Burnouts amongst PhDs: COVID-19 and the(in)visibility of Ph.D.-related mental health issues

2020 brought a devastating virus that ravaged countries and brought health and social services to a grinding halt, severely affecting the everyday operation of ‘normalcy’. It also had another impact: a crippling increase in the presentation and diagnosis of mental health issues in all sectors, particularly that of health and education. In the Netherlands, the National Centre for the Prevention of Stress and Burnout (NCPSB) conducted a study in which it estimated that in the Netherlands alone, nearly 4 million people are at risk of burnout in the next 6 months if no preventative measures are taken. With the COVID-19 crisis continuing its path of destruction, these numbers are guaranteed to rise, and the higher education sector is one of many at severe risk for the development of burnout symptoms and other mental health issues. Ph.D. candidates like myself are an especially vulnerable group, caught between fulfilling our research practices and expectations and focusing on our career development beyond the Ph.D. trajectory. Where the line between failed experiments, normal methodological crises, expected and everyday Ph.D. stressors, and feelings of personal failures is increasingly thin and blurred, it is little wonder that roughly 47% of Ph.D. candidates in the Netherlands are at serious risk of developing mental health issues, with a staggering number of PhDs (roughly 40%) displaying symptoms of burnout. The survey, conducted by the Ph.D. Network Netherlands (PNN), furthermore states that 60% of PhDs experience their current workload as too high.

Compounded by the additional anxiety, stress, and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the existing alarm surrounding the academic hierarchy and drive to be successful in early career researchers needs to be adequately dealt with.  In a pandemic where millions of people face unemployment and loss of job security, many PhDs are in the fortunate position of retaining their positions and ensuring their job security for the remainder of their contracts.  However, job security does not equal job success or a seamless path of research, analysis, and writing outputs, as many PhDs are experiencing directs impacts on their research as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. I am one of those PhDs.  For those of us in the social sciences, fieldwork is a cornerstone of qualitative research and relies heavily on two types of experiences: those of our research participants, and our own experiences as researchers in the field and how we translate those experiences into useful data.  In a field where we rely on empirical data collection in the form of fieldwork, interviews, and participant observation, the loss of social mobility has meant a break with our proposed methodological and data collection methods, resulting in an unavoidable loss of data and time. We are forced to re-evaluate our research trajectories and our core research questions as we stand witness to carefully designed proposals, plans, dreams, and aspirations being irrevocably altered, with no clear idea of how to mitigate these challenges. And yet, we feel disappointed in ourselves when we are not able to deliver to our colleagues, our supervisors, and most importantly, to ourselves. Our identities are shaken, troubled, and reformed.  Our internal resources, which for many of us became driving forces in other times of stress and work pressure, have run out. Beyond the delivery of work-related tasks, the COVID-19 crisis has amplified other obstacles PhDs face which may lead to increased rates of burnout, for example, our work environments and our housing situations. The financial position of many PhDs oftentimes means that their housing situation may not be ideal, leading to PhDs sharing living spaces with multiple roommates to keep costs down, and even if some PhDs do live alone, spaces are often small, with no separate workspace. And of course, let’s not forget the extreme social isolation PhDs who live alone, encounter on a daily basis. The boundary between work and home life threatens to become non-existent. Many PhDs have partners and/or children, and as we have already seen with most people who suddenly work from home, the undertaking of care and household tasks increases dramatically, further leading to stress, loss of productivity (even if we are working more hours), and mental fatigue. All of a sudden, we are cut off from our work environments, our colleagues, and the familiar routines of academic research and social interaction, and support, in our offices. The sharing of the burdens and struggles of our research, which we could discuss and dissect with our peers over coffee and a walk, has shifted into a solitary activity with oftentimes no outlet to diminish potential stressors. 

At Radboud University, the halls are empty and desolate.  The few colleagues who wander the halls, at both junior and senior levels, have become part of a new social cohesion: there may be minimal social and physical contact, but the shared inhabitation of empty spaces and observances of colleagues speaking into a computer screen to invisible audiences has formed, what I dare even call a form of habitus: there are elements of displacement, new social rules and dispositions, new ways of defining ‘the field’ and ‘home’, and very likely, strong grounds for future social reproduction. For many, the office has become a space of reprieve, transcending purely a physical displacement. Of course, it is not only PhDs who may suffer from these issues, but as our status as early career researchers predisposes us to certain financial and living restraints, the office becomes even more of a place for reflection, focus, resumption of productivity, and a place of sanctuary – or at the very least, the appearance thereof.  It is of vital importance that PhDs are afforded the opportunity to work in the office to the extent that is allowed while maintaining the new social rules and regulations.  It is of vital importance that PhDs are granted the opportunity to extend their projects if need be, and it is of even more importance that PhDs are granted the required social and mental health and support services of their respective institutions in order to stave off the, what now seems to be, inevitable pandemic of burnouts and mental breakdowns.

Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis has, in all its chaos, served to highlight the often ignored plight of Ph.D. candidates and their struggles with fatigue, being overworked, self-doubt, and often-unrealistic expectations set for them. The crisis has shown that these issues can no longer be subsumed under the guise of ‘hard work’ and ‘well that’s just how it is in a Ph.D.’, but are firmly part of a toxic burnout culture that needs to be dismantled.  We are almost a year into what can be considered a new normal, a new formation of society, and an altered state of individualistic and collectivist being.  It is thus high time to break with the old regime, and build a platform where PhDs are not seen as the sacrificial lambs of an imagined definition of academic integrity, but as important contributors to a new world where the mental health of its makers are prioritised.

Posted by Anell Roos, PhD Candidate, Radboud University Nijmegen

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