Frank B. Gilbreth motion study photographs of a typist and lab-worker

Performance management — captured here in photographs from Frank Gilbreth — has long contributed to ill health in researchers.Credit: Kheel Centre

Two years ago, a student responding to Nature’s biennial PhD survey called on universities to provide a quiet room for “crying time” when the pressures caused by graduate study become overwhelming. At that time, 29% of 5,700 respondents listed their mental health as an area of concern — and just under half of those had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD study.

Things seem to be getting worse.

Respondents to our latest survey of 6,300 graduate students from around the world, published this week, revealed that 71% are generally satisfied with their experience of research, but that some 36% had sought help for anxiety or depression related to their PhD.

These findings echo those of a survey of 50,000 graduate students in the United Kingdom also published this week. Respondents to this survey, carried out by Advance HE, a higher-education management training organization based in York, UK, were similarly positive about their research experiences, but 86% report marked levels of anxiety — a much higher percentage than in the general population. Similar data helped to prompt the first international conference dedicated to the mental health and well-being of early-career researchers in May. Tellingly, the event sold out.

How can graduate students be both broadly satisfied, but also — and increasingly — unwell? One clue can be found elsewhere in our survey. One-fifth of respondents reported being bullied; and one-fifth also reported experiencing harassment or discrimination.

Could universities be taking more effective action? Undoubtedly. Are they? Not enough. Of the respondents who reported concerns, one-quarter said that their institution had provided support, but one-third said that they had had to seek help elsewhere.

There’s another, and probably overarching, reason for otherwise satisfied students to be stressed to the point of ill health. Increasingly, in many countries, career success is gauge by a spectrum of measurements that include publications, citations, funding, contributions to conferences and, now, whether a person’s research has a positive impact on people, the economy or the environment. Early-career jobs tend to be precarious. To progress, a researcher needs to be hitting the right notes in regard to the measures listed above in addition to learning the nuts and bolts of their research topics — concerns articulated in a series of columns and blog posts from the research community published last month.

Most students embark on a PhD as the foundation of an academic career. They choose such careers partly because of the freedom and autonomy to discover and invent. But problems can arise when autonomy in such matters is reduced or removed — which is what happens when targets for funding, impact and publications become part of universities’ formal monitoring and evaluation systems. Moreover, when a student’s supervisor is also the judge of their success or failure, it’s no surprise that many students feel unable to open up to them about vulnerabilities or mental-health concerns.

The solution to this emerging crisis does not lie solely in institutions doing more to provide on-campus mental-health support and more training for supervisors — essential though such actions are. It also lies in recognizing that mental ill-health is, at least in part, a consequence of an excessive focus on measuring performance — something that funders, academic institutions, journals and publishers must all take responsibility for.

Much has been written about how to overhaul the system and find a better way to define success in research, including promoting the many non-academic careers that are open to researchers. But on the ground, the truth is that the system is making young people ill and they need our help. The research community needs to be protecting and empowering the next generation of researchers. Without systemic change to research cultures, we will otherwise drive them away.