Alice in Depressionland

Alice in Depressionland

Not all is about internal evolution of Earth and geodynamic processes. It is also important to make the space for ourselves to separate academic responsibilities and personal interests, in a way that equilibrate our health and make the develop of the PhD thesis “easier”. As it was described in previous blogs (as here and here), mental health matters during the PhD pathway especially when the illusion of pursing a scientific career starts falling down due to mental illness. In this week’s blog, I will talk about the challenging journey faced by PhD students and explore the alarming mental health statistics among them, shedding light on the disparities in mental health impacts compared to other professionals.

Katherine Villavicencio Valero is a geologist who has worked as a petroleum geophysicist performing underground modeling, seismic interpretation, and field work. Currently, she is about to finalize her PhD in Planetary Sciences where her work was focused on performing numerical geodynamic modeling to investigate which are the parameters that might provoke melting within the outer ice shell of Ganymede. You can contact me via email

It was a beautiful and sunny day, the hummingbirds were singing, flying, and feeding themselves from the flowers that were falling from the balcony. The aroma of fresh bread and coffee coming from the kitchen, as well as the family’s smiles, which she suspected might be one of the few moments she’d witness again for a long time, led Alice to awaken with a mix of feelings. She knew that when she’d finally board the plane that would carry her to a very faraway place, her dreams would shortly become a reality. A short while later, she discovered that the wonderful place she had assumed would provide all the resources, tools, and help that the promised land has claimed to offer her before, had actually turned out to be a hostile and isolating place, from which, regrettably, she could not even dare to leave. Her childhood fantasies and desires started to slowly fade away when she learned about the reality of living and working in Depressionland. Alice represents all the PhD students who are dealing with serious mental health problems, because what they were expecting is the opposite of the depressing reality they are now witnessing.

What do studies on the mental health of PhD students reveal?

“Results based on 12 mental health symptoms (GHQ-12) showed that 32% of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, especially depression” (Levecque et al., 2017). Unfortunately, evidence suggests that this is one of the negative impacts on PhD students’ mental health. Stress is a major concern for young researchers, despite the fact that universities are usually conceived  as low-tension environments, the prevalence of stress has been steadily rising over time among ECRs. Institutions encounter many challenges and inequalities of interest while trying to prioritize the mental health of their students. Despite the paucity of scientific studies on young researchers’ mental health, a few studies (e.g. Levecque et al., 2017) argue that, in the academic sector, the levels of psychological health are lower compared to other professions. These studies evaluated how individuals react to their emotional well-being, psychological discomfort, and depression, which is the primary indicator of psychological distress. According to the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ),researchers are the individuals who struggle the most between both psychological distress and depression, compared to other professionals.

Testimonies of PhD students include descriptions of symptoms like sadness, nervousness, burnout, and emotional weariness. The imbalance between the students and their environment leads to stress. Most of the complaints from PhD students are related to social isolation, loss of motivation, problems with financial insecurity, unwritten rules, frequent evaluation, work positions of power, a competitive environment, the supervisor’s leadership style, relationships with peers and instructors, workload, and the work-life interface. The balance between demands and control, which might vary depending on the many scientific disciplines and academic procedures, is an additional problem that PhDs experience. In fact, the feelings can be exacerbated according to the academic discipline. While natural sciences PhDs usually work as a member of a large group on a clearly defined project, PhDs in the humanities and social science often conduct their own research alone. This can create difficulties in terms of perseverance, absence of enough guidance by the supervisor, and more stress.

How much do job demands affect mental stability?

High demands at work are consistently correlated with depressive symptoms, emotional depletion, and fatigue. Job demands require persistent physical and mental effort, while job control refers to control over the work environment, more related to the working peace, time for breaks, and the application of skills. When a job control is low, the emotional cost is high. Results from research studies performed by health doctors suggest that, besides the health effects of job demands and job controls, the low social support received by the supervisor and colleagues plays an important role in the increase of a bad mental health (Evans et al. 2018). It has been argued that insufficient amounts of support at work have an impact on anxiety, emotional tiredness, workplace tension, and job satisfaction. Some findings indicate that the student-advisor relationship’s quality is a significant predictor of depressed symptoms.

While PhD students contribute significantly to universities’ research output, their bad health lowers both the quality and amount of the work. Previous expectations of the research program are one thing that has an impact on the continuation of the PhD research. If the research falls below the original expectation, the student may decide not to pursue the research further, and the interruption will be significantly more serious. The same happens when there is not much interaction with the supervisor. According to Evans et al. 2018, it is alarming that among PhD students who experience depression and anxiety, 50% indicated they disagree with the way their principal investigator (PI) adviser conducts research and mentorship. While 36% of PhD students agree with mentorship, 50% of the interviewers either disagree about the advisor’s ability to offer extensive support or they perceive their support as virtually nonexistent.

