22 SES 11 B, Doctoral Programs and PhD-students
PhD students are extremely valuable. They contribute substantially to universities’ research output and once they have obtained their doctorate many of them take on important positions in society, e.g., in research, industry, and governance (Bair & Haworth, 2004). It is generally known that pursuing a PhD can be a challenging endeavor. However, in the last few years it became increasingly clear that there is more going on than PhD students who simply experience some hard times: several studies revealed that many PhD students are suffering from mental health problems. A report from the University of California, Berkeley, found that 47% of doctoral students were depressed (The Graduate Assembly, 2014). At the University of Arizona, the majority of doctoral students reported above average or even tremendous stress, which was – according to the doctoral students – mainly caused by pursuing the PhD (Smith & Brooks, 2015). In Europe, there have also been studies that focused on PhD students’ mental health. Levecque et al. (2017) found that 32% of PhD students in Flanders (Belgium) were at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, mainly depression. These authors compared the prevalence of mental health problems among PhD students to the prevalence among highly educated people in the general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students, and found that PhD students were doing significantly worse than all comparison groups (Levecque et al., 2017). In addition, results from a survey at the University of Exeter showed that approximately 40% of PhD students believed that pursuing a PhD had worsened their mental health (Else, 2015). Furthermore, Evans et al. (2018) surveyed doctoral students from 26 countries and 234 institutions and found that 41% of their sample suffered from moderate to severe anxiety and 39% from moderate to severe depression. Compared to the general population, this means that doctoral students are six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression (Evans et al., 2018). These findings make it clear that PhD students’ wellbeing is a topic that should receive much attention in research, policy, and practice.
However, not much is known about PhD students’ mental health in the Netherlands. Dutch studies on mental health in higher education mainly focus on bachelor and master students (e.g. Netwerk Studentenwelzijn, 2017) or on academics’ work pressure (e.g. Sofokles, 2017; Waaijer et al., 2018). Moreover, since the knowledge on PhD students’ mental health is still limited, more insight is needed in demographic and background factors that are related to the experience of problems. Finally, we need to know if mental health problems are related to important outcomes of doctoral education, such as PhD students’ progress, intention to quit, and satisfaction. Previous studies have reported relationships with mental health problems such as burnout and depression on the one hand and progress (Barry et al., 2018), quit intentions (Castelló et al., 2017), and satisfaction (Cornér, Löfström, & Pyhältö, 2017; Evans et al., 2018) on the other hand, but the evidence base is still small and not many studies focus on multiple outcomes. Finding relationships between mental health problems and doctoral success would make it even more urgent for graduate schools and universities to take action.
The research questions of this study are:
1) What is the prevalence of mental health problems among PhD students in the Netherlands?
2) Does the prevalence differ based on university, gender, nationality, academic discipline, the year the PhD student is in, relationship status, and having children?
3) To what extent are mental health problems related to PhD students’ progress, intention to quit the PhD, satisfaction with the PhD trajectory in general, and satisfaction with supervision?
1,306 PhD students at two universities in the Netherlands completed an online survey on mental health, background characteristics, self-perceived progress, intention to quit, and satisfaction. The majority were female (59%). 56% had the Dutch nationality and 44% were international PhD students. 34% were pursuing a PhD in the (bio)medical sciences; 30% in the natural sciences; 29% in the social sciences, 16% in the humanities; and 1% in applied sciences. Half of the sample were in the first or second year of their PhD; the other half in the third year or further. 46% were in a relationship, 20% were married, and 35% were single. 14% reported having children. 78% were from one university and 22% from the other. The survey was sent via e-mail to all PhD students. Participation was voluntary and anonymous. Participants were free to withdraw at any time. To measure the PhD students’ mental health, we used Goldberg’s (1972) General Health Questionnaire-12 (GHQ-12). This is a validated and widely used screening instrument to identify psychological distress and the risk of a common psychiatric disorder. The GHQ-12 maps the extent to which an individual has experienced certain symptoms more than usual in the past weeks. Examples are losing sleep over worry and not being able to concentrate. A symptom is regarded as “present” when an individual indicates to have experienced the symptom more or a lot more than usual. Experiencing four or more symptoms (GHQ4+) indicates the risk of a psychiatric disorder, especially depression. Progress was measured by asking PhD students if they were still on schedule to submit their thesis to the assessment committee before their contract would end (usually four years in the Netherlands). This was measured on a 3-point scale (1 = delayed, will likely not finish in time; 2 = delayed, but will likely still finish in time; 3 = on schedule). Intention to quit was measured by asking how often PhD students had considered quitting the PhD, on a 5-point scale of “never” to “very often”. To measure satisfaction we used a 5-point scale rating of the PhD students’ overall satisfaction with their trajectory and satisfaction with their supervision. The research questions were answered by descriptive statistics, ANOVAs, and regression analyses.
