1 in 4 PhDs in survey ‘report feelings of suicide or self-harm’

Researchers say study adds to ‘growing body of evidence’ on poor mental well-being for doctoral students

January 12, 2022
Mental health
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Almost a quarter of postgraduate researchers who took part in a well-being survey said that they had experienced thoughts of suicide or self-harm in the previous fortnight.

Almost 500 postgraduate researchers took part in the survey, for a study led by researchers at the University of Glasgow, which asked respondents to report on their well-being and any symptoms of mental illness they were experiencing.

According to the results, 23 per cent of those responding to the survey, which was mainly conducted in 2019 before the pandemic, said they had experience thoughts of suicide or self-harm in the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, 41 per cent of respondents said they lived with anxiety, 20 per cent with severe anxiety and a fifth also reported severe or moderately severe depression.

Almost half of the respondents (46 per cent) said they suffered from insomnia, while 29 per cent felt that concentration and productivity were significantly affected by their sleep problems.

The study also found that some groups of postgraduate researchers fared particularly badly. “Factors associated with poorer outcomes were female and non-binary gender, non-heterosexual identity, maladaptive perfectionism, workaholism and being in the fifth year of study or above,” it says.

The survey received responses from postgraduate researchers at 47 different UK universities, although the vast majority (87 per cent) of the respondents were based at Scottish institutions. The survey was initially conducted by sending email invitations to PhD students at one institution, “while other participants were recruited via social media and personal contacts”.

Jelena Milicev, a PhD student at Glasgow’s MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit and first author of the study, said it added “to the growing body of evidence showing that postgraduate researchers experience a greater prevalence of mental ill-health than the general population”.

Maria Gardani, who led the study at Glasgow’s School of Psychology and is now based at the University of Edinburgh, said given that the results were gathered before the pandemic, it was possible that such issues among postgraduate researchers “may have been exacerbated by the additional stresses” of the Covid crisis.

“Renewed institutional efforts to promote equality, diversity, resilience, integration and work-life balance for PGRs could go a long way to addressing the kinds of mental health problems this study reveals,” she said.


If you’re having suicidal thoughts or feel you need to talk to someone, a free helpline is available around the clock in the UK on 116123, or you can email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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Reader's comments (1)

Mental health issues in academia is a serious issue and the response is always some lip service and signposting to some counceling when the perpetrators give a jot to the impact they are having on people lives. Lime managers please give a secodn thought to any lives you may be inadvertently destroying in the name of ranking or so called excellence.