues in academia. Without supposing any authority on the subject of mental illness – I am a terrorism scholar not a psychologist – I would think that an important contributing factor to this increasing risk of mental health problems is the lifestyle associated with the doctoral work, rather than the heavy academic workload itself. This assumption seems in line with the findings the afore-mentioned study which identified, among others, “work/family balance difficulties, high job demands, low job control, [and] laissez-faire (or passive) leadership style in supervisors” as potential contributing factors.
Doing a PhD can put pressure on all your sensitive spots. For many, there is a fear of being a fraud, or the “imposter syndrome,” a nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you should not really be there, that someone, somewhere along the way, made a mistake. This often stops PhD students from being honest with themselves and others when they are finding their research a struggle. My experience is that my peers and I – despite having formed strong friend-ships – rarely seek support from one another.
Doing a PhD can put pressure on all of your sensitive spots
This feeling is often exacerbated by two elements that can make the PhD lifestyle particularly difficult to manage. Firstly, the lack of imposed structure; one is entirely in charge of planning, managing, and carrying out one’s work.
Yes, that means that I can plan my own holidays and take full days off but it also means that no one is there to stop me working evenings, or nights, or weekends. It also means I am constantly judging myself and my work ethic. Secondly, as there is no ‘exam’ until the submission of the thesis, you are never completely sure of how well you are doing or where you stand in relation to your peers; it is difficult to know whether your work is actually good enough, or whether you are working quickly or efficiently enough. Whilst good supervisors, such as mine, regularly check in, giving helpful feedback and support, self-doubt nevertheless inevitably creeps in at times due to the solitary nature of the work. The common response to this self-doubt is not to enjoy the freedom afforded by a flexible schedule, but rather to be excessively harsh on yourself, by trying to meet self-imposed – and sometimes excessively strict – deadlines and quality standards, while telling yourself that you are never good enough, never fast enough, and that surely there is someone, somewhere, who is smarter, more effective, and more competent.
The question of work-family balance is one which rests heavily on many PhD students. In addition to the large workload involved in doing a PhD, many students opt to tutor as a means of financing part of their studies, especially since scholarships or other sources of funding are by no means a given for many students. While the University of St Andrews pays their tutors a rate which is competitive with other UK universities, and while the work can be extremely rewarding, tutoring – in particular preparing for tutoring and labs – is a very time intensive endeavour. Tutors are paid for a fixed number of hours based on the amount of contact time, meaning that we often work without compensation (albeit voluntarily), answering emails, holding meetings outside regular office hours, writing extensive feedback, or providing pastoral care. We know that undergraduate students can tell when a tutorial has been well thought-out and planned, and the vast majority of tutors take great pride in their work. In fact, most PhD students enjoy teaching and for this reason choose this job over other work. Nonetheless, for many of us, tutoring is a job we take home, marking late into the evening, planning early in the mornings, going over lecture slides and rereading articles in order to do a good job.
If you won the lottery, would you still bother finishing your degree?
Of course, these pressures are multiplied for the students with children, who are managing a family work-load in addition to their studies and work – undoubtedly one of the reasons why the news of the creation of a University nursery was received so positively within my cohort. Another pressing concern amongst PhD candidates and early career researchers is the scarcity of academic jobs. Whilst a few PhD graduates will ease into a permanent lectureship, for many the post-completion landscape is much less certain. A recent Royal Society report suggested that of every 200 people completing a PhD, only seven will get a permanent academic post. Only one will become a professor. End of degree students, such as myself, face additional pressure as they approach their thesis submission, namely balancing the efforts required to finally finish the thesis, and those of job-hunting, a long and arduous task in academia. One early career researcher – who, in my opinion, is not only an excellent instructor but also a true role model in the classroom – recently shared her experience of “348 Days in Limbo” between being awarded her PhD and finally being offered a three-year Teaching Fellowship in International Relations. During this period, this deeply passionate and competent individual, applied for 40 jobs – post-docs, lectureships, and teaching fellowships – on three different continents before finally receiving an offer. In her words, she is “one of the lucky ones.” It’s a scary prospect.
I don’t intend for any of this to discourage someone from undertaking doctoral research: in the course of my four years at St Andrews, I have had the chance to travel to several countries to present my research, I have built extremely strong friendships, I have met passionate and brilliant individuals who have served as mentors and role models, and I have derived an incredible amount of pleasure and pride from helping my students and seeing them exceed their own expectations. When I started my PhD, a fellow student asked me, “if you won the lottery, would you still bother finishing your degree?” The answer was, and remains, a firm yes. However, the last four years have not been easy. They have not been punctuated by exotic trips. They have in no means constituted a carefree lifestyle with the promise of job security at the end, despite what The Tab might tell you. By all means, do a PhD – it is undoubtedly immensely rewarding at times – but do so knowing that it will be a difficult and all-consuming four years.