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How to change research cultures to support the well-being of PhD students

From providing mental health champions to simply having honest conversations about expectations and pressure, there’s much that can be done to help students

Imelda Bates 's avatar
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine,Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN)
15 Dec 2022
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How to improve PhD student well-being

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An editorial in the journal Nature in 2019 stated that “the mental health of PhD researchers demands urgent attention” and that this depended on a “systemic change to research cultures”. This was the stark conclusion of a survey of 6,300 graduates from around the world, which showed that 36 per cent had sought help for anxiety or depression related to their PhD. This was backed up by a separate study reporting that 86 per cent of PhD students suffered from marked levels of anxiety: much higher than the general population.

Why do PhD students report such high levels of mental health problems?

PhD students are working in highly competitive environments and face career insecurity. They are under pressure to perform on many fronts beyond simply getting to grips with their research topic and managing their project. Early career researchers were traditionally measured on their ability to produce publications, bring in grants and present their work at conferences. Now they are also judged on whether their research findings are being read and used (for example, via citation metrics or policy influence) and how they impact wider society. Increasingly stringent research governance requirements are also adding to the complexity of doing research and therefore to researchers’ stress levels.

What are the drivers of these mental health problems?

Predictors of mental health problems in PhD students include the complex demands of the PhD programme itself, worries about career prospects (inside and outside academia), conflicts between the PhD and family responsibilities (mental health problems are more common in female than male students), worries about finances and debts (especially for self-financing students) and inadequate engagement and support from supervisors.

Institutions that offer PhD programmes need to understand these drivers of mental health problems and design their policies and practices to manage and mitigate the risks. For example, they can raise awareness about these issues and provide training for mental health “champions” as go-to contacts for students. They can ensure students have adequate funding before they embark on their studies. They can provide students with clear expectations regarding their PhD programme, with information on their career prospects, and a mentor to help them manage their workload and tensions in their work-life balance. Institutions can also provide coaching and accountability structures for supervisors since transparent decision-making and an inspirational leadership and supervision style can reduce PhD students’ stress.  

How can we contribute to PhD students’ well-being?

Before they embark on their PhD programme, students are usually aware of the career benefits of obtaining a doctorate. But they also need to have open discussions about the potential detrimental effects of the research environment on their mental health and well-being. PhD programme leaders need to make students aware of their institutions’ expectations of supervisors and colleagues in terms of what is, and is not, appropriate behaviour, who to contact if they have concerns and the support available to them.

All this information – which should be personalised to students’ unique situation – will improve their resilience and help them plan for and overcome the personal challenges they may face. Institutional policies that are clearly or implicitly discriminatory should be abolished. This includes scrapping age limits for PhD studentships (since these favour those who have not had career breaks) and inflexible working patterns. Use wording in adverts that strongly encourages traditionally disadvantaged PhD candidates to apply and outlines the support available to them (for example, day-care facilities or language translation).

PhD supervisors should all receive training, making it clear that there is no expectation for students to work excessive hours and that there is zero tolerance and sanctions for all those whose behaviour is unacceptable (harassment, bullying, intimidation). Students should be allocated a supervisory, two-person evaluation panel who are familiar with the PhD programme but independent of the students’ supervisors. The role of this panel is to oversee the students’ progress and make sure they have enough support for their research and personal needs and to provide advice if the students feel they are not getting adequate quality supervision. Some students may struggle to travel away from home (due to family commitments, for example) so options for attending meetings and conferences, and for accessing support remotely, should be provided if possible.

Some institutions have set up formal mentoring schemes that match students with mentors who are non-judgemental and independent of their research supervisors. However, it is important that students feel comfortable discussing their psychosocial needs and their career pathways with their mentors. In practice this may mean students need to be offered some choice about their mentor since they may prefer, for example, someone of their own gender or religious or ethnic background. Institutions need to back up their supervision and mentoring processes with easy access to professional counselling and well-being support services and provide training in empowerment and leadership for PhD student.

Funders of PhD programmes could add on an 18- to 24-month funded postdoctoral period, because the transition from PhD student to postdoctoral researcher is one of the most insecure and stressful stages in an early researcher’s career.

Many international funders provide PhD studentships within the context of large research consortia (where several organisations work together on a specific research topic). These consortia can provide PhD students with many additional benefits beyond those provided by their own institutions. Consortia need to actively create opportunities to foster camaraderie among their cohort of PhD students, perhaps via mutual sharing of experiences, challenges and solutions.

Consortia can also provide opportunities and funding for PhD students to use equipment and resources or access courses in their member organisations. Through consortia, students can also be encouraged to draw on their consortium’s large pool of senior international researchers for mentorship, technical advice, interdisciplinary collaborations and networking, all of which motivate and empower PhD students and boost their confidence and career prospects.

International studies have shown that the majority of PhD students are satisfied with their research experience. However, we should not be complacent. This does not detract from the urgent need to reform our research systems and cultures and to reverse the negative upward trend in mental health problems and stress among early career researchers. All of us in the research community have a responsibility to treat PhD students, and all colleagues, with integrity and humanity, and to protect their well-being so we can empower the next generation of researchers.

Imelda Bates is head of the Centre for Capacity Research at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK. She focuses on enhancing research capacity in institutions and on highlighting and valuing the role that research support professionals and laboratories play in the research effort.

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