Men ‘worse at coping with disruption to research’ during pandemic

Male PhD students reporting higher levels of psychological distress than women, survey says

December 10, 2020
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Since the pandemic started, there has been much evidence indicating that the output of female academics has been disrupted by lockdowns, with women seen as taking on an unfair share of additional childcare responsibilities.

However, a new survey of PhD students, shared exclusively with Times Higher Education, underlines the significant disruption reported by male scholars as well and, in particular, suggests that men may be worse at coping with the turmoil brought by Covid-19.

The survey of 1,780 UK-based postgraduates, conducted by Maria Aristeidou, lecturer in technology-enhanced learning at the Open University, and Angela Aristidou, an assistant professor at the UCL School of Management, found that the vast majority said their research progress had been affected negatively.

This had a significant knock-on effect on respondents’ mental health, with 78 per cent recording a score of 10 or more on the widely used Patient Health Questionnaire, with 10 the starting point for moderate depressive symptoms.

While previous research has indicated that, for example, female authors have become less represented among journal submissions since coronavirus restrictions were introduced, in this survey men were more likely to say that their research had been badly disrupted: 91 per cent of males gave this response, compared with 68 per cent of females.

This echoes the findings of a Vitae survey of 8,416 researchers published in October that found that men and women experienced similar changes to working hours during the pandemic.

And the new survey found that, while levels of psychological distress were generally high in both genders, they were significantly higher among men.

That difference could be explained by the ineffective behaviours to mitigate stress that male respondents were more likely to use, such as criticising themselves for their reduced effectiveness in lockdown, explained Dr Aristeidou. In contrast, female respondents were more likely to share their frustrations and concerns with friends and colleagues.

“Female participants used these coping mechanisms that are associated with lower stress levels,” said Dr Aristeidou, who called for universities to redouble efforts to connect with PhD students who may become isolated as a result of social distancing measures.

“Strong academic communities act as a safety net for PhD students, so institutions need to see what can be done to build a sense of togetherness and strong community.”

The new report, whose full findings have not yet been published, found that respondents who lived with children were significantly more likely to report disruption to their research than those who did not – 95 per cent to 67 per cent.

Dr Aristeidou urged research funders and universities to consider extending PhD grant funding where possible as respondents who had secured extensions showed significantly lower levels of stress.

Sharing worries and concerns with other academics about the pandemic’s impact was just as critical, added her sister and co-investigator Dr Aristidou, who has previously helped design programmes to help astronauts cope with isolation at Nasa.

“We also have a brother who is an academic so we often use each other as a sounding board and talk about issues affecting us,” she said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Male PhDs feel adrift amid Covid

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