Inspiring others, creating freedom

Students are dependent on their doctoral advisers in many ways, and this can be risky—including from a psychological standpoint.
Yoal Desurmont via Unsplash

“My therapist says it is completely normal for someone to come to her with this kind of situation,” says Anna Döring (name changed), 35. Her “situation” is her life as a doctoral student. She has been working on her dissertation in the humanities for three years. Döring says she sometimes cannot get out of bed for days in a row. She sought help when she realised she couldn’t shake her feelings of hopelessness.

There are PhD students who pass through their dissertation phase like a hot knife through butter: with great advising and no major crises. However, academic advisers would do well to reflect more on people like Anna Döring, who face serious mental conflicts while writing their dissertations. Hers is certainly not an isolated case.

The magazine Nature conducted a survey of 5,700 doctoral students from around the world over the past year. Over a quarter of those surveyed stated that their mental health was one of their biggest concerns. Around half of these respondents had sought help to deal with their fears or depression relating to their PhD.

Belgian researchers also published a study on the topic in 2017: Prof. Katia Levecque and her team from Ghent University surveyed 3,659 PhD students to gauge their level of mental stress. Thirty-two percent of respondents had scores that indicated they were suffering from a stress-related mental illness. The researchers compared these scores with those of other groups: university students, university graduates, and workers who held a university degree. What they found was surprising: In comparison to university students, PhD students had a 1.85 x higher chance of developing a mental illness. They also had a 2.43 x higher risk when compared to university graduates and a 2.84 x higher risk compared to the 592 workers with university degrees who responded to the survey.

The study was the largest of its kind to date. Participating PhD students came from several different universities around the Belgian region of Flanders. Because working conditions can vary from country to country, it is not possible to simply transfer these figures to problems we face here in Germany. As the authors note, graduate students in Flanders at least hold secure positions. They assume that the situation in countries like Germany, where the regulations on doctoral programme financing are less clear, could be even more difficult.

Conflicts sap your energy

Why are PhD students under so much stress? The Belgian psychologists had several observations on this point:

  • Completing a PhD can create conflict between a student’s family and work life that may sap their mental energy.
  • PhD students have to meet high professional demands. If they feel they have little autonomy or control over the doctoral process, they can easily become stressed out.
  • Doctoral students who describe their adviser’s management style as “inspiring” experience less stress than those whose advisers have a more laissez-faire mentality.

The researchers also outlined other findings based on their research:

  • Doctoral students at the beginning or end of their programmes generally had a tougher time than those in the middle.
  • Doctoral students planning to stay in academia after graduation felt better than those planning to leave. This was true even if they felt their opportunities on the market were limited.
  • From a statistical standpoint, even those who felt their dissertation would give them a career boost later on experienced lower levels of stress.
  • On average, students whose financing depended on a specific project or grant experienced more mental problems than those with a secure position.
  • Just like in the general population, women experience higher levels of stress. They were 27 percent more likely to develop a mental disorder.

Dr Frank-Hagen Hofmann understands the problems faced by students who are no longer able to manage the challenges of completing their PhD. Whether they suffer from depression, anxiety, worry about their future, or issues like writer’s block or procrastination that interfere with their work—his counselling centre in the Heidelberg Student Union serves as an initial point of contact for many students.

“In principle, these are the same challenges university students face—just at a much higher level,” Hofmann says. Often, high demands for self-organisation and self-control can be particularly stressful for PhD students. They also need to be able to manage frustration and delay gratification—ultimately, it takes several years to receive any reward for all the labour that goes into the PhD.

Invisible pressures

Excessive perfectionism is a major problem. Another topic frequently brought up by the young men and women who come into Hofmann’s office is how to handle uncertainty—like uncertainty regarding their own experiments, or uncertainty regarding whether they have reviewed enough material to go to their adviser with their results. “A dissertation needs to be a person’s own, independent work. From a mental standpoint, this is extremely difficult because you never know exactly what is expected of you.”

Other factors include time pressure—because of financing or because of a need to publish lots of articles—and the “many invisible, particular pressures of the scientific community” as Hofmann puts it. These include the dependency inherent in the adviser/advisee relationship. “Frequently, a doctoral candidate may conduct the research, but the professor’s name will be at the top of the paper because the PhD students are doing all of his grunt work.”

Hofmann says that this is particularly difficult for international students, who may not have these kinds of hierarchical structures in their home countries. This treatment makes them question their self-image as independent, autonomous researchers.

For Anna Döring, loneliness was the biggest challenge. She joined a co-working space to deal with the issue. “I used to feel so stressed out making appointments with other people.” Now she no longer has to work alone—although she still feels alone in her dissertation topic. She tells her friends what she is thinking about because she does not have regular meetings with her adviser. “They can’t give me feedback on the content of my work, but it helps me to formulate my thoughts.” What else might help her? Sports, and going to see her friends one weekend a month. And regular work hours. Hofmann confirms regular work hours are important, especially since our energy and concentration are always limited.

