Is Academia Too Critical Of PhD Students?

It’s no secret that the chances of a PhD student developing a mental health problem is very high in academia.

But, what makes academia so different?

Why are the chances so much higher than most other industries?

One reason could be one of the fundamental principles of research, and that is to be critical.

We’re critical thinkers, we’re trained to think critically about everything that we come across. In fact, doing a PhD is the training we go through to develop our critical thinking skills.

Any time we read a paper, we’re trained to think about the potential flaws of it, whether there are any weaknesses, and whether we can trust what it reports.

That level of critical thinking naturally builds an atmosphere of being critical. It’s difficult to spend so much of your time thinking critically and then suddenly turn it off when you want to have lunch. That is especially the case for someone who is going through the process of dramatically increasing their ability to think critically, like when doing a PhD.

Being surrounded by others who are just so critical of everything naturally makes us feel negative.

For a PhD student, having someone critique your work is a painful experience because something you care so much about is being poked and prodded and you have to endure it. That’s the nature of the game.

Knowing that this continual examination is coming, you then start to critique everything you do even before you get any results because you don’t want it to be torn apart later on.

That skews our perception of our own work – we only focus on the negatives, the weaknesses, and never the strengths. The strengths rarely seem to matter when someone is critiquing your research.

By developing this ability to critique work, you also inadvertently develop the ability to critique everything – an unexpected “2-for-1” deal, right? “2-for-1” deals are usually great, but not in this case.

So, what is the way to stop this critical atmosphere permeating your entire life?

One of the major tools you have is being aware of it. Understanding that not everything has to be critically assessed. You can take a break during lunch, or when you’re at home.

Many academics will experience that their skin gets thicker as the years pass, but to begin with, it was traumatic to have people be so critical of your work.

So, is it possible to be less critical of PhD students’ research?

If you read our last blog post (, you would know that we defined a PhD as the process of training someone to be able to research effectively. The blog post wasn’t enjoyed by some – they were excited about their new critical thinking skill and wanted to show it off. However, if you were to reduce the standard of research required from a PhD student, would they then become capable researchers? Instead, could there be more of a gradation through the years to reduce the shock of having all these people critique your work, and slowly introduce it instead?

Or, maybe it just comes back to what the famous philosopher Taylor Swift said, “Haters gonna hate”.

One of the major problems PhD students develop because of this level of critiquing is the imposter syndrome.

There are a few different types of imposter syndrome. If you would like to overcome your imposter syndrome, read this book: PhD Imposter Syndrome: Stopping It Dead In Its Tracks,

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