Based on the results reported by the World Health Organization, the interplay between work and home is also a high source impact of stress affecting mental health, specially for the ones experiencing financial difficulties or life crisis. Unhappiness, hopelessness, difficulty sleeping caused by anxiety, feeling helpless within facing any kind of challenges, and an inability to enjoy daily activities are some of the most significant signs and emotions of being under constant stress. Additionally, a multivariance analysis showed that among PhD students, work-family conflicts are the most significant predictor of both psychological distress and the probability of developing a common mental illness.

Figure 1. Faces of the stress and bad mental illnesses that PhD students experience during their educational journey (generated using Bing Image Creator). A significant number of PhD students express feeling depressed, being at risk of acquiring a common psychiatric condition, or already having one. Most common are emotions of persistent stress, sadness, and depression, as well as difficulty falling asleep caused by stress, an inability to handle challenges, and a lack of enjoyment in daily activities.

To what extent does the mental health impact on PhD students compared to other professionals?

Evans et al., 2018 conclude that graduate students experience sadness and anxiety six times more often than the general population. In comparison to the general population, roughly 41% of PhD students have moderate to severe anxiety, and about 39% of PhD students experience moderate to severe depression. Additionally, their research argues that women are more inclined than men to be dealing with mental health problems. Furthermore, compared to other PhD students, the transgender and gender nonconforming population experiences stress, sadness, and anxiety at a rate of about 57%. As it was mentioned before, work – life balance affects the quality of the mental health of PhD students. A health gap is created when people work long hours in laboratories without having enough time to themselves.

In terms of mental health complications, PhD students are more affected than the highly educated general population, including highly educated employees, and undergraduate students (Levecque et al., 2017). This study found that, for PhD students, the prevalence of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder was 2.43 times higher than the average in the highly educated general population. It was 2.84 times higher compared to highly educated employees, and 1.85 times higher compared to undergraduate students.

What can academic institutions do to support the mental health of their PhD students?

Mental illness presents a serious problem for universities, and it should be considered as a great importance in decision-making. One solution could be increasing their efforts to meticulously map and track the sources of stress and the effects of that stress within the organization. Universities could design a risk management strategy that identifies general risk factors that affect everyone in the institution or specific risks that only affect certain groups. Additionally, they can provide PhD students with extensive details about employment demands and possible careers both inside and outside of academia (Levecque et al., 2017).

In conclusion, there is still more to be done to ensure that PhD students have favorable conditions for conducting their research in an environment that is healthy and does not exacerbate their mental illnesses while they pursue their doctoral studies. Universities should offer regular online surveys and psychological support to monitor how the student feels on his/her work-place rather than just tracking the progress of the thesis. Synergies and collaborations among authorities may lower the probability that PhD students would experience psychological disorders during and after the PhD.

These are a few internet resources to delve into the topic Mental health in academia:

Voices of Academia. Here you can find information and discussions about mental health and well-being in academia.

Self-Compassionate Proffesor. These interviews hosted by Dr. Danielle De La Mare highlight experiences of researchers with overcoming psychological obstacles in academia.

American Council on Education. In this website you will find recorded videos of the last techniques and resources used to improve the mental health in higher education.

Mental health and higher education podcast. This podcast covers aspects such as the difficulties that academics encounter with mental health, stress, and how institutions could help them.



Evans, T., Bira, L., Gastelum, J., Weiss, L., Vanderford, N. (2018) Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol. 36, 282–284.

Levecque, A., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., and Gisle, L. (2017) Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Police. 46, 868 – 879.

WHO, 2010. Health Impact of Psychosocial Hazards at Work: An Overview. WHO












Katherine Villavicencio is a geologist and an astrophysicist who has worked as a geophysicist performing modelling, interpretation and field work. Currently, she is doing a PhD in planetary sciences where she is carrying out a research on the hyperspectral analysis of the surface of Ganymede linked to a geodynamic model of the melt migration within the outer ice shell. Katherine is part of the GD blog team as an editor.

She is a postdoctoral researcher at University of Plymouth (UK). Her research interests span from the role of fault networks with complex geometries in earthquake processes to the link of the lithospheric structure with observed seismic deformation. She is co-editor-in-chief of the GD blog team.

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