THE PHD FACTORY
When I first heard the term ‘PhD factory’, it took me a few seconds to realise what it meant and was immediately privy to the precarity of academia. A Doctor of Philosophy or PhD degree connotes a certain level of prestige. It is the pinnacle of learning. You might make friends for life, and friends who challenge your way of thinking. You get to meet and work with professors whose interests align with yours. Securing an opportunity to do a PhD is not easy. No doubt, academia is an elite industry. Scholarships are competitive, and you cannot read the minds of the admission committees. You will not know if your Graduate Records Examinations (GRE) score matters when applying to the US. Ironically, while it is difficult to get a PhD spot, more and more are doing one, leading to an oversupply of PhD graduates. Universities only have so many positions for these individuals. How do they decide? One is publication record. Another criteria is the number and types of grants you have secured for your own research.
The point is, you have to be stellar, and even more stellar, than a PhD graduate a few decades ago. The factory analogy is derived from the perception that PhD graduates are akin to mass-produced commodities constantly rolling on a conveyor belt. Some are ‘packaged’ into a university while others, unfortunately, drop off the end of the belt. Sadly, no one cares what happens to this latter group. Uncertainty and loneliness constitute the dark side of the PhD. Some, if not many, are familiar with the joke that PhD stands for ‘permanent head damage’. It is debatable whether the damage is permanent, but there is certainly damage done. Some just deal with it better than others. The damage lies in the effects academia has on students’ mental health. It takes courage to stay mentally sane.
A RISKY ENDEAVOUR
Academia is meaningful, fulfilling, and a dream, especially for those genuinely interested in being researchers and lecturers. One may also be in academia to mentor the next generation of students. On the other hand, there are also companies outside academia that value a PhD. However, prestige, self-fulfilment, and precarity come in one package. Strip away the glamour, the prestige, the ‘Dr’ title, and you encounter a risk-laden career path. It is a game where the rewards are not immediate. You need to be patient. Some PhD programmes take four years; others can take up to eight years. Even after that long journey, it is not common to get a job right after defending your dissertation. Part of being patient entails dealing with inevitable mental health issues such as burnout, lack of motivation, and insecurity because a journal reviewer is baffled that you would even write to their journal, or just the constant reminder on Facebook and LinkedIn that your friends have corporate jobs and are currently living the life. Academia is competitive. One is probably applying for the same scholarships, fellowships, or grants as their cohort mates.
And then there is the financial aid that is inaccessible to students because they do not have the citizenship of the country they are pursuing their studies in. Let us not forget the stories we read online or hear by word-of-mouth of students having an abusive relationship with their supervisors but are scared to say anything for fear of reprisal. Lastly, academic cultures vary from region to region. Pursuing a PhD in Singapore might not produce the same experience in more cosmopolitan contexts such as in Europe, North America, or Australia. All these factors test one’s mental strength. It is not uncommon to hear of students dropping out of undergraduate or graduate programmes; it can take a toll on one. Dropping out is not aberrant. Taking some time away from studies may help one recuperate and get back on the academic horse a year later, maybe even two. I do not want to restrict my article to graduate students. Undergraduates have a different set of struggles, but struggle, nonetheless. So, too, do other students.
ADDRESSING MENTAL HEALTH IN EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS
Now, the mental health of students reflects not just their own biological make-up, but also the mental health infrastructure within their universities and the mental health support they receive. The past two-and-a-half years of the global pandemic particularly saw more discussions on mental health and the educational experiences of students. Zoom fatigue caught up with them. So did a lack of social interaction. Yet, it is likely that the pandemic only exacerbated mental issues in youth. For one, social media, peer pressure, and economic downturns all predate, and coincide, with the pandemic. The world today is arguably more uncertain than before. This uncertainty can affect educational performance as we put pressure on ourselves to get that ‘A’ to increase our chances of getting a job. Getting good grades might also not be enough if you do not feel worthy of those grades. This is imposter syndrome.
A survey done by the People Action Party’s youth wing in March 2022 found that one in two respondents aged 15 to 35 have experienced mental health struggles. A few months later, in June 2022, CNA published an article reporting results from a survey on 470 Singaporean undergraduates and their mental health concern. COVID-19 was a factor, though not the only one. Three in four respondents mentioned that they wanted more support for their academics, including deadline extensions for assignments. They also talked about other concerns, such as work/study commitments and issues of self-confidence. The findings also indicated that students have an unhealthy obsession with grades so as to secure a job after graduation. A few solutions were suggested, including the creation of student-led initiatives that could help alleviate oversubscribed counselling services in universities. The CNA report alone is important. It highlights the stresses of being a student. The urgency to address mental health issues is appreciated.
