‘Wellbeing of PhD students is in the hands of supervisors’

03 Nov 2022

Many PhD students struggle with mental health issues. Research at Radboud University shows: if things do not go well with supervision, things often go wrong on other fronts too.

PhD students frequently being depressed has been in the news quite often these last couple of years. Work pressure is high, days are long, and time to earn your doctorate is short. These issues are also prevalent at Radboud University, was the result of a survey conducted by the PhD Organisation Nijmegen (PON) at the end of 2021.

Half of all PhD students experience a high pressure and sometimes deal with mental issues. PhD students also feel insufficiently prepared for a career outside of science and half doesn’t expect to earn their doctorate on time.

The survey also looked specifically at how the issues relate to each other. This has shown that the influence of the supervisor is very important. PhD students who were not satisfied with their supervisor were also found to experience more work pressure, to be more afraid of not completing their doctorate on time, and to have more mental health issues.

Performance pressure

Jurgen Moonen, chair of PON, is not surprised by the survey results. He knows that PhD students face a lot of underlying competition, publication and time pressure, and high expectations set by the supervisor.

According to Moonen, the PhD student and supervisor should work together to ensure that a doctorate can be completed in the stipulated four years. ‘At the beginning, very ambitious plans are often made that later turn out to be more difficult, or take longer, than expected. Many PhD students feel that they alone are responsible for this. That brings a lot of stress with it.’

According to Moonen, it is therefore up to the supervisors to give their PhD students the confidence that things will work out if they work normal hours and just do their work well.

And if things don’t work out anyway, according to PON chair Moonen, the university should free up money for a contract extension. ‘This way we can prevent PhD students from not continuing their PhD research while on unemployment benefits or having to take another job at the side.’

Courses for supervisors

Radboud University wants to work with the results of the survey. This is what policymakers Claudia Lüttke and Steffie Hampsink say. The university is committed to courses for supervisors, for example. One of the topics covered there is how they can make a realistic plan a PhD timeline together with their PhD students.

‘Earning a doctorate has worked the same way for decades’

Moonen sees that many young supervisors eagerly use that option. The situation is different for their older colleagues, who have worked in the same field for years. ‘Those unfortunately feel that they do not need it.’

However, policymakers Lüttke and Hampsink see no benefits in making the course compulsory. ‘The motivation must come from the supervisors themselves, otherwise such a course is of little use’, says Lüttke. ‘Should there still be problems, we have confidential advisors specialised in PhD students who they can always visit for advice.’

Ideally, Lüttke and Hampsink would like to tackle PhD students’ complaints at the root. ‘However, the earning a doctorate has worked the same way for decades’, Hampsink says. ‘You don’t easily change that.’ According to the two, society does see a shift around recognising and valuing employees. In the case of a doctorate, there might be less focus on the number of publications. Lüttke: ‘But that is part of a culture change, and that takes time.’

Contract extension

And simply extending contracts, as the PON chair suggests, wouldn’t that be a solution? Policymakers do not think so. Hampsink: ‘If you know you have five years to earn your doctorate, you make extra plans and so you shift the problem.’

Lüttke and Hampsink therefore think it is better to have a clear picture of the contents of earning a doctorate and adjust it regularly. Lüttke: ‘Since last September, for instance, we have a new registration and tracking system. This allows faculties to better see where each PhD student is in his or her timeline. With this, we hope that PhD students who need extra support will be spotted sooner.’

Translated by Jan Scholten

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