More signs point to higher risk of burn out among PhD candidates

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Nearly a quarter of all Life Sciences PhD candidates exhibit burn out symptoms, their own survey shows. University council party UPP sees how the PhD candidates are struggling, and is disappointed about the lack of willingness to do something about the mental health issues.

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This year’s annual PhD survey conducted by the Graduate School Life Sciences (GSLS) was the first to pay attention to the mental wellbeing of PhD candidates. This was done in response to surveys among PhDs in Amsterdam and Flanders which pointed at great mental health issues within the group of scientists at the start of their careers, who feel insecure about their futures.

With 1800 PhD out of a total of 2850 UU PhD candidates, the GSLS is by far the biggest Graduate School. The survey, which was filled out by 352 Life Sciences PhD candidates, had six validated questions about exhaustion (e.g. ‘I feel burned out after a day of work’) and relation to their tasks at work (e.g. ‘I’ve become less enthusiastic about my job’).

Almost a quarter of PhD candidates is at risk
The PhD Council concludes that almost a quarter of PhD candidates (24,8 percent) is at risk of getting a burnout. That’s almost double the percentage of Dutch people (13 percent) who experience burnout symptoms, according to TNO’s National Survey Working Conditions. “Although we were familiar with previous research done in Amsterdam and Flanders, we were still shocked to see these results,” says Hilje Doekes, chairwoman of the PhD Council. “One out of every four PhD candidates is struggling. That’s something we can’t ignore.”

According to Linda Vissers, who analyzed the results with fellow PhD candidates Femke van Rhijn (currently the council’s contact person for mental health) and Anke Tukker, it’s not possible yet to determine clear causes for the unhappiness based on the survey’s results. “We’re seeing that there’s a high percentage of people working overtime – 30 percent is working 10 to 20 hours overtime, and 10 percent more than 20 hours – but we can’t claim that that’s a cause. Hopefully in next year’s survey, we’ll be able to ask explicitly about factors we know contribute to a higher risk of burnouts, and factors that PhD candidates think cause the issues.”

One out of every four PhD candidates is struggling

The survey’s results have been brought to the attention of the three faculty deans who, together, are responsible for the graduate school. The GSLS has been paying attention to PhD issues for a few years now, leading to, for instance, the opening of a Cource Centre, where PhD candidates can take classes for free. There are currently three courses aimed at mental wellbeing, such as a mindfulness course.

Studying the causes
“I’m not surprised about these results,” says Saskia Ebeling, secretary to the deans and director of the Course Centre. “We’ve seen the same thing in other surveys. And it’s also the zeitgeist; this generation expects and demands so much of themselves.”

Ebeling says that’s why the GSLS is developing a program aimed at PhD supervisors. “We’re handling questions like ‘how do I pick up on implied signals from my PhD candidates?’ and ‘how can I start a conversation about this?’.” They’ll also have a task force which will make suggestions on how to improve the PhD track.

Doekes and Vissers appreciate these efforts, but also issue a warning. “Too often, we look at it like it’s the PhD candidate’s problem,” Vissers thinks. “We need to take a critical look at the system itself, too. What’s wrong with the way we teach people to become scientists, and what needs to change?” The Life Sciences PhD candidates are asking for a university-wide study into the causes of the mental health issues PhD candidates face. Doekes: “This is not a problem that’s limited to Life Sciences. It needs to be picked up on a higher level.”

This generation expects and demands so much of themselves

Nico Naus, university council member for the Utrecht PhD Party (UPP), it’s difficult to get people at university board level to pay attention to the mental wellbeing of PhD candidates. The theme is not explicitly mentioned in the recommendations for the improvement of the PhD phase, which was discussed in the university council this week. The recommendations mostly mention subjects such as supervision, forming a community, and job perspectives.

Naus: “Of course I’m happy with all the suggested improvements. Those can really improve the PhD candidates’ situation, especially if more money is made available to attain these goals. It’s a good thing to have more research, too, like the PhD Council suggests. But I think we can’t just wait for all of that to happen. Many PhD candidates face the immediate risk, right now, to end up at home with a burnout.”

Being given the runaround
Together with PhD platform Prout, the UPP is calling for a university psychologist to be appointed, specifically aimed at helping PhD candidates. Naus, together with Prout’s Ana Poças, has also been trying to launch a pilot for a free, university-wide course for PhD candidates with mental health problems. “Courses like that shouldn’t be available only to people at Life Sciences. If a pilot is successful, it’ll hopefully stimulate the graduate schools to offer a wider range of courses.”

For now, Naus has the feeling of being given the runaround. The UU’s department of Academic Affairs says attention to psychological wellbeing of PhD candidates is important, but says that’s the responsibility of the graduate schools. Some of them already offer some courses, but Naus says that’s not enough. Aside from Life Sciences, he’s found, no other graduate school is offering mental resilience courses.

The graduate schools showed little interest when Academic Affairs asked whether they could organize a pilot like the one suggested by Naus. The Graduate School of Natural Science was the only one willing to organize a course on mental health. This will be open to other PhD candidates too, but will not be free. Naus says he’s been told the course will cost 100 euros or less.

He says: “We’re surprised by the reluctance of the graduate schools, given the gravity and urgency of the issues at hand. But it’s probably a question of money.”

The reluctance is surprising, given the gravity and urgency

Saskia Ebeling of the GSLS has been saying since the launch of the Course Centre that its courses are also available to PhD candidates from other graduate schools. “Our courses are potentially interesting to other PhD candidates too, and if there are specific wishes, I’d gladly take a look at them. But the initiative for this is with the other schools. They need to be willing to invest in it. The decision-making process is slow.”

Graduate school is responsible
In the Science faculty council this week, a question was asked about the differences between graduate schools in the courses on offer, and the costs paired with it. Dean Van Meer explained that they’re the result of different ways of educational funding. At the moment, the faculty is studying ways they can reach more uniformity.

Like Nico Naus, Saskia Ebeling thinks it’s wrong of the university board to make the graduate schools entirely responsible for the PhD candidates’ development. “Why not use a small percentage of the PhD funds to make these courses available, or to ensure access to psychological support? Most PhD candidates won’t use these things, but if you manage to prevent ten percent of dropouts, it’ll be a success.”

If you can prevent ten percent of dropouts…

Academic Affairs has responded by saying PhD candidates facing mental health issues can use the university’s corporation counsel, and a solution will be created for PhD candidates on a scholarship. Education and supervision of PhD candidates is first and foremost the responsibility of the faculty deans and their graduate schools, the UU says. The supervisors have to talk to their PhD candidates about things like mental health and resilience.

It's possible that the results of the GradSERU, an international comparative study among PhD candidates and students of research masters, will stimulate extra measures ‘beyond the faculty’s responsibility’, Academic Affairs says. The Utrecht-focused results of the study are currently being analyzed.

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