Poor mental health is an issue for many of our readers. That fact is underscored by the response to a tweet sent by @NatureNews earlier this week, which highlighted that rates of depression and anxiety reported by postgraduate students are six times higher than in the general population (T. M. Evans et al. Nature Biotechnol. 36, 282–284; 2018), and asked what should be done to help. The figures are a shock, but it was the reaction that blew us away: more than 1,200 retweets and around 170 replies.The system has a lot of problems, but I'm not sure redefining failure as success is the solution
“This is not one dimensional problem. Financial burden, hostile academia, red tape, tough job market, no proper career guidance. Take your pick,” read one. “Maybe being told day in, day out that the work you spend 10+ hrs a day, 6–7 days a week on isn’t good enough,” said another.
The feedback emphasizes something that Nature has highlighted often in recent years: there is a problem among young scientists. Too many have mental-health difficulties, and too many say that the demands of the role are partly to blame. Neither issue gets the attention it deserves. “I’d love to see some of the comments under this thread published,” wrote one responder. “There needs to be real conversation about this, not just observation.”
We agree — which is why we are publishing some of the responses. (You can read the full thread here.)
Some commenters said that the way to improve things was through wholesale change. “The whole PhD+postdoc system must be reformed or abolished,” noted one.
Others focused on specific concerns. “Decent funding which runs until their subimission [sic] deadline, coupled with a culture shift to less focus on publications in certain journals defining success.”
With my career behind me, allow me to comment.
There is a problem with the culture in science, and it is one that loads an increasing burden on the shoulders of younger generations. The evidence suggests that they are feeling the effects. (Among the tweets, one proposed solution to improving the PhD is to “treat it like professional training instead of indentured servitude with no hope of a career at the end?”.) It will take a while to change that culture — and, unfortunately, it will probably take almost as long for some in the community to realize the need to change. But change it must.
A good place to start is the relationship between postgraduates and their supervisors. Surveys — including our own — suggest that too many senior scientists see a career outside academia after a PhD as a failure. Too often, this attitude drives expectations and conversations that do not reflect the reality: there are just not enough full-time academic posts to go around.
First, the kind of people who tend to go for advanced degrees are often obsessive compulsive, at least as far as their career choice. Graduate careers don't necessarily pay especially well, although you can get significantly into the six figures as as a star senior scientist at a major research university. But like being an NFL star, don't bet your future on it. So to go through the time and trouble for relatively little reward requires a certain focus that is not quite rational.
Second, the system does have major flaws. Professors are judged on numbers of students, and numbers of papers, and students are expected to provide papers for their professors. Other than personal relationships, professors have less investment in the success of the student after graduation. There's considerable built in pressure to encourage too many students into a given field. Not all can become professors in return; there just aren't enough positions. This makes everyone in the field less safe. There are plenty of potential competitors.
Third, as noted above, the course of study is ill defined, and tends to be long and arduous in terms of time and trouble, and there is no certainty of success.
It's enough to drive a smart person crazy.