High-achieving PhD candidates ‘experience greatest stress’

Symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress are more acute for PhD candidates classified as exceeding their schedule

February 16, 2018

PhD candidates experience higher than normal levels of psychological distress, with high-achievers found to be most at risk, according to an Australian study.

Researchers at the University of Tasmania screened 81 doctoral candidates at an Australian university for symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. Compared with the general population, PhD students were found to experience higher levels of psychological distress.

The students were questioned on their experiences of stress and their progress in their academic studies. The majority of candidates – 55 – considered they were meeting their milestones, while 17 reported being behind. Three felt that they had exceeded their schedule.

Stress levels were found to be 80 per cent higher for those classified as exceeding their schedule than for those meeting their schedule, while anxiety levels were 70 per cent higher for participants reporting to be either behind or exceeding their schedule. Depression levels were 90 per cent higher for those exceeding their schedule and 10 per cent higher for participants behind their schedule.

Stage of candidature was not found to affect any of these attribute scores.

However, when asked what impact stress had on their PhD progress, most students reported that stress impeded or delayed progress, with 36 students reporting that stress directly influenced their ability to complete PhD-related tasks.

The study, which was published in the journal Higher Education Research and Development, says that while the findings are based on a small sample size, they demonstrate that the well-being of high-achieving candidates requires as much attention as the well-being of those who are performing poorly.

“Future interventions to reduce psychological distress should be an important part of developing improved outcomes for candidate learning, achievement and well-being,” it says.

Just two candidates reported that stress did not have any impact on their PhD progress, largely because they “make sure it doesn’t”.  

Some candidates reported that stress enhanced their progress or made them more productive because they worked harder or “put in extra time”.

When asked what aspects of their PhD candidature they found the most challenging, the largest number of candidates identified challenges related to general work processes.

“These included managing themselves as candidates as they adjusted to and accommodated the requirements of candidature, developing generic skills required for doctoral study and/or performing general work processes required to conduct their research,” according to the study.

The study is the latest research to look at the mental health of postgraduates.

Last year, a Belgian study found that PhD students were 2.8 times more likely to develop mental health problems than university employees who hold a higher education qualification and 2.4 times more likely than degree-holders in the general population.

Their stress risk was also 1.9 times higher at PhD level than among other university students.


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