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Mental health, financial problems take heavy toll on UK PhD students

Written by: Simon Baker
Published on: 16 Jul 2020
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student in classroom with head in hands

Source: Getty

Plans to boost research spending in the UK should be used as an opportunity to start reforming PhD education, it has been suggested, after a report detailed how the country’s doctoral researchers were more likely to seek help for mental health problems and to worry over finances than those in other European countries.

The report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) draws on data from previous work by Nature and the Wellcome Trust on the well-being of researchers worldwide.

These data suggest that although PhD students in the UK are broadly as satisfied as their counterparts in some other European countries, there are notable gaps.

READ MORE: HE financial crisis risks ‘lost generation of researchers’

For instance, almost 70 per cent of students from major European research systems such as Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland were satisfied with the benefits and financial support they received, but the equivalent responses for the UK were 34 per cent for benefits and 55 per cent for financial support.

A fifth of PhD students in the UK also put “financial worries after my PhD” among their top concerns, compared with 14 per cent in parts of continental Europe, and those in the UK were six percentage points more likely to say they had sought help for anxiety or depression.

Bethan Cornell, a physics PhD student at King’s College London who authored the Hepi report, said much of the problem stemmed from the status of PhD students in the UK, who in many respects are, in essence, university staff but lack staff rights.

In a number of other European countries, doctoral researchers are university employees and can receive salaries twice as high as the minimum UK stipend of about £15,000 a year, an amount that equates to earning less than the minimum wage given the hours they work, according to PhD Life: The UK Student Experience.

The report recommends giving PhD students access to more workplace benefits such as pension schemes. Ms Cornell said such a “statement of intent” could “raise morale”.

She said the government’s pre-pandemic pledge to boost research spending to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product was also a good opportunity to deal with the wider issues, given that PhD students were the future research workforce.

“It is like any business strategy: you have to invest to get better returns…and if you want better returns for UK research, invest in your researchers a bit more and they’ll have a better chance at producing high-quality research outputs,” Ms Cornell said.

Elsewhere, the report details the bullying, discrimination and harassment that PhD students often say they experience. The Wellcome data suggest that almost half had witnessed bullying and harassment, with about 45 per cent saying that a supervisor or manager was responsible.

Data from both Nature and Wellcome also suggest that a significant number of PhD students experience or witness discrimination based on factors including gender, age, race, social background and nationality.

Meanwhile, other statistics in the report suggest that more than a quarter (26 per cent) of PhD students had experienced issues of others taking credit for their work.

Ms Cornell added that the extremely “hierarchical and competitive” nature of the sector meant that PhD students were “right at the bottom of the ladder” in terms of power and often relied on more senior staff to progress. “PhD students may well be dependent on the person who is bullying them to complete their degree and to get their next job,” she pointed out.