By Claire Aitchison

Corridor conversations often reflect problems more widely felt. Recently a friend, just back from dealing with a particularly difficult student-supervisor issue, revealed how concerned she was about the mental health of both parties. She had been called in to help because the student reportedly was having ‘trouble with her writing’.

For those of us who regularly work in the space between supervisor and student, being called in to help is likely to expose us to a disproportionate number of ‘troubles’. Whether identified by supervisors, research committees or students, I have come to expect a relatively predictable range of ‘troubles with writing’. These ‘troubles’ can often be sheeted back to the following:

  • unhelpful feedback (typically inconsistent, contradictory, incorrect, uninformative, inappropriately delivered);
  • neglect (typically little or no feedback, no formative feedback, feedback too late to be developmental);
  • student resistance to taking advice;
  • writers’ block.

As a literacy adviser and/or academic developer across different institutions over many years, I have also learned that such ‘writing troubles’ often coexist with intensified emotional states. Writing is a deeply personal and emotional activity – and doctoral writing is particularly fraught because the stakes are so high. For supervisors and students alike, much is riding on the ability to explain one’s work eloquently and to argue convincingly for significance. The research has to be sound, but so does the medium for conveying this good work: the writing.

But I am interested here in the co-existence of ‘writing problems’ and mental health. Clearly, and not infrequently, writing can wrench at our soul, unsettling our equilibrium. Writing can make us cry out with frustration, anxiety and fury when it won’t go as we wish, or when we are under so much pressure to produce that we doubt our own ability. It can also bring joy and pleasure, be rewarding and confirming. But writing a PhD is not just any old writing: it is risky, even dangerous. It advertises our intellect, our research and our knowledge to the world. Doctoral writing is monitored and measured. And doctoral student writers are positioned in relationship to their supervisors whose job it is to critique the student’s work. All up, doctoral writing carries a disproportionately high burden.

The claim that PhD study challenges student mental health is not new. The opening paragraph of a Times Higher Education feature ‘Distress signals: The PhD mental health crisis’ (13 April, 2017, p. 6) says, ‘… new figures show that more than half of PhD students experience symptoms of psychological distress and one in three is at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder’, This finding is similar to others that report above average rates of psychological distress (such as depression, unhappiness and anxiety) amongst doctoral students compared to the general population. Doctoral distress is also higher than other groups in universities. The Belgian study indicates that the strongest predictors for poor mental health amongst students are work-family conflict, job demands, job control and leadership style. Writing as such is not mentioned – so can it really impact mental health or is it part of a cocktail of influences and ‘troubles’? And is it only students that suffer?

The literature around doctoral student experience continually points to the unique circumstances that may contribute to mental health distress:

  • isolation
  • the student-supervisor relationship
  • extended period of study required for PhD scholarship
  • lack of confidence (imposter syndrome)
  • prolonged uncertainty – of the research process itself and of the outcome
  • insecurity about career options, against which the pressure to publish is increasingly seen as an essential criteria for success
  • unmet expectations of doctoral study and supervision.

As I think about this list of potential triggers for doctoral student mental health challenges, it strikes me that a similar list would apply to supervisors:

  • Even with the shift to ‘panel supervision’, supervision is often a lonely job and many supervisors work in isolation unsupported, and unwilling/unable to share their insecurities and fears – and perhaps with little institutional support when they do seek help.
  • The onus is on supervisors to manage and maintain a healthy relationship through the vicissitudes of personal and professional challenges over time. This is a difficult task at the best of times.
  • The student-supervisor relationship is a close and intense relationship that must be sustained over years in dynamic contexts with few certainties.
  • As experts in the discipline, supervisors may feel more confident about their disciplinary and research knowledge than about how to steer a student’s candidature or develop their writing.
  • Increasingly, supervisors, insecure about their own future in the academy, are managing multiple pressures to perform, including meeting publication metrics.
  • Supervisors are often seen as responsible for the success or failure of the research project, irrespective of contributing factors. This is a heavy burden to carry.

The call for help for students with ‘writing problems’ seems to have some kind of institutional legitimacy; there may be designated ‘helpers’ and resources available to assist. But what would be the ‘acceptable’ equivalent for a supervisor in distress? Who are their ‘helpers’? What resources are available?

In the corridor conversation that prompted this post, my friend explained that there was a cluster of supervisors struggling with depression and anxiety in that particular department. Worryingly, but I guess unsurprisingly, they felt unable to reveal their situation publicly; they felt trapped: obliged to continue supervising high numbers of doctoral candidates. Their best legitimate call for help came in the form of requests for writing assistance for their students – to unburden them of some of their supervisory responsibilities.

Can we do better for supervisors who have students struggling with their writing?