When I first read the news of a 27-year old PhD student taking her own life at IIT-D, I felt tears prickle my eyes. I didn't know her personally, and yet I could feel the pain she might have felt, what might have compelled her to take this extreme step. I suddenly thought, "You know, this might have been me..." At that time, I didn't know that she was being harassed for dowry (as is being alleged by her parents), but I knew the kind of stress that research scholars at premier institutes are under, having been one myself. I will not make any comment about her personal life, as I'm not qualified to do that, but I definitely will highlight some issues faced by doctoral students, which, I first thought were the likely reasons for her suicide.
A study at Berkeley found that as many as 47% of PhD students are depressed at a time, compared to an average of 6.7% in the adult population.
Graduate students pursuing a doctorate degree pay a very heavy price for attaining that degree, and only someone who has been in the system can understand that. No one wants to talk about this price. It is just widely accepted in academia that this price must be paid. Why is it that the loss of a young, bright life does not shock us? Why this apathy? In my time as a research scholar, I have understood a few sad truths, and some driving factors that lead so many PhD students to depression and mental illness, and I've tried to deconstruct them. I really hope some important people are reading this, because there is a lot that needs to be addressed in our academic system. This attitude of acceptance and apathy towards mental illness in the academia has to change.
1. People with a higher IQ are more likely to get depressed
I'm going to go with the assumption that PhD scholars generally have a higher than normal IQ. While this high IQ is useful in obtaining good grades, it is also their curse. An article in Medical Daily claims that over 30 studies have linked high intelligence and mental illness. People with a higher IQ tend to overthink and overanalyse, and may also be highly emotional and sensitive. They do not take failure lightly, and tend to beat themselves up if things are not as perfect as they want them to be. A study at Berkeley found that as many as 47% of PhD students are depressed at a time, compared to an average of 6.7% in the adult population.
2. The age at which they do graduate studies
Most people I met at graduate school were aged between 24 to 30 years of age. In the prime of their youth, when other people their age are out and about climbing the ladder in their careers, dating, getting married, making babies, the research scholars are stuck in room full of scientific literature, unable to see the beauty of the world around them. They lose the best, most vital years of their life to research, and there is little they can do to recover from this loss. Many students, especially girls, are under tremendous pressure to get married and start a family. Some of them who do get married during this time now have a slew of new problems to deal with, grappling with a new marriage, or staying away from their spouse, in addition to the stress of being in a PhD program.
3. They are suddenly lost in a crowd of super-achievers
I would like to believe that people who pursue a PhD program at a premier institute have an illustrious academic profile (though exceptions abound). People who were toppers, gold medallists, best teachers in their past lives, who used to stand out in a crowd suddenly become lost among many such people. Their academic achievements are no longer a cause of wonder, and they must be exceptional in a group of super achievers to be able to stand out again.
How is a PhD student to feel good about himself when he is constantly taunted, "Even a BA pass clerk has a salary better than you!"
The atmosphere is that of critique, competition and secrecy and not an encouraging or transparent one. This is often a cause of immense distress and may make people feel like a failure, as if all they have achieved until now has been a fluke.
4. The inherent uncertainty of research
Research is inherently uncertain, which makes it extremely difficult for even the best minds. There is no guarantee that the problem that you are working on will have a solution. You could spend 10 years working on a problem unable to find a solution, but someone else might miraculously be coming up with results on a different problem every year. If your problem happens to be a hard one, you may be driven to a point where you no longer feel yourself to be competent or worthy of living. Your research problem becomes all consuming, and you are unable to see beyond the failure that you are facing in this moment.
5. The immense loneliness
Most PhD scholars lead extremely lonely lives because their research depends on their hard work. Don't get me wrong, I personally have forged some very deep, meaningful friendships in the years that I have spent as a research scholar, but I cannot say that I have been able to do them justice. I could hardly ever go out or enjoy with my friends like other normal people did. In a PhD program, you spend most of your time alone trying to crack the code, waiting for a miracle to happen, which will fetch you an international publication, and eventually your degree. You can't really make time for friends or family, which again adds to your stress.
6. Power lies in the hands of a few
In a PhD program, your supervisor(s) is all powerful. True, there is a committee in place, but it doesn't intervene unless there is a huge call of distress from the student. In case of failure, it is always the student's fault, and not his supervisor's.
Your research problem becomes all consuming, and you are unable to see beyond the failure that you are facing in this moment.
Consider this. On the one hand, you will constantly suffer from anxiety, if your supervisor is too tough, which may lead to a break down. On the other hand, if you get a supervisor who is too laidback or nice, you will find it extremely difficult to get your work done, again causing you to have a breakdown. If you are lucky, you will get a supervisor who is dedicated to research and determined to see you get your degree. And yes, abuse of power does happen. Just like it happens at any place where one person becomes all powerful. It may be 1% of people who indulge in this kind of stuff, but students suffer immensely if they have been assigned a supervisor from this category.
7. Lack of good, transparent counselling services
While most institutes offer counselling services, students are afraid to seek help. They fear that their grievances might get conveyed to their supervisor who is likely the driving force behind their anxiety. They don't have a reliable shoulder to cry on, and no one they can open up to when they need it the most. Many foreign universities offer aid and professional counselling services to their graduate students free of cost. Such services, with proper confidentiality clauses must also be made available to graduate students in India.
8. The very poor financial condition of a research scholar
Research scholars might be the most qualified but the least paid in their age group. How is a PhD student to feel good about himself when he is constantly taunted, "Even a BA pass clerk has a salary better than you!", or "The brightest child of my family is earning the least amount of money," or, "No girl will marry a guy who earns 18K a month! How will you feed your children?"
9. The apathy of academia to mental illness
I find that depression is treated as "normal" in academia. Even those who are not in academia are accepting of the fact that people who are in a PhD program will go "mad" due to studying too much. This attitude needs to change. The suicide of a bright, young scholar must shock and surprise us.
Doing a PhD is hard enough. If, along with this, a young woman is facing mental, physical and emotional torture for a reason as 18th-century as dowry, I can only imagine how broken she must have been. It is only when a person sees utter hopelessness, do they feel like death might be a better option. My heart goes out to her family, and to the families of all bright, young scholars, who took death as a route of escape.
To anyone grappling with their PhD and/or personal issues, I want to tell you that this will get better. That you will do wonderfully in life. Nothing is worth taking your life, neither studies, nor a cheating boyfriend, nor an abusive husband. There are much better things that need your attention—your health, your family, your spiritual journey. That you will emerge stronger and a winner. Please, for heaven's sake do not allow your hopelessness to consume you. You are loved and wanted. Your life has immense purpose. Please don't give up on it.