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What to Expect When You’re PhDing

Mental Health and Doctoral Studies in International Law


This blogpost does not claim to provide professional advice on mental health. The author merely reflects on personal experiences and relies on studies published in this field. If you are experiencing mental health struggles, we advise you to contact your university’s psychological service, if available, or a psychotherapist. JuWissBlog has published a German version of this blogpost focussing on the peculiarities of PhD studies in German.

Anyone considering a PhD in international law will usually be advised to go for it. PhD studies are described as a stimulating and enjoyable time, with really only the final phase being stressful. You will enjoy freedom of research. You can focus on a topic you are passionate about and become an expert on it. Even if you do not end up pursuing academia, a PhD title will have a positive impact on your professional career. The confidence shown by your future supervisor may flatter and reassure you. Fellow students or others suggesting you reconsider such a long-term commitment can have less of a warning effect and might even be a motivational push to prove your abilities.

One is hardly ever confronted with cautionary voices at this pre-PhD stage. Yet many PhD students have had negative experiences, with mental health issues being particularly underreported. Books intended as guidance for PhD studies in law are usually silent about mental health (see e.g. here and here). This book at least provides a chapter on crisis management, which, however, is rather superficial and remains silent on mental illness. This new publication is the first book to deal explicitly with the topic “mental health” in an entire chapter. I have found only two blogposts by international lawyers that are dedicated to the subject of mental health in academia (see here and here; this blogpost from 2012 touches on the subject by referring to “emotional challenges”). On social media, more and more PhD candidates do report mental health struggles, though often in a humorous way.

The absence of cautionary voices contrasts with the many recent empirical studies in mental health research revealing that PhD candidates struggle noticeably more with mental diseases than the population average (see e.g. here, here and here). These studies were conducted among PhD candidates in different fields and not specifically in international law, but I believe that such statistics well reflect the general trend regardless of the PhD program and topic.

This blogpost aims, firstly, to raise awareness about mental health issues during the PhD and highlight possible causes, including those that may be particularly relevant for PhD candidates in international law. It does not want to advise against pursuing a PhD in general, as PhD studies can indeed be an intellectually stimulating experience and bring many career advantages. The second part of this post discusses a few suggestions on how PhD candidates may manage mental health issues. The third part addresses supervisors and institutions and their role in helping and preventing mental health issues for PhD candidates.

While the suggestions given in this blogpost are based on psychological studies, they are also grounded in my PhD experience and cannot claim to represent professional advice. My experience has been shaped by my personal history as a German male PhD student in particular institutional settings in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I cannot and do not profess to speak for all PhD candidates.

The Research on Mental Health Risks for PhD Candidates

Many studies show that PhD candidates are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and impostor syndrome than other students or qualified workers (see, e.g., here, here, here and here). Various factors have been identified as contributing to PhD candidates’ mental health issues, including workload, problems in the supervisory relationship, lack of transparency of university processes, financial insecurity, uncertain career prospects, competition, isolation, and perfectionism.

Through fellow PhD students as well as various personal research stays abroad, I personally got the impression that it is particularly in prestigious institutions, where high-performing PhD candidates come together, that an especially high percentage of mental health issues is revealed. What I found peculiar during my stay in one of these high-profile institutes was the competition that PhD candidates (involuntarily) enter into. Successes (such as accepted abstracts or papers, job offers, desirable collaborations, etc.) were shared but never celebrated – rather, they were seen as what is necessary to keep up. Many PhD candidates I met felt as though they would never catch up with the others’ accomplishments. This atmosphere generates a vicious circle where more is not enough. An increase in workload, including over the weekends, thus seems justified if not the rule.