“You are this dissertation”

This is not a rare sentiment. Felix Meiners (name changed), a 31-year-old PhD student in the humanities, believes that many of his colleagues work so many hours a day because they identify so strongly with their dissertations. “You are on your own so much, and the longer you stay in the programme, the more you take your own work to heart. You are your dissertation. You also begin to feel afraid that you’re not smart enough.” The system requires students to over-identify with their work: “Your professors, your role models do it, too.”

Felix Meiners also sees a therapist regularly. He dislikes the fact that he can talk about the mental pressure he feels with his friends, but not with his colleagues. For him, academia feels like a “shark tank”. Considering how the number of PhD students has grown in recent years, even as the number of permanent positions in the academic system stays the same, you can see where he is coming from.

Shortly after accepting his position, the new President of the German Rector’s Conference Peter-André Alt said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the academy had “raised expectations too high with such a large number of PhD programmes”. He stated that the number of doctoral students needed to be reduced, since there would not be any major increase in permanent positions. University instructors, he said, “needed to have the courage to advise their students not to pursue a PhD from early on”.

Learning to do a PhD through seminars

For people already in a doctoral programme and already feeling uncomfortable in their own skin, this is not a real solution, of course. Hofmann believes the academy doesn’t talk enough about the problems PhD students face. Slowly, however, universities are becoming somewhat sensitised to the issue. Ombudsmen can act as mediators, for instance, if a crisis develops between an adviser and an advisee.

Graduate schools and postgraduate programmes can offer a fixed structure and regular feedback, which can relieve stress. People who feel overtaxed by such a huge undertaking as a PhD can benefit from doctoral seminars. These are designed to teach students how to create realistic schedules, reward themselves for what they have accomplished, and divide their work days into manageable units. As motivational psychologists say: to turn Mount Everest into a molehill.

Such seminars can be a good addition. Whether a PhD candidate is successful in managing their topic and in creating a good work/life balance, however, depends mainly on the quality of the advising they receive. In Germany, this means that success depends on the quality of a highly personal relationship between two people. This relationship is designed to be a close one—German uses the terms “Doktorvater” and “Doktormutter” for one’s adviser (doctor father and mother) for a reason.

“Students enter into a kind of partnership with their advisers. They develop a unique couple’s dynamic,” says psychoanalyst Hans-Werner Rückert, who has headed the psychosocial counselling centre at the Free University of Berlin for 24 years. These constructs are susceptible to faults. “When a doctoral student is choosing an adviser, they act as a kind of supplicant, and they have certain expectations of their adviser. The adviser, in turn, has expectations of the doctoral student—to produce good work, for instance.”

Even when everything is going well and adviser and advisee are satisfied with one another, there is always a danger of unfulfilled expectations. The doctoral student, for instance, might start procrastinating on their work. Or she might hold an academic opinion that differs from her adviser’s. Or the adviser might simply lose interest in the doctoral student, leaving her feeling alone.

Rückert worries about how much doctoral programmes in Germany are characterised by dependency, hierarchy, and submissiveness. “If the adviser and advisee like this structure, with one of them looking up and the other looking down, then it works. But there is always some friction in the relationship,” he says. Rückert believes he himself would never have been able to complete a PhD because of this need to be subservient to an adviser.

Feedback from doctoral students on this point shows that his concern may be a little too far-reaching. Being an advisee does not always mean being subservient or getting bossed around. On the other hand, recent cases show that a harsh, authoritarian attitude does sometimes reign supreme, especially at highly prestigious academic institutions.

What can students do? “You could break up the one-on-one advising relationship by involving a secondary adviser or other colleagues,” suggests Wilfried Schumann, who is a psychologist and Chair of the Committee for Advising and Social Services at the Deutsches Studentenwerk. He says that some advisers do abuse their power over their doctoral students, demanding that they do much more work than is healthy for them. “I have seen a lot of suffering in these kinds of situations. We really should be past these kinds of medieval, dependent relationships in our modern society.”

However, many doctoral students persevere in such situations because they believe changing advisers is a bad idea due to the relationships between professors themselves. Or they believe that students who drop out of their PhD programmes are marked for life.

Proximity fosters expectations

To prevent the problems that can arise in advising relationships, many universities have established advising agreements, says Schumann, who also manages the psychological counselling service at the University and Studentenwerk Oldenburg. These agreements may not be legally binding, but they have proven helpful in many cases to allow each party to clearly outline their expectations.

The psychologist has high hopes for graduate schools as well. Such schools can interrupt dependent relationship patterns and give the PhD process a clearer structure, circumventing some risks. However, Schumann warns against seeing graduate schools as a cure-all: “PhD candidates at these schools are often under heavy pressure to generate a certain amount of output within a certain time. They often have to compete for the attention of a certain professor, and they are stressed out by being compared to their colleagues.”

Wilfried Schumann says he is particularly worried about international students. They are often under particular pressure because returning to their home countries without the PhD would be a loss of face. “Many of them do not speak the language, they are socially isolated, and they work constantly.” He believes universities and advisers have a responsibility to try to integrate these students. “You have to remember that they are not just machines working in a vacuum.” Of course, this sentiment applies to all PhD students, no matter where they come from.