Anxiety over future careers hits French PhD students’ well-being

More than half of doctoral candidates surveyed at one university reported “abnormal” levels of stress and depression

August 6, 2017
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PhD students in France suffer worse mental health than their counterparts in the UK, a study suggests, with uncertainty about their future careers possibly being to blame.

A paper, published online ahead of peer review, found that more than one-quarter of the students surveyed had severe or extremely severe levels of stress and their well-being scores were significantly lower than those of PhD students in the UK.

The relatively high unemployment rate for PhD holders and their “minor importance” in private research organisations in France could be to blame, say the authors.

The study was led by Gabriel Marais, research director at Claude Bernard University Lyon 1, in response to concerns about how little is known about mental health and well-being among academics at French universities, particularly PhD students.

More than 135 doctoral candidates studying biology at the institution filled out an online survey about various aspects of their lives including their work, well-being, sleep, motivation and hobbies. The questionnaire also included a clinical assessment tool that measures depression, anxiety and stress.

More than 50 per cent of the group reported abnormal levels of stress and depression and 42 per cent of the group reported abnormal levels of anxiety. About 20 per cent of the respondents had “severe to extremely severe” levels of depression and anxiety and 27 per cent met this criterion for stress, the researchers said in the paper published on the PsyArXiv pre-print server.

“[A] large fraction of the PhD students experience abnormal levels of stress, depression and anxiety, and their mean well-being score is significantly lower than that of a British reference sample,” the paper says.

More than 93 per cent of those who completed the questionnaire said that uncertainty about the next step in their career and worries about their professional future reduced their well-being. A large proportion also said that frustration and demotivation because of the results of their experiments and a lack of progress towards a PhD affected how they felt.

“French PhD student well-being is specifically affected by career uncertainty, perceived lack of progress in the PhD and perceived lack of competence,” the paper adds.

When compared with the results of a similar study that included PhD students in the UK, the French results on well-being are significantly lower, the authors say.

"France is known to be a country with reduced well-being compared to what is expected given its gross domestic product, with cultural specificities being possibly responsible for this trend," they add.

The authors point out that the case of French doctorate holders is “unique” because “the unemployment rate is three times that of the average rate of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, and [PhD holders] have a minor importance in private research, which is dominated by engineers”.

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