Karen Barry knew that mental health was a problem for Ph.D. students at her institution. In her role as graduate research coordinator at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, she had spoken with many students over the years who had confided in her, sharing personal stories about their struggles with stress, depression, and anxiety. But for Barry—who is also a senior lecturer in plant biology—the problem came into full focus a few years ago when a student who was a leader of the graduate student body visited her office feeling stressed and overwhelmed. “Everyone else is coming to me and telling me they’re stressed,” the Ph.D. student—a scientist—told Barry. “What can I do to help the students around me?”
PhD students exposed to acute mental health problem
More than one third of PhD students have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by study, according to a global survey of 6,300 students by Nature. Of the 36% of students who sought help, 26% said it was helpful. A further 18% said they didn’t feel supported and 9% said they wanted to seek help but none was available. Some 21% said they’d been bullied — in 48% of the cases, by their supervisor. Experts say it’s essential that institutions adapt to the needs of their students.
Michael Fenn, Ph.D.’s post
It’s time we revamp our PhD programs and provide real-world training, in addition to the scientific training, relevant to the jobs and roles beyond the academic lab to prepare the next generation of scientists to also be business leaders and entrepreneurs. Providing these opportunities, along with a realignment of incentives to provide PhD students a clearer path to relevant non-academic careers might also mitigate some of the anxiety, stress and other mental health issues. At Harvard, I’m proud to have been part of several such programs, but Harvard is fortunate in this regard, and therefore much more needs to be done to fully realize the economic and societal value that these tremendously talented students can deliver to the world. This will require a cultural shift in academia and the agencies that fund them, but I’m optimistic that this can be a reality while keeping to the mission of academic research institutions.