The careless world of college becomes a distant dream as one enters the arena of research. Suddenly, PhD aspirants are faced with scary deadlines, financial insecurity, loneliness and anxiety – as well as becoming a source of humour for the academic community on social media.
In all this, the deteriorating mental health of research scholars – reports of which have been trickling in over the years – becomes normalised and is often accepted as an integral part of academic life.
According to a survey conducted on 240 PhD students in two public universities of Kerala, around 70% of research scholars suffer from mild to severe depression. While 41.7% experienced mild depression, 17.9% suffered moderately, 6.7% had fairly severe symptoms and 2.1% had severe depression.
Among all the groups, students belonging to economically disadvantaged backgrounds (those who earn less than Rs 20,000 per month), were reported to have moderate to severe depressive disorders.
All the scholars Patriot interviewed claimed to have faced financial difficulties and mental health issues due to low stipends and an uncertain job market. According to Radha (name changed to protect identity), a PhD student at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, the stipend amount does not suffice to cover the basic cost of living in Delhi. She receives Rs 8,500 per month as a non-NET PhD scholar and is often supported by her family.
“If I take up a job, I would get content writing and that’s not really going to help me in the long run. A serious job would require me to work twice as hard because a PhD is already a lot of work”, she says. Although she claims that she is ‘relatively privileged’ and has financial support, it becomes quite a hassle for her family to provide monetary support ‘after 5-6 years of study.’
“This also affects my overall research output because I would want to focus on my research if I had the financial stability, which is not the case right now. There is always some sort of mental stress”, she adds. Radha’s primary emphasis is on trauma theory, a relatively new field of study in literature.
She continues, “I either study on my laptop or get the books xeroxed. But there are times when I cannot find books online and they cost a lot if I buy them. Of course, if I had enough money, this would not be a problem.”
No regular routine
Munib Ahmad, another PhD student in Jamia Millia Islamia, supports himself by working as a freelance editor, juggling his work and research. “Initially, I thought that I could figure my stipend into my budget. But I realized soon enough that this is not possible because of irregularities in receiving these stipends”, he says.
Munib calls himself ‘not the best of PhD students’ because of his job and other activities. This may also be the reason that he does not see his future in traditional academia and is likely pursuing research to hone his skills as an editor and take up more ‘comprehensive projects.’ However, he admits that a job with a PhD becomes a hassle at times.
“I don’t really know what my days look like. Sometimes I’m doing this, sometimes that. And because research is something for which you need a relatively free mind, it becomes quite confusing and mentally exhausting”, he elaborates. “I do entire days of either my work or my research, depending on the deadlines”, he adds.
For Altamash Ahmad, who is currently pursuing MPhil from Delhi University, financial insecurities severely affect his mental state and research output. He received Rs 5,000 as a stipend for the first three semesters and also taught as a guest lecturer in a college, which he calls the only phase in his life as a research scholar that went well.
“A guest teaching position helps, but now, there are no recruitments for that. In the Non Collegiate Women’s Education Board (NCWEB) positions, you get a salary in six months, sometimes even a year – and you can’t wait that long”, he says.
Altamash comes from a financially disadvantaged background and takes up tuition to pay the bills. “If you come from a lower-caste or lower-class family, non-NET stipends can never be an antidote to your financial difficulties. And when you have to think about basic requirements such as clean water, hygiene, or shelf life of the milk because you don’t have a fridge – especially when you have to provide all of this for yourself – it becomes almost impossible to produce the mental and creative energy that your research work demands”, he explains.
Vacancies not filled
He stresses that although there are vacancies to be filled, universities are not launching recruitment drives. “The situation has worsened after the pandemic. Now, the universities just put up a notice that they will continue the existing ad-hoc positions. The options that you had to at least land up on a job on a semester-basis are also not available”, he adds.
Asked whether class background plays a role in building connections in academic circles, he says, “I don’t really know how all of this works. Although, I know that if you speak and behave in a certain way, it serves you very well in such circles – all of which comes from social and cultural capital. So yes, academic circles, at times, can be very elitist. This is very subtle. And if you are someone whose parents are labourers or do not have that kind of resources, it becomes quite impossible to survive. You are just constantly doubting yourself and your capabilities.”
Altamash started his MPhil in 2018 and has not been able to complete it due to ‘various reasons’ – financial stress and mental health issues being the most prominent. During the pandemic, he fell into depression because ‘a lot of things merged into one thing’ and he couldn’t make sense of his future or present.
“There are all these social factors that come into play, and then, you see that you don’t have a job and you are under constant pressure to perform well in your research; all of this gets summed up and you start to feel trapped and want to escape. You are even scared to touch your books because of it”, he says as he explains his mental state during the pandemic.
To Altamash, like most students Patriot interacted with, the future ‘looks bleak’, and the present, difficult.
From a teacher’s lens
Aishwarya Kumar, who teaches at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia and is currently pursuing his PhD from Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), sheds light on the difficulties researchers who come from financially-disadvantaged backgrounds face. “When the students who come from non-elite backgrounds enter a space like a university, they feel a little alienated because everybody is speaking the language proficiently and have this familiarity with the process that makes them confident. This makes them think that everybody already knows so much and they are lagging behind. But a PhD requires two main skills — reading and writing — which they already have. So, although it may feel like a challenge to them and they feel isolated, it is also an advantage because they are in the same boat as others, despite their social or cultural backgrounds”, he explains.
To address this issue of accessibility, he has started English Researchers Collective at the Department of English, JMI, to intervene academically and build a community to help research scholars get acquainted with the process. He elaborates: “Till Masters, there is no research training. There is no institutional help as well. And suddenly you have to write a research proposal and know all about it. It then becomes more of an individual enterprise for someone who wishes to go into academia. And those who cannot do this individually because of their background or lack of training, struggle a lot and remain unmotivated — something which is not addressed in their previous studies. Although we can’t help them financially, this is the gap we are trying to fill.”
The collective’s main emphasis is to break research into simple do-able processes. It is a community where researchers can share their work, resources, and the challenges they face as scholars.
Asked about the low stipends and delayed scholarships, he says, “The amount of the stipends is not enough to survive. And then, there is this pressure to study and do well. There is a definite need to rethink in terms of policy about how much money is needed for researchers to live without financial insecurities.”
PhD scholars at Ambedkar University Delhi receive Rs 16,000 as a non-NET scholarship and the university seems to be more cognizant of the issue — since it has other merit-based scholarships as well. However, AUD is a state-level university and every state has a different policy.