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Mental Health & Academia – Following a Research Master

As I mentioned in an earlier post, completing a Research Master (ReMa)1 program prepared me quite well for starting a Ph.D., but also left me slightly burned out. Looking at it now, I might also strike the ‘slightly’ from this sentence. Even a year later I feel the consequences – my resilience to stress is still quite limited. Stressors that before the ReMa would have barely impacted me, are now sometimes enough to cause me to feel instantly exhausted. 

Moreover, I needed to learn what a somewhat normal workweek is. During the ReMa it was ‘normal’ – implicitly even needed – to work almost every weekend and regularly way longer than 9 to 5, more like 9 to 9… when a deadline approached even longer. If you were sick, this was likely to cause study delay, which most people tried to prevent. That’s why it was better to save the physical or mental break(down) for the free summer weeks we had. I remember Nina being shocked when I told her that I planned to take 10 days after Christmas completely off for some climbing. She is now quite ashamed of that reaction, but unfortunately, that was the mindset we were in at that time. Plus, she was kind of right. I only managed to take the time off because I worked until the last possible minute on Christmas eve and put in extra hours again after the holiday. 

It’s Not Just Me …

Of course, the last pandemic year is also not unrelated to my exhaustion, but I still think a large part can be attributed to the ReMa and a general culture in academia, which we were being socialised in. Informally, many fellow students – from my cohort, but also previous and later years – have shared to feel similar about this. 

I personally believe a large contributor to our exhaustion was the competition within the master for a PhD scholarship. This competition was one that we were aware of from the start of the program: At the end of the ReMa we would have a chance to get one out of five PhD positions, given based on the quality of our self-written proposal, an interview, extracurricular activities (‘our CV’) and … research master grades. But no pressure. It’s just a great opportunity.

For this post I talked to the other students from my year who received this scholarship to get to know how they experienced the ReMa in relation to their mental health and we all seem to be on the same page: The program granted us barely any breathing room and all of us experience the PhD as a relief. Here some quotes from our discussions that speak for themselves: 

“The first year was brutal.”

“I experienced a lot of pressure in the beginning.”

“I was in the library every day, every single day.”

“You were always thinking about having to work, even when you were trying to take a break. It was just always on your mind.”

“I always had a guilty conscience when I did not work. I always felt like I was hanging behind.”

“In the end I just wanted to cross things off my list, to be done with it.”

“In the second year it just did not work anymore.”

“I had incredible anxiety about not finishing in time.”

“It is paradoxical how mental health is coming so short in a psychology master program.”

“We got a distorted view of what is expected of us [in academia].”

”The Ph.D. encouraged me to slow down. [In the ReMa] we learned how we don’t want it to be, so now we do it differently.”

I more often (tried to) talk to students about these issues, but most are very reluctant. Their reluctance does not stem from disagreeing with my views, but from being still busy dealing with mental health issues and being afraid that discussing their mental health may affect their career. One student once told me that at face value supervisors and other academics appeared sympathetic and understanding when sharing issues. The long-term consequence, however, seemed to sometimes be seen as not being resilient enough to handle higher workloads and thus getting presented with fewer opportunities. But does a person really need to be resilient enough to work 7 days a week with minimal holidays to be a good researcher? Or is this what we’re telling ourselves? 

… It May Be The System

This year, I participated in the panel that officially evaluated a number of Dutch research master programs. During this I noticed the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious signals of students that are overworked. Stress and problems with mental health appear to be a known issue across the board. If you look at the way these programs are set-up, it makes a lot of sense. First, a stringent selection procedure ends up with very ambitious and motivated students who are eager to learn and want to overachieve. Then the system encourages this overachieving and provides students with numerous opportunities: following two masters at the same time, another additional research project that may lead to a first publication, a side job as a research and/or teaching assistant, being member of a committee, extracurricular summer schools or first conference attendances – everything to learn more, contribute more, and of course also build a CV.  If one is not doing this, you suddenly feel peer pressure and doubt your future career chances… Since students are mostly excited about all the endless opportunities and are often broadly interested, they first don’t notice, but like Nina, I and the other three scholarship students can testify, eventually (often towards the end of the two years ReMa) it takes its toll… especially since taking breaks and extending the study time is highly discouraged. 

What To Do About It?

Research masters are the next generation of researchers, so they will contribute to shaping the system in the future. Currently they are largely socialised somewhat ambiguously – Good research principles and attention to mental health are preached, but little actual concrete preventive action is taken. 

While universities aim to improve future research by teaching Open Science or recognising questionable research practice, there seems to still be little attention to showing students how to watch out for themselves in a highly competitive environment. I believe that explicit embedding  mentoring as well as teaching soft skills – self-regulation, stress management – in research master programmes could be a good step. Additionally these programs could benefit from shifting their focus more towards learning instead of performing, by granting students more freedom in their program choices (topical and time-wise), including less grading and more formative assessments as well as regular self-reflection of students. 

Next to this it should not be forgotten that workload is also a major issue here. I don’t understand why a Master program already needs to be packed full with all skills a researcher needs when there still is a whole 3-4 years of PhD with space for extra education coming up. Maybe fewer courses, but more depth could be an option? Lastly, it is crucial to allow for breathing periods throughout the year. This means creating weeks for students during which absolutely nothing for the master will and can be prepared (so course coordinators should not send out the materials for the next semester before it has started). 

Is there a way to let students discover their passion for research and teach them how to follow it in a healthy, sustainable manner? Instead of already socialising students into a ‘harsh system’, could we maybe have a positive impact on future academic work culture as a whole? 

1 A Research Master (ReMa) is a master’s program specifically designed to prepare for an (academic) research career

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Tjeerd Andringa
Tjeerd Andringa
6 months ago

Great post. Good solutions.
What you describe is the topic of a book: Excellent Sheep; the miseducation of the American Elite” https://billderesiewicz.com/books/excellent-sheep/
The system selects on super smart hard working individuals who can provide effective but superficial solutions. It prevents the education of self-motivated explorers who have ventured in deep dead-ends and are better in avoiding them (and hence avoid superficially effective solutions).

Nina & Marie
Nina & Marie(@marie_nina_academia)
6 months ago

Dear Tjeerd, thanks so much for this input! The book is ordered and on its way 🙂