It’s Not Me, It’s You by Bella Boulderstone

When I started writing this article I wanted to give you a flavor of who I am as a person and my own mental health problems in academia but the longer I wrote, the more I became convinced that it’s not so much a ‘me’ problem as it is a structural and cultural problem. The system is designed to make us think it is us that are the issue.

I have faced my fair share of mental health issues. During my PhD, I’ve gone through therapy twice and generally spent a lot of time being quite unhappy. However, I feel like I’ve had less problems than others and now that I have submitted my thesis and passed my thesis defense, I am on the other side of the road.

However, I am a firm believer in making things better. I wrote handbooks in my university to welcome people into my department after I felt like I was drowning for the first six months of my time as a new PhD student. Handbooks to explain marking guidelines and how to do my job, handbooks after handbooks. I think that if something is tough, you should strive to make it less bad for the people who come after you.

I don’t think I was prepared for my PhD to take such a toll on me. I was told that it would be difficult, but I didn’t realize that this was emotionally difficult as well as academically difficult.

I remember that when I started my PhD, another student warned me against talking to someone who was writing their thesis. ‘You still like science, don’t ruin that for yourself.’ they told me I thought that there was nothing in the world that would stop me from enjoying every second of my PhD. Clearly, I was proven wrong.

When my supervisor gently suggested that perhaps I loved the idea of academia, rather than academia itself, I think he was right.  The idea of working to advance human knowledge is pretty exciting and being a world expert in your tiny field feels so worthwhile.

I suppose what I’d like to do in this article is discuss the problems in academia with respect to mental health and how we might be able to tackle them. While the solutions may be all blue-sky daydreaming about a better future, I am firmly of the opinion that if I went through something difficult and complex, I should share my story of how I got through it and how I believe we can fix it. 

My handbook, as it were.

Underfunded and Underpaid

There are lots of problems that can cause mental health issues in academia and I think I can separate them and their solutions out into two distinct parts: the institution and the government.

To start big: I think most PhD students who start in astronomy (my area of expertise) want to go into academia. It’s not an industry-friendly area of physics and there isn’t much astronomical research or work that takes place outside of academia. In the UK at least, there are simply not enough postdoc positions to go around.

The postdoc positions themselves can be short contracts and in astronomy, you must be prepared to move across the world to get a job. While this may sound exciting, this is not feasible for lots of people. 

LGBT+ PhD students may need to find out if it would be safe for their significant other to come with them to a new country. Many students lack the financial resources for a large move across the world. Not to mention that PhD students’ jobs become the most turbulent just as they may be looking to settle down and start a family. Maternity leave is hard to come by. Paternity leave, even harder. Postdocs at my university had no family leave for the first and last six months of a contract (so if your contract is twelve months…). These inequalities contribute to the ‘leaky pipeline effect’: marginalized people drop out of pursuing careers in academia at a higher rate than their more privileged peers. 

Whether it is caring responsibilities, leaving loved ones behind, or simply not wanting to move across the world, you are made to think this is a “you” problem. That you don’t want it enough. Reconciling that you might have to give up on your dreams because you are unable to move for a six-month contract in China is pretty heart-breaking. When I started out, I was told that I would have to love my subject but nobody told me that I would have to love it more than anything or anyone else in my life. Postdocs are competitive and there’s a constant, bruising failure rate. There is no room to be different. My first solution is that we should be funding more of them.

 My next step in fixing mental health in academia is to pay PhD students better. The old adage of ‘money can’t buy happiness’ is not quite true. If you have moved across continents to become a PhD student in an unfamiliar world, have to find money for housing deposits, trips back home and other expenses, one can imagine that the poor PhD pay is off-putting. Not to mention that NHS mental health services can be hard to find with long wait lists (I personally waited 6+ months for access to one set of therapy I received). While the STFC in the UK does pay students quarterly in advance which gives cash-strapped undergraduates a large sum to start off, it creates a problem of finishing PhD students running out of money before they’ve finished writing up their thesis.

