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Addressing the Mental Health Crisis among Doctoral Researchers, Part I

By Yorick Peterse, Jana Lasser, Giulia Caglio, Katarzyna Stoltmann, Dagmara Rusiecka and Martin Schmidt

Mental health issues

Statistically, one in three people will suffer from a mental health disorder at some point in their life. This usually concerns stress-related disorders, such as mood and anxiety disorders, which are among the most debilitating illnesses, meaning they are associated with a severely reduced professional and social capacity. This automatically leads to a high economic burden. For example, the direct and indirect costs of mental health disorders were estimated to be 418 billion euro in Europe in 2010. Importantly, psychiatric illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders are only diagnosed when a person suffers from a certain number of symptoms of psychological distress, for a minimum duration of usually some months. This inevitably leads to an arbitrary line between healthy and diseased, and indeed, persons suffering from fewer symptoms or for shorter periods can still be impaired in their daily activities, and have a higher probability of developing more severe psychological problems at a later point in time.


Mental health among higher education students and doctoral researchers

It is known that certain societal subgroups are at higher risk for experiencing psychological distress than others. For instance, persons belonging to a minority group (based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion etc.), to a lower socio-economic status group, or to certain professional groups more often suffer from mental health issues.

One of the professional groups that is at particularly increased risk for developing mental health issues is doctoral researchers, and actually this risk is already increased for higher education students. Beiter et al. (2015) showed that undergraduate students suffered from severe to extremely severe levels of stress (11%), symptoms of depression (11%) and symptoms of anxiety (15%). Evans and colleagues (2018) focussed on U.S. graduate students (of which 90% were doctoral researchers) and found moderate to severe rates of anxiety (41%) and depression (39%), which were more than six times as high as the rates in the general population (6% for both anxiety and depression). Additionally, students that were female, gender non-conforming, or that had a strained relationship with their mentor were found to be disproportionately affected. According to a recent Nature Graduate Survey, more than 25% of doctoral researchers were concerned about their mental health, and 12% sought professional assistance. Another study conducted specifically among doctoral researchers found that 51% experienced psychological distress, and 32% experienced so many symptoms that they were at high risk for having or developing mental health disorders. This study also compared doctoral researchers to three control groups: higher education students (which included PhDs), highly educated persons in the general population and highly educated employees. Doctoral researchers were found to be respectively 1.85, 2.43 and 2.84 times at higher risk for having or developing a psychiatric disorder.

Apparently, people that conduct a PhD are exposed to specific factors that increase the risk for developing mental health issues, in comparison with people with a similar educational background. In fact, the percentage of doctoral researchers at high risk for having or developing a psychiatric disorder almost equals the lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders in the general population, even though a PhD only takes some years. Some of the possible risk factors identified in the abovementioned studies include work-life and life-work balance, financial issues and funding opportunities, job demands and job control, perception of career perspectives, and the relationship with the supervisor and influence on decision making.


Mental health among doctoral researchers of the German N2 Network

Knowledge of the economic impact of mental health issues has led to increased attention for mental health on the work floor and for initiatives to improve conditions in this area in recent years. This has also been the case in academia, including in the German doctoral researcher associations of the N2 Network: the Helmholtz Juniors (HeJu), the Leibniz PhD Network and the Max Planck PhDnet (PhDnet).

To examine whether work-related psychological distress is also an issue among their members, the HeJu and the PhDnet conducted surveys in 2017, which also covered mental health-related questions.

The Max Planck PhDnet survey asked their members to identify whether they suffered from one of six stress-related symptoms during their PhD: depression, burnout, eating disorder, chronic fatigue, sleeplessness and migraines. From the 2218 respondents of the survey, 53% reported at least one symptom, 31% reported two or more symptoms and 16% reported having suffered or suffering from three or more symptoms. Of the respondents reporting to suffer from any symptom, 65% thought that the stress was directly connected to their PhD project. Stress symptoms tended to be more prevalent among female, international and doctoral researchers that are older or are in the late stages of their project. Moreover there was a strong correlation between being dissatisfied with PhD supervision and suffering from symptoms of stress. Interestingly, there was a large discrepancy between self-reported and diagnosed symptoms: only 6% of respondents indicated that they had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder during their PhD. This could be an indication that mental health issues are still a taboo and people do not feel comfortable seeking help, or that they do not have access to the appropriate resources.

The Helmholtz Juniors survey focused on job satisfaction and supervision, as these were identified as pivotal factors in previous surveys. In general, doctoral researchers were satisfied (45%) to very satisfied (25%) with their doctoral research, as well as with their project (45% satisfied, 20% very satisfied). However, when asked about mental well-being, a substantial proportion of respondents reported not to be able to handle the workload (20%), not to be able to work on the PhD (>60%), or not to be able to cope with the tasks (40%). Moreover, a relatively large proportion of participants indicated they were not satisfied with their work-life balance (<60%), with no significant differences between subgroups (gender, nationality, etc). Doctoral researchers of the HeJu devoted more than 41.5 hours per week (>60%) to their research, which is more than their contractually obligated hours, and some reported to feel pressure from their supervisors to work more, including during free time, weekends, and vacation. Almost 40% of doctoral researchers at the Helmholtz Association considered resigning from their PhD, with supervision (>60%) and workload (25%) mentioned as the main reasons.

The important role of workload was also identified in the PhDnet survey. Participants of that survey worked an average of 47 hours per week and 81% of them worked more than their contractually obligated hours. Seventy five percent of doctoral researchers worked at least one weekend per month and 20% of them did not feel free to take their contractually granted holidays due to supervisor pressure or high workload. Nevertheless, satisfaction levels were high, with 75% of doctoral researchers reporting to be either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their doctoral research and working conditions.

Both surveys indicate that supervision is an important factor for the satisfaction of doctoral researchers, and the PhDnet results indicate that this is linked to their mental well-being. Additionally, workload has an important impact, which takes its toll on the satisfaction and well-being of early career researchers. A final aspect revealed by the HeJu survey is contract duration, which is often shorter than the actual duration of the PhD project. Forty percent of the participants reported to have 2-3 years of financial support, even though the average PhD project lasted 3.5 years.

Having identified mental health as an important factor in work conditions for early career researchers, we propose several measures that can be implemented to improve the situation. These will be discussed in the upcoming blog post.

July 31 2018 update: Read part II of the series here.

Featured Image is used under a Creative Commons CC0 license

All authors performed or are currently performing research at one of the German scientific societies, and are or were official representatives for the doctoral researchers of those societies. Yorick Peterse and Jana Lasser are affiliated with the Max Planck PhDnet, Giulia Caglio and Dagmara Rusiecka with the Helmholtz Juniors, and Katarzyna Stoltmann and Martin Schmidt with the Leibniz PhD Network. Together they form the N2 Network of Doctoral Researchers. Yorick Peterse, the main author, studied biomedical sciences and psychology and is currently finishing his doctoral degree in human biology / translational psychiatry. You can find him on https://www.linkedin.com/in/yorickpeterse/


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