A young student suffering from the exhaustion of finals

One study found that PhD students were more than twice as likely to have mental-health difficulties than the general highly educated population.Credit: Getty

This week, the First International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers will take place in Brighton, UK. The goal of the two-day meeting (which is sold out) is to address a simple, urgent truth: that many PhD students and postdoctoral researchers are overworked and overstressed — and their mental health is suffering because of it.

This troubling picture has become clear from studies over the past few years. One, of a group of PhD students in Flanders, Belgium, found that they were more than twice as likely to suffer from mental-health difficulties than the highly educated population in general, and that one-third of them either had, or were at risk of developing, a psychiatric disorder. A survey of doctoral students at the University of Arizona in Tucson found that around three-quarters were under ‘more than average’ stress. When Nature has covered these issues, readers have flooded us with personal stories of frustration and distress.

The issue is gaining attention. A series of 17 projects started in March 2018 that aim to better understand the threats to well-being faced by early-career researchers, and explore what kinds of support their universities can provide. The effort is being funded to the tune of £1.5 million (US$2 million) — originally by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and now by UK Research and Innovation. The Brighton conference will feature many of these and other research projects; Nature Research is a sponsor of the meeting.

One problem is that data are incomplete, and often apply only to an individual university or region. International data are sparse and unstandardized. More wide-scale work is needed to understand the extent of mental-health issues and how particular aspects of the postgraduate and general academic environment contribute to them.

Studies have already revealed some obvious areas of concern. Short-term PhD and postdoc contracts can allow employers and supervisors to look the other way when it comes to a duty of care. Academia often glorifies and rewards overwork and long hours. And the power balance between early-career researchers and their supervisors is problematic. Senior scientists are expected to be both a robust support system and a stern, independent assessor of progress — a contradiction that discourages students from sharing potential mental-health issues for fear of damaging their professional progress.

Solutions are at hand. Supervisors need comprehensive, compulsory training to identify, assist and understand researchers facing mental-health problems. Students could have more than one supervisor, so that they can find support without worrying about damaging their career. Universities need to make sure that the mental-health services they admirably make available to undergraduates also reach graduate students and postdocs. And academia must learn to respect the work–life balance that many researchers struggle to find.

A dedicated conference is an encouraging sign that postgraduate mental health is being taken seriously. But much more must be done to protect future generations from research’s ugly tendency to harm its practitioners.