41% of the PhD students in the sample experienced four or more symptoms of the GHQ (GHQ4+), which means they are at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. Female PhD students, international PhD students, PhD students in their final years, and PhD students who did not have children significantly more often had a GHQ4+ score. We found no significant differences based on university, academic discipline, and relationship status. We conducted multiple regression to investigate whether mental health problems made a unique contribution to explaining variance in progress, quit intentions, job satisfaction, and satisfaction with supervision, in models where background and demographic factors and GHQ4+ were included. Experiencing GHQ4+ made a moderate contribution to all outcome variables, whereas the other factors made only a small or a non-significant contribution. Our results are in line with other studies in Europe and the US and show that mental health problems also have a high prevalence among PhD students in the Netherlands. Moreover, our findings emphasize that PhD students’ mental health problems should not only be taken serious because they harm the individual’s wellbeing but also because they are related to PhD students’ progress, intention to quit the PhD, and their satisfaction. These results call for action: Universities need to take measures both to prevent mental health problems and increase wellbeing and to offer adequate help to PhD students who are already experiencing problems. Important are, among other things, to train PhD supervisors to recognize mental health problems, to increase awareness of the importance of mental health, to build resilience, to decrease the stigma on mental health problems in academia, and to offer help specifically targeted to PhD students, e.g., workshops on how to deal with typical PhD challenges (e.g., Barry et al., 2018; Evans et al., 2018; Metcalfe, Wilson, & Levecque, 2018).
Bair, C.R. & Haworth, J.G. (2004). Doctoral student attrition and persistence: A meta-synthesis of research. In J.C. Smart (Ed.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Vol. XIX,481-534. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Barry, K.M., Woods, M., Warnecke, E., Stirling, C., & Martin, A (2018). Psychological health of doctoral candidates, study-related challenges and perceived performance. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(3), 468-483. Castello, M., Pardo, M., Sala-Bubare, & Sune-Soler, N. (2017). Why do students consider dropping out of doctoral degrees? Institutional and personal factors. Higher Education, 74(6):1053–1068. Cornér, S., Löfström, E., & Pyhältö, K. (2017). The relationship between doctoral students’ perceptions of supervision and burnout. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 12, 91-106. Else, H. (2015, April 9). Forty per cent of PhDs at Exeter suffer ill health, study reveals. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/forty-per-cent-of-phds-at-exeter-suffer-ill-health-study-reveals/2019540.article. Evans, T.M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J.B., Weiss, L.T., & Vanderford, N.L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282-284. Goldberg, D.P. (1972). The detection of psychiatric illness by questionnaire. London: University Press. Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46, 868-879. Metcalfe, J., Wilson, S., & Levecque, K. (2018). Exploring wellbeing and mental health and associated support services for postgraduate researchers. Cambridge: Vitae. Retrieved from https://re.ukri.org/documents/2018/mental-health-report/. Netwerk Studentenwelzijn (2018). Actieplan Studentenwelzijn. Retrieved from https://www.iso.nl/website/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Actieplan-Partnership-Studentenwelzijnversie-def.pdf. Smith, E. & Brooks, Z. (2015). Graduate student mental health 2015. University of Arizona: National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. Retrieved from http://nagps.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/NAGPS_Institute_mental_health_survey_report_2015.pdf. Sofokles (2017). Werkdruk en prestatiedruk van het wetenschappelijk personeel. Den Haag: Stichting Sofokles. Retrieved from https://www.sofokles.nl/wp-content/uploads/rapportage-werkdruk-WP-in-MTOs.pdf. The Graduate Assembly (2014). Graduate student happiness & well-being report. Retrieved from http://ga.berkeley.edu/wellbeingreport/. Waaijer C.J.F., Teelken C., Wouters P.F., & Van der Weijden I.C.M. (2018). Competition in science: Links between publication pressure, grant pressure and the academic job market. Higher Education Policy 31(2), 225-243.
- Search for keywords and phrases in "Text Search"
- Restrict in which part of the abstracts to search in "Where to search"
- Search for authors and in the respective field.
- For planning your conference attendance you may want to use the conference app, which will be issued some weeks before the conference
- If you are a session chair, best look up your chairing duties in the conference system (Conftool) or the app.