Getting a Ph.D. Can Harm Your Mental Health

The challenges of a Ph.D. program can stir up some serious mental health problems, including depression. Peter M. Fisher/Getty Images
The challenges of a Ph.D. program can stir up some serious mental health problems, including depression. Peter M. Fisher/Getty Images

"I'm sick of school!" is a common complaint for students at large, but when you hear a doctoral student say it, listen up. Mental health problems are more prevalent in Ph.D. students than in the highly educated population in general, including highly educated employees and students, according to recent research published in the journal Research Policy.

The study highlights concerns about the influence that academic working conditions have on mental health, particularly among Ph.D. students in a range of disciplines. The researchers surveyed 3,659 Ph.D. students in Flanders, Belgium, using a General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12), a 12-question mental health screening tool that assesses a person's well-being and potential psychological distress in light of mental health disorders. (Ph.D. programs in Europe are similar to those in the U.S. in many ways, but there are some differences, including students having generally lower fees, shorter program terms and formal employment contracts with their universities in Europe.)

The GHQ questions focused on symptoms of depression and social dysfunction, from constant strain and unhappiness, to lack of concentration and losing self-confidence. Using the version of the GHQ that requires the presence of four symptoms to consider a person ill, the researchers found that 32 percent of the Ph.D. students assessed were at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, namely depression. Some of the more common feelings students reported were sleeping problems due to worries, and the inability to get over difficulties and enjoy everyday activities.

Thirty-two percent is a notable amount, considering data from the World Health Organization indicates that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability in the world. And when the researchers compared the risk of psychiatric disorders in Ph.D. students to that of the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students, they discovered that it was significantly higher for Ph.D. students — 2.43, 2.84 and 1.85 times, respectively.

It's easy to think that the heavy academic workload causes all the pressure, but the researchers found that work environment and organizational policies also contribute to psychiatric issues. Work-family balance difficulties, high job demands, low job control, laissez-faire (or passive) leadership style in supervisors and even a team culture of closed decision-making were all factors linked to potential mental health problems. On the other hand, mental health was better in Ph.D. students who had advisers with an inspirational leadership style, desired an academic career and valued their degree outside of academia.

The study authors aren't saying that working in academia or pursing a doctoral degree is definitively bad for your health. But their findings do indicate that the stressors of being a Ph.D. student are more than a pain in the neck. If Ph.D. students' work conditions and career outlook are inadequate, their mental health may not make the grade.