Are there factors that play a special role for PhD candidates in international law? In the absence of data, only some conjectures are possible, and many of these factors are of course shared with other, especially globally oriented disciplines. Compared to a PhD in national law, there are just more PhD candidates to compare yourself with. As a non-native English or French speaker, you may quickly feel at a disadvantage in this global competition, especially if your home institution has fewer resources and a lesser reputation. Due to the high number of PhD candidates in international law globally, there may also be (the perception of) a greater risk that someone else is working on the same research question. For a thesis in international law, fundamental questions, such as what theoretical approach and what methodology to follow, play a much greater role than in (German) national law. As thrilling as they are, these questions can contribute to heightened stress. In addition, research stays at renowned institutes abroad may be expected, especially if you plan to pursue academia. Of course, a research stay can be a wonderful experience and, personally, I enjoyed my stays abroad very much. But I also know of colleagues in whose life situation such a stay did not fit at the time and who struggled with the decision (not) to go. Applying for a research stay can also be stressful or not even feasible at all due to financial, language, immigration, and accommodation hurdles.

What Students Can Do

The idea that only the last phase of a PhD is exhausting is thus evidently a myth. Some factors, such as workload, financial insecurity or uncertain career prospects may intensify towards the end. However, most of the factors can develop at any point during the PhD. It is advisable to think ahead whether and how you can avoid or deal with them. Since vulnerability for mental health issues also depends on your personality and personal circumstances, the usefulness of the following suggestions is not the same for everyone.

  1. Passion for your research may protect you against depression. You should take time to think about your motivation for your PhD. In a thought-provoking blog post, Douglas Guilfoyle gives an answer to what your motivation for pursuing a PhD should be: “because I want to, I feel I’m not done studying and learning”. Linked to this is the choice of your thesis topic. It needs to interest you for a very long time. If the topic is set for you by your supervisor but it does not awaken your passion, address this with your supervisor. A good supervisor should be able to shape the topic with you in a way that suits both your interests, or refer you to a colleague.
  2. The supervisor plays a central role during the PhD. The relationship with him/her can have an impact on your mental health. Choose him/her wisely. Ask (former) PhD candidates if they feel well supervised by him/her. If a professor asks you whether you want to do a PhD with him/her, do not take this as a one-shot opportunity. At least in Germany, opportunities to do a PhD can be found, especially at lesser-known universities, even if you are not already acquainted with the professor. Also consider whether you want to work for your supervisor (this is a common model in Germany and Austria), as this puts you in a double dependency. Fear of how your work is perceived and how this in turn might impact how your thesis will be graded may lead you to work more than contractually foreseen, to be particularly concerned about the quality of your work, or to not criticise the workload or the supervisor as an employer. Be aware that there are supervisors who deliberately exploit this double dependency. Alternatively, you can work, e.g., for another professor or in a law firm or apply for a PhD scholarship. A scholarship allows you to concentrate fully on your research. To avoid the risk of isolation and loneliness (which you can also experience at remote work), you could consider joining an institute as a fellow or working part-time.
  3. Structure your work. Set a fixed beginning and end and plan enough breaks. Working long hours on the thesis is ineffective. In the long run, you can get more done by working less. In addition, try to plan in small tasks. Do not just break down your thesis project into whole chapters, but into more specific goals which are measurable and attainable. This helps avoid frustration. If there is no institutional structure for collaboration, find opportunities to present your research. A small group with other PhD candidates with regular dates to present progress can provide support and accountability. If these colleagues are not engaged in your specific field of research, you run less risk of comparing yourself. Also, do not only present progress, but share your difficulties.
  4. Social support can be immensely important for your mental health. You need a network of people around you where you can talk about your (mental health) issues so that you do not feel alone with them. This can be, for example, your partner, siblings, friends, colleagues, or trusted lecturers. I told my close friends about my mental health issues during the PhD and was encouraged by them to seek professional help. Without them, I might have postponed this step for a long time, which could have seriously worsened my condition. There is no shame in admitting your vulnerability and seeking help.
  5. If you need professional help, it is important that you know where you can get it. Familiarize yourself beforehand with where you can ask for professional help if needed. Some universities offer psychological counselling. Here, your condition can be assessed and, if necessary, you can be advised on how to proceed. Be aware that there are long waiting lists for psychotherapy. At training institutes for psychotherapy or low-threshold facilities such as pastoral care or life counselling, waiting times are often considerably shorter. In emergency situations, do not hesitate to make use of a public crisis service.
  6. Last but not least, do not underestimate the importance of a work-leisure balance, which helps renew your energies, creativity and passion for your thesis. In general, exercise, social activities or rest each day can be very effective in stopping your thoughts from circling and helping you realise that there are more important things in life than your thesis and academic success.