However, solutions such as planning student-led initiatives for counselling services are not necessarily long-term. First of all, will students be able to take on the role of a therapist when they have their own stress to deal with? Therapists need therapy too. Who will take care of the students leading these initiatives? As for academic ‘grace days’, those are important. Having breathing room because your professor allows you to submit your assignment a few days later is invaluable. What really needs addressing, though, is the academic culture epitomised by terms such as ‘bell curve’. At the UCare Mental Health Forum, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Edwin Tong spoke of a ‘hustle culture’ where students are stressed from as young as 14 years old. Such a culture is unlikely to change, given the competition for jobs. At the very least, Mr Tong noted that conversations on mental health needed to be normalised. How will this happen? What will happen in universities so that it is normal to talk about mental health? A still bigger question is how do we reconcile competitiveness with self-care?
Another issue with mental health is reaching out to mental health services. Some may be hesitant to reach out due to stigma. Seeing a therapist means acknowledging to yourself that you have a problem, and that self-admission can be overwhelming. We need to normalise mental health issues so that we can acknowledge it is normal to be mentally stressed. One way is to at least talk about mental issues during orientation programmes before students matriculate, so that students know it is normal to struggle and seek help. It is normal to experience breakdowns, even if you are achieving top marks for all your subjects and want to maintain them because you are worried about getting a good job. Normalising these experiences will make students feel less hesitant to approach mental health professionals since they are less likely to be judged for being ‘weak’ or an ‘attention seeker’. Some students in the survey lamented a lack of professionalism and quality among university counsellors as a reason for not consulting university resources. While not a majority sentiment, this distrust of university resources may erode overall trust in university counselling services in the future. An obvious solution to this would be to improve the quality of counsellors attached to universities. This may mean an increase in funding for mental health services in Singapore’s educational institutions.
Mr Tong also said that solutions to mental health crises need to be thought of at every level. One level is the home. Tackling mental health problems requires a conversation on family dynamics. Do students look at the home as a safe space to vent their frustrations due to schoolwork and feelings of inadequacy engendered during the rat race for that first-class cumulative average point? It is worth looking into how parents themselves support their children and what their perceptions of therapy are. There are reasons why kids may not turn to their parents. No doubt, it is not easy for a parent to face the reality that their child is struggling, but the normalisation of seeking help has to start at home. Admittedly, I do not have a solution for this. There surely is a generation gap, with therapy and psychological services not being as visible during our parents’ times. Another common reason cited for kids shying away is that there is a stigma and shame associated with seeking help for mental health issues in Asian societies, including Singapore. For students that do not feel comfortable talking to their parents, at least they have their friends to turn to. At University of North Carolina, we often get emails about self-care and mental health awareness. We are periodically encouraged to seek help when we need it. However, even if the stigma associated with seeking help is less severe in some societies, there is still the issue of cost. Not everyone can afford to pay the deductible for therapy.
As the saying goes, ‘it’s okay to not be okay’. Undergraduate and graduate programmes produce different kinds of stresses that I can attest to. Sometimes therapy is needed. Other times, you just need a listening ear from a friend, parent, advisor, or colleague. Education is a noble pursuit, but the journey can get crazy at times. Mental health in academia is a topic that we need to continuously reflect on. Furthermore, poor mental health can also manifest itself physically, through anorexia, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and other illnesses. With an absence of shame, and the right kind of support, we can stay sane in an insane world. ⬛
1 Theseira, J. The causes of mental health issues go beyond the pandemic. Here’s why. The Straits Times. 2022, November 6. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/the-causes-of-mental-health-issues-go-beyond-the-pandemic-here-s-why
2 Ang, H. M. Grace days, more academic support among recommendations in report on undergraduates’ mental health. CNA. 2022, June 21. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/undergraduates-mental-health-grace-days-academic-support-stigma-seek-help-2760156
Syed Imad Alatas is currently pursuing his PhD in Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His main research interests are in gender and religion, topics on which he has written for Singaporean and Malaysian publications.