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What do we know about the mental well-being of PhD students?

Mental well-being of PhD students 1

According to the OECD (2019), approximately 2.3% of people will enrol in a PhD programme during their lifetime. The OECD data 2016 reported that the countries with the highest number of Doctoral Researchers (DRs) are the US, Germany and the UK.

At present, there are more than 281,360 doctoral researchers currently registered across these three countries alone (Hesa, 2018; NCES, 2019), making them a significant part of the university population. 

Corresponding to the 2021 meta-analysis by Hazel and colleagues, there is a lot of data concerning the mental health of students (Baron, 2017; The Guardian, 2017; Thorley, 2017) but little data concerning the mental health of PhD students or post-docs. Specifically, finding equivalent information for postgraduate students is more difficult and, where available, tends to combine data for postgraduate taught students and doctoral researchers (DRs; also known as PhD students or postgraduate researchers) (e.g. Universities UK, 2017).

(1) What is the prevalence of mental health difficulties amongst DRs?

Taking into consideration the definition of stress by Butler (1993) as “a dynamic (im)balance between the demands and personal resources to manage those demands”, the results of the meta-analysis by Hazell and colleagues (2021) report that when compared to the general population, PhD students experience a greater maladaptive imbalance between their available resources and the demands placed upon them. Stress in itself is not a diagnosable mental health problem, yet chronic stress is a common precipitant to mental health difficulties such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (Siegrist, 2008; Marin et al., 2011).

Therefore, interventions should seek to bolster Doctoral Researchers’ resources and limit demands placed on them to minimise the risks associated with acute stress and limit its chronicity.

Another study by Levecque and colleagues (2017) compared prevalence among DRs and the general population, employees and other higher education students; in all instances, DRs had higher levels of psychological distress (non-clinical) and met the criteria for a clinical psychiatric disorder more frequently.

Mental well-being of PhD students 3

(2) What are the risk factors associated with poor mental health in DRs?

Based on the 2021 meta-analysis by Hazel and colleagues, the major risk factors reported are gender, socio-economic status, cross-cultural differences, uncertainty in studies, academic pressure and isolation. Specifically, the majority suggested female Doctoral Researchers report greater clinical (Sekas and Wile, 1980), and non-clinical problems with their mental health (Levecque et al., 2017). Several studies explored how mental health difficulties differed in relation to demographic variables other than gender, suggesting that being single or not having children was associated with poorer mental health (Levecque et al., 2017) as was a lower socioeconomic status (Nottingham, 2017). 

Another common predictor of poor mental health was uncertainty in DR studies; whether in relation to uncertain funding (Levecque et al., 2017) or uncertain progress (Sekas and Wile, 1980). More than two-thirds of Doctoral Researchers reported general academic pressure as a cause of stress, and a lack of time as preventing them from looking after themselves (El-Ghoroury et al., 2012). According to a study by Volkert and colleagues in 2018 being isolated was also a strong predictor of stress.

Mental well-being of PhD students 2

(3) What protective factors are associated with good mental health in DRs? 

Fortunately, there are certain protective factors, i.e. events or processes that reduce the probability of a disease occurring. According to Rutter (1987), protective factors are defined as “a variable that interacts with a risk factor to nullify its effect”. 

In particular, the most common were high scores in the five-factor personality traits, self-care, an inspirational leadership style and coping strategies. Indeed, DRs who more strongly endorsed all the five-factor personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism) (Lowe, 2015), self-reported higher academic achievement (Kurtz-Costes et al., 2006) and viewed their studies as a learning process (rather than a means to an end) (Stubb et al., 2012) reported fewer mental health problems. DRs were able to mitigate poor mental health by engaging in self-care (Orozco, 2014), having a supervisor with an inspirational leadership style (Levecque et al., 2017) and building coping strategies (Drake, 2010). The most frequently reported coping strategy was seeking support from other people (Appel et al., 2003;  El-Ghoroury et al., 2012). 

If we think of protective factors in the sense of Rutter (1987), we can see them as ‘buffers’ of risk factors, i.e. as variables that can buffer the negative effects of risk factors. Thus, protective factors are not solutions to the problem at hand but intervene to limit the risks faced by PhD students. Given the scenario just presented, it is necessary to start thinking about best practices to cope with and support the mental health of researchers by preventing and/or alleviating stress. A fitting example might be the technique of mindfulness.

Baer et al. Doing (2019) defines Mindfulness as “a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment. Being mindful relates to being open, non-judgmental, friendly, curious, accepting, compassionate and kind”. These practices can be formal (e.g. breathing, sitting, walking, body scan) or informal (e.g. mindfulness in everyday life). Many mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) programmes have been established. Among all the MBIs, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which was launched by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) by Segal, Teasdale and Williams (2004) based on MBSR, are the two most widely adopted MBIs. These two programmes include eight weekly mindfulness sessions with a one-day retreat.

The publications on mindfulness are starting to be more comparable to those on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), one of the most widely used psychotherapies. As illustrated by Singh et Gorey (2018), while the benefits are almost equal to cognitive behavioural interventions, mindfulness may require less professional training and take less time for both workers and clients to master, and they are probably less expensive to provide.

Effects on mental health MBIs have been shown to be efficacious in improving some of the common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, stress, insomnia, and eating disorders. Similarly, physical health effects include pain, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory health (Aghaie et al., 2018).

Summing up, we can discuss two main points: (1) a gap has emerged in the literature concerning the mental health of PhD students, and (2) the mental health of PhD students is (on average) low. Apart from the rich meta-analysis by Hazell and colleagues, there are not many studies on this topic. This is an important fact to consider in order to expand the collective knowledge on this topic. The technique of mindfulness can be defined as a good practice for stress relief but must be accompanied by other strategies.

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Authors

Clara De Vincenzi
LUMSA PhD student
www.lumsa.it

Bruna Ferrara
LUMSA PhD student
www.lumsa.it 

Diletta Porcheddu
ADAPT Junior Fellow
www.adapt.it 

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