I want it to be better than this. In fact, I want PhD students to be real employees. I want PhD students to be contractors from their funding body such that they can have access to pensions and Human Resources for support in cases of bullying and harassment. PhD students live in a nebulous world of ‘not quite an employee, not quite a student’ which makes us easy to exploit. There’s often no formal process to turn to if your supervisor is harassing you, and sometimes there’s no formal way to report misconduct. There’s no way to demote your supervisor and if the academic is senior enough or has a big enough name, it likely won’t affect their career at all if you fail or decide to stop your PhD.

PhD students work hard and the only reason I can think that they are paid this badly is because we don’t know any better. In the UK we can take a 3-5 year pay cut in comparison to what our (other physics students) peers earn and when we come out, we haven’t even started a pension. We’re told that in industry we’ll immediately get paid better, but in this increasingly over-qualified world, that’s less and less the case. Give us pensions, give us HR and give us real pay.

The Institution

The second place that we can look as a source of mental health issues in academia is The Institution. Many PhD students face common difficulties such as funding, job insecurity, and entrenched norms that can make completing a PhD difficult if you are a member of any marginalized groups.

As I alluded to earlier, often there’s no recourse if your supervisor is bad. In my institution we had a ‘mentor’ from a different (but still physics) department whom we could approach if we had any concerns.  When a PhD student discussed with her mentor that her anxiety and depression were skyrocketing thanks to her supervisor’s unreasonable expectations of her time (amongst other things), he told her to take up hiking!

We had an academic volunteer to be a go-between if there were any problems between other academics and their students, but that hardly helps if all the academics are friendly with each other, or if the volunteer in question was the person you were having trouble with. We had boxes appear in our hallways asking for anonymous complaints but there was no explanation of how these complaints would be handled.

Not to mention that complaining about your supervisor could cost you months of time and potentially set you back more than you (or your grant) can afford. Changing supervisors can be the death knell for a PhD as you may also have to change subjects. Additionally, you would still likely see your supervisor frequently if you plan on staying in the same department which, of course, would compound any issues you may be dealing with.

I suggest that making PhD students actual employees would help to resolve these issues, but we also need management training for our supervisors. Furthermore, we need to stop allowing academics to be PhD supervisors just because they’re senior and have been in the field for a long time. We need a way of gauging how good a supervisor is.

For this, I suggest that we should use exit interviews for PhD students. Sit down with the PhD students once they’re able to speak freely without fear of repercussion and find out about their experience. Ask them about their supervisor, get them to tell you about things that could be improved, then work on improving these issues.

This is all without mentioning the structural inequality of academia. Mental health problems abound but if your supervisor (or department) is racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic or otherwise inaccessible, your experience as a student will be infinitely worse. Access to HR or formal ways of making complaints are so important. Proper channels of accountability to support PhD students who are facing discrimination is a huge priority. Here in the leaky pipeline: encouraging more people in rather than fixing the problem is not acceptable.

All in all, there are a lot of problems within academia. As I have argued here, I think the rigid hierarchy in institutions of supervising is a big problem. With no real way of removing yourself from a toxic work environment along with supervisors not trained to supervise, the job market being incredibly competitive, and the nebulous not-student placement, there are so many opportunities for PhD students to be or feel exploited. 

However, I think there are many clear and obvious ways of improving life in academia. Real, reasonably paid job contracts to allow PhD students to have stability. Training, guidelines and consequences for supervisors to allow students to have good, clear and supportive management. More postdocs, because I haven’t met a PhD student who doesn’t deserve one, but plenty who didn’t manage to find one.

My time in academia was tough, but it was also wonderful. My group were close knit and my supervisors were supportive. I met many friends, got to travel the world, saw the most beautiful skies in the world and ultimately (and to my own surprise) I produced a thesis during a pandemic. PhD students (and postdocs) can be some of the most overlooked and underappreciated parts of academia so it’s important to remember: it’s not just you.

Bella Boulderstone

Bella Boulderstone is a dual UK/US National based in the UK who recently completed her thesis defense for a PhD in astronomy. She enjoys American football (her favorite team is the San Francisco 49ers), listening to podcasts, running, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and Star Trek. She’s currently learning Spanish (1,538 day Duolingo streak) and her interest in travel has been replaced with mastering her handwashing technique.