Culture of doctoral programs may lead to attrition, mental health issues

Graduate students seek more support from their mentors

The high pressure culture of doctoral programs leads many students to burn out and suffer from mental health issues, Te-Erika Patterson reports for The Atlantic.

Research shows that most students who enter doctoral programs are academically prepared for such rigorous study, but systemic issues within universities can cause students a great deal of distress. Only half of all doctoral students complete their programs.

Psychiatrist Dion Metzger says that graduate education "produces unique stressors that may not necessarily be found in other career paths." She notes that many students feel pressured to see a return on their educational investment, so they alienate themselves from family and throw themselves completely into their work. 

Services to improve the graduate student experience

Throughout her 15 years as a professor and advisor, Karen Kelsky saw many students give up on their interests and sequester themselves to work on their dissertations.

"You become overly fixated on what your professors think of you," she says. "Paranoia is quite rampant in PhD programs because PhD students can get so isolated and so fixated on whether or not the people in authority [committee members] approve of what they're doing since they have total authority to grant the degree."

Part of the problem is that many students feel like they cannot get the help they need from faculty members. A 2011 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that only 6% of graduate students at major universities across the nation felt like they could count on their mentors and advisors during times of stress. That's a major problem considering that 43% of all study participants reported having more stress than they could handle, and Ph.D. students reported the greatest amounts of stress. 

Scott Kerlin, a former doctoral committee member at the University of Washington, says the "political" nature of the doctoral process makes for "lots of issues of power and powerlessness that pervade the graduate experience."

Janet Rutledge, vice provost and graduate school dean at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, argues that "very rarely is the faculty motive... malicious." It's simply that they tend to be "very busy and they don't communicate the full reason for some of the things that they do, so it is only natural that a student makes certain assumptions based on what they have been able to observe," she says.

Still, many students feel like faculty members aren't supportive enough. A significant number of doctoral students in one study examining problems in the graduate school process complained about the quality of mentoring and support they received from faculty. Doctoral students also said mentoring should start earlier, be more systematic, and not be limited to just one person (Patterson, The Atlantic, 7/6). 


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