What We Don’t Know About the Ph.D

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What We Don’t Know About the Ph.D.

Recently I read an article that a friend on Facebook posted regarding some of the challenges students face with obtaining a Ph.D. When people think of obtaining a Ph.D., we are often quick to think about time, effort and work involved. Some of us even consider the financial obligation associated with obtaining this terminal degree. While all of these areas are important, many people fail to realize the high rates of mental health disorders that doctoral candidates struggle with while working toward their Ph.D. The article I read hit very close to home for me because while working toward my doctoral degree, I recall experiencing similar symptoms of anxiety as others discussed in the article. Why then is this area difficult to discuss? Is it because society does not associate graduate students and professionals with having mental health problems? I mean, we are doctors, so we should be smart enough to know how to cope with mental health issues, right? Does acknowledging a mental health condition means that you will not be successful in graduate school, so students fail to address it? We hear about mental health in the community and often picture people who come from broken, dysfunctional homes, abusing drugs or alcohol or experienced some significant, unresolved trauma. We fail to remember that certain personal experiences can contribute to one developing some form of a mental illness. When I entered my doctoral program in the fall of 2009, I went in with some fears. The fear of someone being smarter than me with more clinical or life experience, the fear of being challenged, and the fear of not completing my program because of the insurmountable amount of research. These fears were later confirmed after receiving a “C” on my first paper in my introduction into research class. “If I couldn’t write a 5-8 page paper, how was I going to write an actual research study”, this was my thought. I developed a great deal of anxiety. What I did not know at the time was that I was not the only doctoral student who was suffering from anxiety and “imposter syndrome”. Imposter syndrome is when high achieving students feel incompetent, fraudulent, and feelings of inadequacy even when information indicates the opposite. Students usually assume they are the only ones who feel this way. Typically, these feelings develop based on how we internalize past and current success. Research indicates that imposter syndrome is present before anxiety and depression appear. For many doctoral students finding a balance is a struggle. While pursing my degree, I was working a full-time job and taking care of a family. Fortunately for me, I survived with the strength of faith and family support. However, some students are not as lucky. In a study completed by the University of California Berkeley (2015), 47% of doctoral students and 37% of master’s students suffer from depression. A previous study completed in 2005, showed that 10% of graduate students had contemplated suicide. A study completed by the American Psychological Association (2009) as cited by Willyard, 2012, 87% of psychology students reported symptoms of anxiety, 68% reported depression and19% reported suicidal thoughts. While it’s possible that students with pre-existing mental health conditions enter graduate programs, could experiences in graduate school cause, exacerbate, or coincide with existing problems. Some areas of stress for graduate students includes, isolation- and feeling disconnected from the academic community, financial difficulties, chronic failure, poor work-life balance, and difficulty with finding employment after college. Addressing the mental health

needs of graduate students is vital for not only academic success, but also for maintaining good mental health. We can begin to address these problems by supporting students; making mental health services available and also de-stigmatizing the negative view of mental illness by helping students to feel comfortable seeking help. Simply by encouraging students to work harder or ignoring the problem will not get to the root of the issue.

References

Jaschik, S. (2015). The other mental health crisis. Retrieved from www. insidehighered.com.

Willyard, C. (2012) Need to heal thyself. Retrieved from www.apa.org.

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