Is academia a ‘depressogenic’ environment?

Morning PhD pals and academic allies! This is a post that I’ve had brewing for a liitle while and has been inspired by conversations I have been having with lots of you both on twitter and face to face. It was also prompted , in part, by the recent twitter trend, suggested by @TimesHigherEd, of #HEhorrors. Started as a bit of a Hallowe’en-y joke, #HEhorrors asked academics to tweet ‘the scariest things’ about working in Higher Education.  Mixed in with the funny comments about clueless undergrads and looking too old to be handed a leaflet for a nightclub were some submissions that I found truly ‘scary’: comments on the unrelenting nature of academia, the continuing pressure to publish, and demonstrate impact, and teach, and supervise students, and apply for grants; the expectation that a PhD should be completed within 3 years; zero-hour contracts; the lack of sick pay for students who experience health problems; and, simply, ‘the REF’. I have also been reading, with increasing interest, the growing body of ‘I Quit Lit’, which refers to articles written by an increasing number of (mostly American) academics to express their deep dissatisfaction with the current academic culture and explain their decision to no longer be a part of it. These articles are not written by people who have failed at academia. They are successful, intelligent, eloquent people who are coming out and saying that the academic environment is not the right one for them and that they are not prepared to sacrifice their families, their happiness or their mental health for a professorship. All of this has led me to ask, is academia a ‘depressogenic’ environment? 

What do I mean by ‘depressogenic’? What do you mean what do I mean by depressogenic? Why don’t you understand this fancy-sounding term that I made up? Admitting that you don’t understand a fancy word is one of the Sociology seven deadly sins! When I talk about a ‘depressogenic environment’, I’m using it in the same way as we use ‘obesogenic environment’. The obesogenic environment is all of the things around us that contribute to obesity: sedentary jobs, fast food, cheap biscuits etc. Sure there are a whole range of other factors at play in the development of obesity (genetics, income, socioeconomic status, an element of personal lifestyle choice etc) but the fact remains that our current culture and environment is one which is conducive to rising levels of obesity. In the same way, I am using the term ‘depressogenic environment’ to explore the stresses and strains of the current academic climate. Of course there are many factors which contribute to the development of depression and other mental health issues such as personal history and genetics. However, the environments we find ourselves and the support we experience, or lack thereof, can have a huge impact on mental health. Phrased in another way, I am asking “Is academia conducive to positive mental health?”. (Spoilers: I think the answer is NO.) I guess I could have use that as at title for this post, but I liked the sound of ‘depressogenic environment’ and now if you want to use it, you have to cite me, right? I’m pretty sure that’s how this whole academia thing works. (Macdonald, 2013) will be fine, ta. That’s Macdonald with a small d.

Mental health throughout the academic lifecourse. As you well know, I am on a massive rant about mental health and the PhD. Someone recently sent me a tweet (Apologies, I have no idea who it was), pointing out that these issues are not limited to students but many people working within academia. This really challenged me and I started thinking about where PhD depression goes when you finish. Do these feeling just magically disappear the minute you submit? That seems unlikely. The more I think about it, the less that I feel that depression and other mental health problems are a personal failure to cope with the stress of academia and the more I feel that depression is actually a reasonable and legitimate reaction to the pressures of the current academic climate. You may disagree with me, feel free, but I do not believe that this is an environment which promotes mental wellbeing and, from our conversations, I know that a lot of you feel the same.


(This is what my desk looks like before a big deadline. It is also a metaphor feeling that you are being buried under an ever increasing workload. Deep.)

PhD blues. I’m sure you’re all fed up with me banging on about PhDs and mental health but I’m going to do it again. I hardly need to list the things about post-graduate study that are detrimental to positive mental health, do I? Ok then. Long working hours, isolation, impostor syndrome, the expectation that you should work every weekend and never take time off, constant criticism, the feeling that you’re running out of time, deadlines, stress. Is it really any wonder that 56% of PhD students at Berkeley described feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” and 10% reported feeling suicidal. (Original figures from an article in the Chronicle but it’s behind a paywall so there is a further analysis here: I fully accept that a PhD is meant to be hard, but should it be so hard that it is making students ill? Surely there has to be a better way of starting out on a career in academia?

