How to deal with PhD stress: new film offers some tips

The latest video in a series of short self-help programmes takes a sympathetic look at mental health issues

March 19, 2015

Source: Angel Productions

‘Real stress’: the video tries to address the kind of problems that PhD students can face

A new video has been launched to help students deal with the stress and mental health challenges they may face while doing a doctorate.

The PhD Survival Video tells the story of Simon, a new PhD student who begins his journey with enthusiasm, but finds that a lack of guidance from his supervisor and difficulties with his research methodology leave him despondent.

Viewers see how Simon’s studies have contributed to the breakdown of his relationship with his girlfriend, money troubles and housing problems. A fellow PhD student he meets in his department, Rachel, helps to track him down when his supervisor becomes concerned about missed deadlines, and shows him how to access help.

The soap opera-style segments of Simon’s story are interspersed with commentary from an academic, a counselling professional and two PhD students who tell their own real-life stories of developing mental health problems during their studies.

The 34-minute video covers issues such as procrastination, perfectionism, low self-efficacy and the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that are common among PhD students. It also offers tips on what students and institutions can do to help prevent such problems arising.

Sasha Roseneil, director of the Institute for Social Research at Birkbeck, University of London, contributed to the video and helped to decide which issues it should cover.

“The video tries to address the kind of problems that PhD students can face. The problems are inherent in doing a PhD and can cause real stress,” she told Times Higher Education.

“We talk about problems of isolation, competitiveness, the challenges to self-confidence that a PhD necessarily involves, and how, if you have particular vulnerabilities at the start, these can be accentuated during the PhD,” she added.

The video also touches on the difference between the PhD experience in the sciences and the arts, humanities and social sciences, she said. It is one of a series of eight created by Angel Productions in partnership with Birkbeck, the Royal Veterinary College and the Open University, aided by advice from John Wakeford, director of the Missenden Centre for the development of higher education.

The same actors are featured throughout the series, so that students can follow the different characters encountering different aspects of doing a PhD. Videos on vivas, supervision, presentations, upgrades and professional doctorates are featured in the series.

Professor Roseneil said that presenting the information audiovisually “brings it to life”.

“It is more of a three-dimensional and live way of thinking about the issues, rather than reading text. After all, PhD students can get very caught up in reading text,” she explained.

She added that the videos are particularly good for students who are isolated or who work in institutions that do not have a lot of PhD students.

Some 70 UK universities, and overseas institutions in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, now have some or all of the videos available in their libraries or online, according to Angel Productions.

Stephen Engelhard, founder of the company and producer and director of The PhD Survival Video, said that the series began by focusing on practical and academic issues, but the doctorate as an emotional experience has always featured in the background.

“With everything that we have been hearing about PhD student well-being in the past year, we felt the time had come to focus on mental health,” he added.


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The Council for Advancement and Support of Education has announced the appointment of John Middleton as executive director of CASE Europe from 5 May. Mr Middleton is currently managing director of School-Home Support, a charity that provides support for vulnerable children and their families to overcome barriers to learning.

Stephen Caddick will join the Wellcome Trust in June as its new director of innovations. Professor Caddick is currently vice-provost (enterprise and London) at University College London.

London South Bank University has made Shân Wareing its new pro vice-chancellor with overall responsibility for student experience and education. She joins from Bucks New University, where she has served as pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching since 2012.

Wendy Alexander has been named vice-principal (international) at the University of Dundee. Ms Alexander, the former leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, will join Dundee in April from London Business School, where she is currently associate dean for global business.

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