In Focus
Mar 26, 2016

The High Price of Getting a PhD

The strain that comes with doing independent work in a high-pressure environment such as university means that a PhD can come with a high personal cost.

Aoife O'DonoghueSenior Staff Writer
Sarah Larragy for The University Times

A PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy degree, one of the highest academic honours. In this context, philosophy does not refer to studying the subject of philosophy but refers to its Ancient Greek origin, philosophia – the love of wisdom. Indeed, this is what drives many PhD students toward pursuing their doctorate – a love of their chosen field.

Despite this, obtaining a PhD is not a simple task, and the pressures of doing a PhD can come as no surprise to anyone. Under the strain of independent work in a high-pressure environment such as university, it often happens that PhD students struggle with thoughts of dropping out, anxiety, depression and, in worst-case scenarios, suicide.

The workload of a PhD can come to be the focus of a person’s entire life for the number of years it takes to complete. One such example is that of Dr Gianna Hegarty, the Vice President of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) in Trinity, who has a PhD from the School of History and Humanities. Sitting down with The University Times, Hegarty recalls her PhD experience: “In my first year, I would get up and go to the archives for five hours, not speaking to anyone, then go home, and some days the only people I would talk to would be in the shops. I was doing the work I needed to be doing and doing it the way I was meant to, but it’s really isolating”. This is not a rare occurrence. A recent survey carried out in University of California, Berkeley showed that 47 per cent of PhD students had experienced depression.


“What I found the most stressful was almost the pressure to not only finish the PhD, but trying to get into academia”, says Hegarty. “Nowadays, in humanities, it’s like, you get a PhD, you need to do a postdoc, you need to do two postdocs, and even a postdoc now is so competitive. The real pressure was trying to get articles published, doing papers, as much as you could other than your main gut of research and writing to give you the best shot you can. The future was the scariest”.

The sense of anxiety about the future is worsened by the fact that PhD work is carried out solely by the student, without the help and guidance of lecturers and tutors available in an undergraduate degree

The sense of anxiety about the future is worsened by the fact that PhD work is carried out solely by the student, without the help and guidance of lecturers and tutors available in an undergraduate degree. For most PhD students, it is probably their first experience in such an academic environment. “It’s a lot more self-motivating – you get your work done. No one’s standing over you making you do it, which can be stressful the first time”, Hegarty said.

When asked about the support Trinity has to offer for struggling PhD students, however, Hegarty is very enthusiastic. “I think Trinity does an amazing job, especially the Careers Advisory Service, Student Learning Development, and the Student Counselling Service. I do think if a student is willing to utilize these services, they’re amazing. I’ve noticed a lot of the services are actually creating PhD-specific things. Student Learning Development now have a PhD workshop, there’s now a PhD summer school. College is expanding because they know there’s a need for these services There’s an awareness, and I think the services Trinity offers are great, and they’re there if we need them. I think it’s a visibility issue, and letting people know they are a really important part of the college community.” Services like Student Learning Development are therefore invaluable to students in Trinity who can feel overwhelmed by academic life, especially postgraduates.

Speaking to The University Times by email, Maeve Gallagher, a chartered Occupational Psychologist with Student Learning Development, by email, stresses that this lonely struggle is not the only option for students. “At Student Learning Development, we help PhD students to manage their time, to address self-care and to develop academic writing, critical thinking and information management techniques to successfully complete their academic challenges. We provide specific workshops, one to one appointments, and web based services to help students at each stage of the PhD process.”

The Student Counselling Service also recognises the unique needs of PhD students. “Post grad and PhD students experience a variety of stressors – things going wrong with research, isolation perfectionism, financial issues, trying to find a balance,” explains Yvonne Tone from the service, by email. The services offered by the service include one-on-one appointments, “Wellbeing Wednesday” information talks, and drop in mindfulness sessions on Mondays. Tone goes on to mention the upcoming group, “PG Tips”, in 2016. Specifically for postgraduates, the group will be facilitated over six sessions early in 2016, with exact dates to be confirmed. “The focus of this group,” explains Tone, “is on work-life balance, self-care, communication and assertiveness skills and how best to negotiate the supervisory relationship.”

The academic and personal achievement that a PhD represents is a monumental one, yet the personal strain is just as enormous

PhD-focused supports like these are essential, with the main aim being to ensure that PhD students at Trinity come out at the end of the degree successful, happy, and healthy. The independent nature of PhD work means that it can be easy for postgraduates to become invisible in the broader college community, even in a smaller university like Trinity. At the beginning of this year, for the first time, the GSU held a PhD student orientation to try and combat this. This involved an hour-long presentation focused on specific PhD problems and welfare issues, such as mental health issues, self-care issues, and academic issues. There also featured a panel of current PhD students across the different faculties to answer any questions. “It’s about building a community,” explains Hegarty. “It’s about letting PhD students know that there’re people here to talk to.”

As the Welfare and Education Officer of the GSU, and the first PhD student to hold a sabbatical position in three years, Hegarty encourages PhD students to reach out: “I had a couple of students at the beginning of the year, like, ‘I walked into the building and I didn’t even know where to begin.’ It can be very daunting to start. Any student who wants to come in to talk about a problem, we’re here for them.” The GSU Office is on the second floor of House Six, and all PhD, and graduate students are welcomed.

The academic and personal achievement that a PhD represents is a monumental one, yet the personal strain is just as enormous. The discussion taking place on Trinity’s campus, and on the college campuses around the world, is one linked to the larger discourse on mental health. Indeed, this is a fact that College support services seem to be fully aware of, and is reflected in their work with PhD students.

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