Columns Opinion

You don’t have to be crazy’ to be doing a PhD!

Hina Lateef Nizami

We are progressively seeing the signs of a burgeoning mental health crisis in academia. In this new series, we will examine the status of mental health awareness and research in the Indian context, and discuss possible strategies and interventions to counter the issue. In this invited article, Hina Lateef Nizami writes about why we need to break free of the habit of normalizing poor mental health and burnout in academic circles.

Mental health and Indian Academia
Mental health and Indian Academia 

How many times have you heard A PhD student has no weekends or holidays”, PhDs are half-mad”, I am a PhD student, so stress is my middle name” or something similar? Chances are, more than you can count on your fingers. For too long now, chronic stress, sleeplessness, anxiety, burnout, and depressive tendencies have been conflated with normal’ features of the life of a PhD student. You’ll find it everywhere. From academic circles to popular culture features such as memes, the concept of a distressed PhD student is pervasive.

So deeply entrenched is this notion in our collective psyche that even as students we tend to believe that lack of mental well-being is just an excuse for lack of productivity at work. And what could be a louder warning bell than victims blaming and shaming themselves?

Where do we go wrong?

The transition from a college degree to a PhD is quite a leap. While working on short-term projects during college ensures to some degree that the student is not completely naïve about the nature of research, there is still a stiff learning curve when they actually enter academia.

The beginning often has a dreamlike quality, the desire to become a doctor’ finally taking shape. But what follows can be overwhelming. Late nights in the lab, missed deadlines, negative results, rejection of proposals, publish or perish’ phenomenon etc. can take a toll on one’s mental health.

Should then but this is how academia is!” be the solution? The answer is a resounding NO.

Expectation management is a concept in business psychology, where working on your expectations leads to better productivity. It can work well when it comes to ensuring a graduate student’s well-being as well. So, you finally have little to no classes or exams and a focused and independent project. Great! But, this also means you are pretty much working out a new path on your own (not undermining the role of peers and collaborators), with a lot of power vested in the single person who supervises you. The way we are taught how to learn during school and college is turned on its head, and knowing what to expect out of this can go a long way in ensuring your mental well-being doesn’t go for a toss.

Do we mean to say that the student’s mindset is all that matters, and absolve others of all responsibility? Again, no. When it comes to managing expectations, a student looks up to his/​her seniors and the supervisor. An honest orientation to the paradigm shift in learning and work culture rather than this is how it is’ would do wonders. A supervisor managing his or her own expectations is not any less imperative. Having gone through the same grind, it should be easier for a guide to empathise with the student than vice versa. This empathy, when put to good use, ensures the student doesn’t bow down under the pressure of unrealistic expectations thinking it is normal.

Dr Sachin Mangla, a consultant neuropsychiatrist in Faridabad, believes that a student shouldn’t take episodes of persistent stress, depression and anxiety as normal in a PhD or any other academic course. Research supervisors should remember that just like no two PhDs are the same nor the students getting them, the same rulebook cannot be used to guide every student, nor can the same yardstick be used to judge them.

Image: Hina Lateef Nizami

How do we deal with it?

What do we do when a student comes up with a mental health concern? Often our response is to say But that other person dealt with much worse!” When we do this, we are almost glorifying lack of well-being. Sure, pursuing a PhD is a test of resilience in the face of unpredictable hurdles. But, in the words of scientist and outreach and engagement specialist Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, Graduate school should be challenging — but it shouldn’t be traumatizing.”

If we tell students that their mental health concern might just be a cover for their inability to keep up with demands of academic research, we undermine the courage it takes to voice the concern. Whether we romanticize or stigmatise the concern, the eventual outcome is the hushing up of what might be the warning signs of a legitimate medical condition.

What’s a good solution then? Thankfully, there’s more than just one. While on-campus or referral-based counselling for distressed students is a practical measure, it serves little purpose if the community isn’t sensitised enough about the need. We, the members of academia, need to first learn how to draw a line between productivity” and burnout, enthusiasm and toxic work culture, and inefficiency” and a possible mental health issue. Until these false analogies are put to rest, all other measures are bound to fail.

At the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, we have monthly mental health counselling sessions with Dr Sachin Mangla. He is of the strong opinion that to care for his/​her mental health, a PhD student should spend quality time with friends, pursue hobbies, avoid junk foods and excessive sugar, and avoid isolation. To put it simply, don’t forget that you have a life beyond the lab.

Again, is it just the concerned student’s responsibility? Yet again, the answer is no. Sensitising the supervisors and administrators is equally, if not more, important. It is during PhD that the life of a student undergoes many shifts, not just on the professional, but on the personal front as well. They face a number of societal pressures such as gaining financial independence and settling down’. Factoring in these helps the supervisors as well since a strong research ethic without an empathetic work culture can only deliver output for so long. While it is true that faculty members have their own pressures to deal with, this makes it all the more important to find common ground with their students, so that the common passion for research doesn’t get lost. Be approachable and considerate, promote open communication, and offer constructive criticism, advises Dr Mangla.

Fostering a culture where we don’t talk about mental health in hushed tones is the only way forward. You cannot be good to yourself or anyone else till you have a sound mind. Why, then, celebrate anything that comes at the cost of mental well-being? The trope of an overworked, miserable PhD student needs to be done away with, and what better time than now!

Do you agree with the views expressed in this article? Please let us know in the comments below.