Post-PhD depression. The aftemath of the PhD and the struggle to find a job, any job, is become more and more well documented. You have just birthed your PhD and survived your viva, now it’s job application time. You may have to move institute, city or even country to find work and, whereas other people might think the amount of work you are expected to do is unfeasible, luckily your PhD has set you up with the expectation of a 70 hour working week, no weekend and no social life. In this important first post-PhD job, you are setting yourself up for your academic life. It won’t get less stressful, there will never be less to do. Is this really a culture that is going to promote a healthy work-life balance?

A ‘depressogenic’ culture. I was really interested to read the recent Wellcome Trust report on how PhD students choose their careers. Most interesting to me was that “most participants were reluctant to critique academic culture. Many said that the way things work now is the system which produces the ‘best science’, and if it does not suit individuals, that is regrettable, but cannot be altered”. You know who does not produce the best science? People who are knackered and depressed. The current academic environment is not one which produces the best anything. In academia, we get a raw deal. Yes we get to pursue our own research interests, but there are no working time agreements, you have to find your own money and you are expected to be good at a whole host of things which are, in themselves, full time jobs. (I really like this list of things that scientists are told that they have to be good at, by Ben Lillie: Speaking out against the academic culture, or choosing the leave that environment, are often framed as personal failures and the inability to cope with the pressures of academia. This makes it easy to ignore the systemic problems within academia, the same problems that are experienced by academics the world over. Something that really brought this home to me was that, fairly recently, some research somewhere showed that sitting at a desk or in front of a computer for too long every day was detrimental to health. A sensible approach to dealing with this problem might be to think “Hmmm people are sitting too much. Maybe we need to give them more time to take breaks and walk about in the sunshine. What do you think the academic culture gave up? Standing up desks. That’s right. They solved the problem of having to spend too much time at your desk because you have too much work by making you stand up while you work. This culture cannot last.

 I saw a guide dog today. It was walking down the street, leading a man and wagging its tail. It was working and it was happy.  I like working. I even like working hard. It gives me a sense of purpose and achievement. But I also like doing things outside of work. How can we be more happy in our work? What can we do to effect positive change in our academic environments? I don’t know. Sorry if you came here expecting answers but it’s going to take a whole lot more than just me to drive this change. We can each start in our own way by adding our voices to the growing cacophony who are saying that enough is enough. It’s not because we’re lazy, it;s not because we’re shirkers, it’s because we want to do things with our lives besides work and we don’t believe that our job should make us mentally or physically unwell.

Well done for making it to the end! I’m really excited to hear what you all think. Am I just too lazy and not cut out for academia, or is this a systemic problem? Thanks for reading! I’m off to yoga!

9 responses to “Is academia a ‘depressogenic’ environment?

  1. I think you are right (as being one who’s been in and am now out of academia proper). During a University provided NPL (Neuro-linguistic programming) workshop the trainer said that for positive mental health we need to receive something like 3 positive strokes (compliments, agreements, affirmations etc) for every one criticism (Here’s a reference to back it up ).
    What is your ratio from your supervisor?? You’re likely to be lucky if you get a sh** sandwich, with 2:1. But with grant proposals its more like 1 success for every 3 rejections, or worse. So it doesn’t get better. You have to also remember to include your own internal negative (and positive) strokes too. But it’s pretty darn difficult to be that positive about yourself without becoming conceited don’t you think?

  2. I think you make many astute observations here.

    I love my job. I feel grateful to be employed in researching, writing, and teaching a subject that fascinates me. However, I am also permanently stressed and anxious at maintaining very high standards in all my roles, meeting pressing deadlines, while being a halfway reasonable parent/wife etc. There is no doubt that this leads to depression. The academic profession is conducive to this; however, I do wonder if I would be stressed in other highly demanding professional environments but without the love of the work itself to get me through.