What Supervisors and Institution Should Know and What They Can Do

What PhD candidates can do individually against mental health issues is of limited help if the institutional environment is not good. Here, supervisors are primarily responsible since they can greatly impact their students’ well-being. There is a correlation between strong, supportive, and positive relationships between supervisors and PhD candidates and less anxiety and depression. But what exactly can a supervisor do to ensure that his/her PhD students are less affected by mental health issues?

  1. A supervisor should be aware of his/her role with regard to the mental health of his/her PhD students and the mental health issues they may go through. I have the impression that some professors are very resilient or may not have had to cope with mental health issues themselves during their PhD, which could be one factor why they managed to become professors. Others may have repressed the mental health issues they have experienced – and some can seem to think that new PhD students should not have it easier than they once did, an attitude that is obviously flawed.
  2. At an early stage, he/she should point out to the candidate that the PhD can be a mentally challenging time. An honest account of one’s own experience as a PhD student or as a supervisor can drive home the point that mental health issues are common and not a personal failure. A supervisor can also explain what to do if mental health issues arise, make him/herself available as a contact person (if he or she feels competent to do so) and point out places where help is offered. A supervisor should also highlight that experiences of failure, such as rejected abstracts, extensive review reports for submitted articles, or criticism at conferences, are part of everyday life in academia and do not mean personal failure. When these things happen, a supervisor should offer support and explain coping strategies.
  3. A supervisor should be supportive and not make his/her PhD students feel that he/she is indifferent to him/her. Not all PhD candidates need the same level of support. However, regular feedback is important for most of them. Additionally, structure and guidelines can have a positive effect on mental health. E-mails, requests for review of a chapter or abstract, the final assessment of the PhD, etc. should not be ignored or postponed without explanation, as waiting tends to lead to thought spirals (“Did I do a bad job?”; “Am I irrelevant to my supervisor?”). A positive departmental social climate should be ensured. Among others, this includes regular meetings, transparency, good communication and equal treatment (for more ideas, see here and here). Simply asking how things are going, whether there are difficulties or whether the workload is currently too high can ensure that PhD candidates feel seen and understood and dare to address problems openly.
  4. A supervisor should avoid overburdening his/her doctoral students and making them work more than foreseen in their employment contract, especially on weekends/holidays. Due to the double dependency, it is difficult for many doctoral students to set appropriate boundaries with their supervisor and end up accepting any tasks regardless of their current workload.

Academic institutions can also take measures to improve the psychological well-being of PhD candidates. Most supervisors guide students in their work without ever being assessed in this respect. Leadership qualities are, after all, not a prerequisite for a successful academic career. The supervision relationship should thus not be left solely to the responsibility of supervisors.

In some countries such as in Great Britain, some of the following (in my opinion effective) measures have been taken to minimise factors that trigger PhD students’ mental health issues (even though enforcement of the mechanisms may sometimes be lacking): (1) installation of trusted lecturers (see e.g. here and here); (2) regular meetings with supervisors or work-in-progress forums where PhD candidates can present their work; (3) regulating the number of PhD candidates per supervisor; (4) to reduce dependency on the supervisor, the thesis’ assessment should not be left in the (sole) hands of the supervisor, e.g., by introducing external examiners; (5) introduction of consequences and automatic mechanisms, such as in case of inactivity of examiners regarding the examination report (see also here at paras. 75-95).

A PhD program can be a stimulating and enjoyable experience if the conditions are right. For this to happen, there needs to be more overall attention directed at the mental health of PhD candidates. Whoever is considering doing a PhD needs to be aware of the risks for his/her mental health and how to prevent and deal with them. It also requires the willingness of supervisors and institutions to make changes for the benefit of the PhD candidates’ mental health. With simple measures, much suffering can be reduced.

Disclosure: I have decided to publish this blogpost anonymously. Although I am convinced that mental health should not be a taboo, I will be leaving academia soon and do not know how future employers, colleagues, clients or counterparties will react to the personal information shared here.

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