Studies suggest that prolonged financial instability can be a major contributor to mental health challenges. There is great disparity in the level of remuneration and financial incentives offered to graduate students in India, a population that is highly vulnerable to mental health issues. In this article, Joel explores some of the issues early career researchers face with regards to their financial security, and how these can leave an impact on their mental well-being.
Independent studies from across the world have revealed worsening mental health among researchers, particularly graduate students. A global survey of 6320 graduate students conducted by Nature in 2019 found that about 36% of the respondents had sought help for anxiety or depression. In October 2020, CACTUS Foundation reported the findings of their survey of 13,000 researchers from 160 countries, which corroborated these conclusions. Both studies found that while a majority of the researchers were satisfied with their career choice, many reported feeling overwhelmed, anxious and depressed on a regular basis.
Although these studies focus on the mental health scenario of graduate students globally, the Indian scenario is quite similar, if not worse. While there are many factors influencing the deteriorating mental health condition among young academics in India, financial struggles and job insecurity are two major concerns.
“It’s important mentors think how well the research scholar is supported in financial terms as this plays a critical role in the mental health of the person. Just passion and interest can’t sustain a person for long – Reality Check!” Divya P. Kumar, Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry, JSS Medical College (JSSMC), Mysuru, tweeted in October, 2020. Many other academics expressed their agreement with this view. “Financial stability is very important for mental stability and general wellbeing,” Shilpy Sharma, Assistant Professor, Department of Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, replied.
The financial difficulties that young researchers face in Indian academia branch from two factors: (i) variation in stipends, and (ii) irregularities in the timely disbursal of stipends. “Low fellowship amount has always been a major issue in Indian academia. It can be frustrating when researchers don’t get enough money after reaching a certain age, and that may hold us back from reaching our full potential,” said a research fellow who responded to an anonymous survey circulated regarding this issue. Akshatha N. S., Research Scholar, JSSMC, Mysuru, echoed this thought in her tweet, “Constant worry about financial insecurities drains out all the energy which otherwise could be put into pursuing the passion.”
PhD students in India receive different stipends depending on their funding source. With the exception of the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship (PMRF), most fellowship amounts range from reasonable to low considering the expertise required. Although the total stipend amount (with the HRA included) is reasonable, central government agencies/institutions do not provide HRA for students who stay in hostels, and hostel charges are additionally levied on students’ stipend. Further, most public funding agencies require the candidate to qualify via a national level exam like DBT-BET, CSIR-NET, ICMR-JRF or GATE. Those who fail to crack one of these or do not have a professional master’s degree, and are recruited through extramural grants, get stipends that are reduced by almost half for the same kind and level of work.
The system also lacks an established mechanism for increments. Stipend increments occur only once in 4 or 5 years and many a time after several protests by students. The Government of India increased the JRF stipend to INR 16,000 in 2010, to INR 25,000 in 2014, and to INR 31,000 in 2019, each time after sustained protests.
As for PhD students funded by private universities, the stipends are typically much lesser than their public funding counterparts (with a few notable exceptions) and with no provision for house rent allowance in most cases.
A larger issue is the irregular disbursal of funds. Many PhD students often go without stipends for several months. The problem with timely disbursal varies a lot with the source of funding. The issue has been the worst for CSIR scholars, who despite several requests, protests and media reports, see little progress on the ground. Institute-provided funds, on the other hand, have the reputation of being prompt with their disbursal of stipends.
While PhD fellowships from public funding are for five years, almost all private universities fund students only for a period of three years with an extension for six months. So, when a student’s research extends beyond this period, they are left searching for other sources of funding – e.g. a project-based grant received by the student’s advisor. If the advisor does not have a grant to support the student, the student is often left without an income. So, long PhD durations add to the financial woes of the student, especially given that many scholars would have families to support by this time.
While researching this issue, I polled 80 young academics – PhD students, project fellows and postdoctoral researchers — to get a deeper understanding of the situation on the ground and to gather suggestions for improvement. Out of these, 54 respondents said that they experienced mental distress and 10 respondents were formally diagnosed with mental health conditions during their stay in the research institution. The top reasons noted for mental distress were financial struggles (33), job insecurity (33) and toxic lab environment (30).
While 31 researchers mentioned that the stipend was inadequate, 18 complained about the irregular disbursal of stipend. Also, 11 respondents said that the direct deduction of additional or mandatory expenses (like mess bills or rent) by the institute from the bank accounts of students added to their mental stress.
Most participants thought that a fellowship amount of INR 45,000 per month for PhD students and INR 70,000 per month for post-doctoral researchers would be adequate. One respondent also said that while the current stipend may be adequate, providing additional benefits for research scholars who are married and have children can ease their financial burden. These benefits include health insurance for the student and family, employee provident fund, and daycare centres for kids.
To tackle the issue of job insecurity alongside financial struggles, some respondents also suggested the extension of the fellowship period in private universities from three years to five years. One further suggested that the PhD training be made independent of the compulsory paper publications so that it becomes possible to complete within the fellowship period of five years, given how difficult it is to obtain stipends when one is pursuing a PhD beyond five years.
Financial insecurity and its bearing on mental health are leading many young researchers to consider studying and working abroad. In fact, some researchers who participated in the poll suggested studying abroad as the appropriate solution to the worsening mental health among graduate students in India.
As Aristotle said, “Education is the creation of a sound mind in a sound body.” But when published reports and anecdotal evidence indicate an opposite effect, brought about by many factors including financial struggles and job insecurity, it is time to rethink and adopt appropriate changes.