    In any case, you are neither lazy nor unsuited to academia. You are self-aware and that hopefully means you will achieve a balance! Keep up that Yoga – and mindfulness …

  3. I think Phd work is characteristic of other work but maybe at the more intense and personal end of the scale. Paid ‘work’ is increasingly the only thing which is valued in our society and it leads us to neglect may other life areas which could be more conducive to a happy and healthy society.

    The pressure to work constantly and hard is understandable in this context and in the context of competitive capitalist society, yet it is also detrimental to all of us. Thus we need an evidence-based and democratic process to decide what the healthiest levels of work would be and how this could be shared out equally, and this needs to be regulated.

  4. I agree with you- you’re not wrong about the culutre in academia. There’s a difference between working hard at something and working hard at something that has no apparent pay off for a very long time (i.e. a Ph.D.- and evidence is mounting that that pay off for current generation PhDs/postdocs is further off than ever- I don’t want to wait for my ship to come in, but am unsure of how to swim out to it as well). If you’re working on something that you truly personally connect with, you’ll work hard and get exhausted doing it perhaps, but it’s different- it’s a good kind of exhausted (I do recommend the documentary ‘I’m Fine, Thanks’ for a discussion of the idea of pursuing a career you’re passionate about).

    Work to live, don’t live to work is the idea for me, though I’m not doing a good job at it currently.

    And though I’m all for positivity sometimes, I know that that 3:1 ratio has been called into question recently. It took me a long time to find voices that were realistic/authentic AND positive.

    Here are some of them that have helped me the last few years think differently (I hope they are useful to you too):

    Sarah K. Peck (, Google her ‘Do Something’ slide show, it’s great).
    Brene Brown (watch her TED Talks, and Look up the quote she based a book on ‘Daring Greatly’ from Teddy Roosevelt)
    Seth Godin – interesting thinker.
    James Clear (former pro-athlete turned entrepreneur and writer).
    Charles Duhigg (his book ‘The Power of Habit’ is really interesting and helped me look at a few of my own habits and how I can reform them to be more content– though there’s only so much an individual can do..some things are institutional).
    And is full of articles with helpful ideas/tips for living better (it’s easy to go overboard w/ their stuff, so be mindful about it, but it’s a site that keeps me thinking I can get better/do better. Here’s a link to one from today: ).

    OK, I’ve gone on more than enough…I need to get back to my all consuming academic life now. May it not be forever.

  5. Pingback: Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried |·

  6. I think you’ve nailed this as being a real problem. I just hope that it’s discussed more often and that those discussing it aren’t relegated to a group of complainers who are then simply viewed as failures like you describe. I recently finished my PhD and it’s a constant struggle to reconcile the fact that I can’t imagine anything making me happier than studying evolutionary biology with the doubt that I have any chance at competing at a high academic level while maintaining some semblance of a life outside of work.

    This should be one of the most exciting times of my life, yet the pressures of being a grad student have only increased since filing. Doing part-time postdoc work, teaching a large class, trying to maintain a blog and get it some exposure (because science is wasted if other people aren’t aware of what it’s doing), and applying for full-time postdoc fellowships doesn’t leave time for much else. Add the stress of starting to pay back student loans and buy health insurance while pulling paychecks that don’t add up to much more than a grad student stipend…it doesn’t exactly inspire one with optimism for the future.

    But my cynical side wonders how this can be changed? It seems like there will always be some people who embrace the high expectations and will be willing to work the 70-hour weeks, either ignore or simply never start a family, and turn their lives and their research into a single indistinguishable blob. Open discussion is important, but do you envision structural changes at the institutional level being feasible and effective? I’d certainly like to see it that way, but unfortunately can’t come up with any specifics.

  7. Pingback: Is academia a ‘depressogenic’ environment? | Evolution Happens·

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