GU President: our PhD system has caused a mental health crisis

Alessandro Ceccarelli 21 January 2020
The central library of the Humboldt University of Berlin, where the modern PhD system was pioneered.

Let’s face it, the PhD system is an abomination.

The current model adopted by most western universities is the legacy of a German 19th-century system, which is now causing more damage than good.

Much of damage can be seen in what Times Higher Education recently reported as the  ‘PhD mental health crisis’ – a report which referenced studies where more than half of surveyed postgraduates experienced symptoms of psychological distress.

You could say the PhD programme mixes elements of the Olympics and episodes of “The Hunger Games” in order to get a sort of ‘academic union card’, which ultimately comes at too high a price. To have a chance at getting a job in academia, students are given a shiny card which says they’re qualified – but in the cold reality of the job market, it really means very little.

The list of issues with the PhD model is extensive. Touching on just a few, we see that graduate ‘students’ are in fact more than their title suggests. They are the main workhorses of modern research, struggling with casualised contracts (e.g. insecure, zero hours contracts), lack of security, and poor employment conditions.

It is hard, relentless work – holidays, weekends and nights spent in the department or writing papers, being de facto brought into exploitative labour. Much also depends on the relationship with one person. If your supervisor is nice, then things will work out; if not, you are in trouble. Your supervisor can decide if and when a student can graduate, and will also provide letters of recommendation for any subsequent job, holding a disproportionate amount of power over your future. For those working in STEM fields, a thesis is almost worthless and no one really agrees on the point of the PhD programme.

The job market for researchers has changed, the opportunities of getting a long-term career in academia are rare, but the number of PhDs being awarded has not decreased respectively.

So what should be done about the PhD? How do we build a system which rewards hard work, while ensuring it genuinely enhances your career prospects, and doesn’t impact on your mental health?

The first step is to make sure that PhD students are actually employed researchers – positions that recognise the expertise students bring and the value they bring to supervisors and departments they serve. For years, they have amounted to cheap intellectual labour under the ‘student’ title, with few and very blurred rights.

It makes more sense to reinvent the way the PhD works. Far more attractive is to have a shorter step in your academic career. This could be, for instance, a one-year specialised course after you have completed an undergraduate programme – similar to the first year of an American PhD. This would cover advanced research topics and teach the skills needed for research: ranging from how to read and write papers, networking and how funding structures work. Students are currently expected to seamlessly transition from life as a student to that of an ‘employed’ researcher, with no preparation or support. This would help bridge the gap.

There also needs to be more flexibility surrounding how PhDs are carried out and the paths chosen by those embarking on that journey. Why must every candidate submit the ‘traditional’ thesis – even if it’s not appropriate to that field? Candidates should be able to choose between this option and, for example, submitting a journal-style paper, whether it is published or not.

In addition to these problems, the current model for PhDs places students on an incredibly restricted path and for a significant chunk of their working life. The PhD path can represent a four-year trap in which candidates have the choice only of completing what they signed up to at the start, or ditching it altogether. There is no chance to change the path, even marginally. This doesn’t reflect real life nor does it reflect the flexibility increasingly being adopted by companies across the world. Why should academia be so different?

It is time for the structure to be redefined. Rather than presenting the PhD period as an immovable, unchangeable bloc, it could be modernised to echo how non-academic careers are sold to people entering the world of work. Why can’t we have a system with milestones, where you can change path to reflect your circumstances and what you’ve learned? Ultimately, the PhD cannot just represent ropes that bind you into one path, with one destination.

The PhD structure isn’t working, a perhaps predictable outcome for a system still operating like its 19th-century German inspiration. It doesn’t reflect the modern world and contributes to the decline in mental health of many students. It’s time to think again.