Imperial College London’s PhD students feeling the stress

Institutional survey finds more discontentment among doctoral students than five year ago

October 23, 2014

Source: Getty

Pressure: frustration at lack of progress was particularly harmful to well-being

Doctoral students are more stressed and worried about their future than they were five years ago, the findings of one of the biggest institution-wide surveys of PhD students has suggested.

Concerns about future career prospects may be behind the downward shift in mood among PhD students at Imperial College London, according to the institution’s head of postgraduate development, Elaine Walsh.

Imperial has about 3,200 PhD students, almost all of whom research subjects in science or engineering. About 40 per cent of them answered a survey about their well-being in May this year, following a similar one in 2009.

The most recent questionnaire asked respondents to rate how bothered they are by 66 aspects of their work on a scale of one to five, where one is not at all bothered and five is extremely bothered. Questions centred around seven different areas, including supervision, the experience of research, development opportunities, university facilities, relationships within the institution and their home and health.

The overall score in 2014 was 2.14, falling between a bit bothered and moderately bothered, up from 1.88, somewhere between not at all and a bit bothered, in 2009. At a Society for Research into Higher Education event last month, Ms Walsh said the results showed that there was not a crisis of well-being as “most people are doing OK”.

But students were consistently more bothered by everything compared with their counterparts in 2009, and the drop in contentment was larger for women. The experience of research and the impact of work on home and health caused the most problems, whereas facilities and supervision had the least impact on happiness, she said.

Specifically, the worst offenders for well-being included high levels of research-induced stress, which had an average score of 2.84, frustration at an apparent lack of progress (2.81) and uncertainty about the next career stage (2.73).

Other items ranked in the worst 10 include a persistent low mood caused by research, feeling constantly tired and run-down because of workload and disappointment at their research ability.

Ms Walsh said that roughly the same items ranked poorly in 2009. “Over five years it has given quite similar results, but the magnitude has changed,” she said.

Responses to four other questions about the overall experience of PhD study at Imperial were favourable, with 71 per cent saying their experience was a positive one, for example.

Three of these questions scored almost identical marks to 2009, which Ms Walsh described as “puzzling” given that students uniformly said they were less happy about specific things.

But there was a significant drop in agreement that the PhD had prepared students well for their future careers. Ms Walsh said this could explain why well-being has declined among the PhD student body.

“Maybe the awareness that it is quite tough to get an academic job is increasing among students,” she told Times Higher Education.

She added that if this is the case, discontent among PhD students at other institutions may be higher because Imperial has a good rate of employment for graduates.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (2)

Imperial College student care is an absolute disgrace - former Imperial PhD Student.
This raises questions in my mind. Firstly, I assume from the article that Imperial do not participate in the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) which runs every two years and instead run their own survey that was last run 5 years ago? This rather limits the datasets from which they can compare? Secondly, the conclusion reached that PhD students at Imperial have better a career outlook than elsewhere despite them disagreeing that their PhDs had prepared them well for their future careers is indeed puzzling. I think it rather worrisome - if Imperial PhD graduates feel ill prepared for a future career then perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on an academic career path being the only valued output from a PhD at Imperial? I thought it part of the job to prepare doctoral graduates for a range of career paths given their well developed and highly transferable competences?

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments