You Will Hear. On the Shareability of Physical and Psychological Suffering in Academia

Pauline Picot // Acute pain is obvious. It erupts, it spreads, it distorts. Tears are a palpable substance; a moan is painfully audible; grimaces are a striking sight. Conversely, chronic pain—pain as a stasis and not as a climax—is invisible. Because of its familiar nature, it becomes a constant for the body or the mind, and is therefore internalised. No matter how invasive and hurtful it might be, only words can externalise it and allow it to exist in the outside world. And because pain is a matter of subjective perception, it raises concerns about attentiveness, trust, and empathy. Who can I confide in without exposing myself too much? Will they recognise my suffering? Will they take it into account, without identifying my whole self with it? In what social context is it appropriate to talk about it?

As a French PhD candidate, I would like to question the shareability of pain in the particular context of academia. Indeed, physical and mental suffering among PhD students is a widely but unofficially admitted fact in the French academic milieu. As for me, research brings me undeniable pleasures, but it also causes me a great deal of mental torment, which consequently induces serious damage to my body. I consider myself very lucky to be guided and assisted by a supervisor with whom I can freely discuss this subject without feeling at risk of damaging my credibility as a future researcher. Consequently, I decided to find out how things stood for my fellow PhD candidates.

The purpose of my inquiry was not to determine the causes of this suspected suffering (self-doubt; lack of social or peer support; poor working conditions; angst about the saturation of a small employment market; etc.) or to differentiate (and therefore, implicitly, to rank) its effects by their seriousness. Thus, it seemed crucial to me that physical disorders be put on an equal footing with psychological pain, for my position was not to classify afflictions by a dubious criterion of legitimacy, but to consider health as a whole—which is not a given for the French mindset. Furthermore, what mattered in this examination was not the subjects’ objective situation—which would divide them between who has been officially diagnosed and is rightfully deserving of acknowledgement, and who is not. What mattered was the situation as it is perceived, because this is precisely the invisible quality of perception that seems to be difficult to share. My position was simply to trust that many students feel that they are suffering, and to ask them if they feel comfortable talking about it.

I set up an anonymous survey which, because of the standard proportions of an online article, had to comprise several restrictive parameters. In order to enable comparisons for the mostly American readership of Synapsis, I opened the questionnaire only to French students or to candidates doing their PhD in France. Furthemore, as I wanted to study each personal testimony with care and could not process hundreds of them in a short span, I limited the entries to 100—which I received in less than 48 hours. I must mention that the reactions to the survey were overwhelmingly enthusiastic, highlighting that such a study, succeeding to Pascale Haag’s 2018 groundbreaking research about stress in the PhD experience, was much needed. Before engaging with the survey’s results, I would therefore like to acknowledge the minor value of my contribution to a complex matter deserving of further and more thorough investigations.

« Are you currently in a state of physical or psychological pain? ». For this first simple question and several of the following, four answers were available: « yes », « rather, yes », « not really », and « no ». Of course, feelings are not quantifiable, and putting perception on a scale seems rather insensitive. But this survey was merely designed to capture an overview of the presupposed suffering of PhD candidates in France, and to determine whether these students feel there is a taboo about it that needs to be broken. To this question, 38% of respondents answered « yes » and 45% « rather, yes » (a total of 83%), while 15% of them responded « not really » and only 2% a clear « no ». The second question was a follow-up to the first, as it asked « Does your suffering have an impact on your daily life? ». 51% of subjects answered « yes » and 36% « rather, yes » (amounting to a total of 87%), while 10% of them responded « not really » and only 3% a clear « no ». A third question completed this preliminary examination: « Does your suffering have an impact on your PhD experience? », to which 58% of respondents answered « yes » and 26% « rather, yes » (for a total of 84%), while 12% of them responded « not really » and 4% « no ». This first round of answers allows us to confirm the unofficial—but widespread—feeling of suffering among PhD candidates in France.

The fourth question tackled the survey’s issue more precisely, namely the shareability of this suffering in the academic milieu. « Have you ever talked about your suffering to… », enabled the respondent to choose between several options and/or add their own. The answers revealed that 64.6% of the PhD candidates had opened up to a fellow candidate—which is a rather encouraging figure, certainly explainable by the fact that PhD students experience similar situations on the same hierarchic level. Only 36.4% of respondents had talked about their suffering to their PhD supervisor, which seems alarmingly little. 32.3% of them talked about it to a member of the staff (professor, advisor), while only 16.2% of them raised the issue during their yearly rendez-vous with the monitoring committee, despite the fact that this neutral organisation was specifically designed to supervise the candidates’ PhD experience without any input (and possible pressure) from their supervisor. To this list, someone added the university’s health centre, four persons mentioned family and friends, and one alluded to his psychotherapist. Finally, 25.3% of the candidates had never talked about their suffering in the academic milieu. In this regard, one of them specified in the free comment section that it was precisely this silence that had led her to the hospital in a state of burn-out.

The next three questions once again belonged together. « Was it hard for you to talk about it? » was the first one, to which 41% answered « yes » and 30% « rather, yes » (amounting to a total of 71%, a decreasing but still significant figure), while 20% of them responded « not really » and 9% a clear « no » (an encouraging increase). « Did you feel like you were listened to? ». The reactions to this one were rather even as 21.9% of the candidates answered « yes » and 35.4% « rather, yes » (the highest figure) while 21.9% responded « not really » and 20.8% a clear « no » (which is also quite a high figure). The last of this set of questions read « Do you feel like you were understood? », a slight nuance that led to a slight shift in the results since 21.9% of subjects answered « yes » and 29.6% « rather, yes », while 33.7% of them responded « not really » (now the highest figure) and 21.4% a clear « no ».

The eighth question was once again an open question, as it asked « Do you think talking about your suffering could damage… » and suggested several options, to which you could also add your own. It appeared that 61.6% of respondents thought it could damage their image, while an astonishing 80.8% of them responded it could harm their credibility as PhD candidates. 59.9% of them answered it could be detrimental to their academic career. And only 8.1% of them responded it could not harm them. However, it is noticeable that one person (out of 100) stood out amongst these results, declaring that « he/she felt admirably listened to and cared for ».

The last two questions finally got to the bottom of the issue. « Do you think that physical/psychological health is a taboo subject in academia? ». To this question, 64% of subjects answered « yes » and 27% « rather, yes » (which adds up to an impressive total of 91%), while 7% of them responded « not really » and 2% a clear « no ». At last, the final question was meant as a call for action: « If so, would you like to be able to raise this issue more freely in the academic milieu? », to which 1% of them responded a clear « no », while a substantial 83.9% of respondents answered « yes » and 15.1% « rather, yes » (for a nearly unanimous total of 99%).


Cover Picture by Pauline Picot

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