It is not easy to obtain a doctorate next to being an informal caregiver

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Universities should pay more attention to PhD candidates who provide informal care, according to researchers. The PhD candidates are sometimes having difficulties, but do not always discuss this with their supervisor.

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Obtaining a PhD while caring for someone with a chronic illness or disability: that leaves its mark, researchers at Leiden University conclude. They asked 249 PhD candidates about their experiences.

Almost three-quarters of PhD candidates with caring responsibilities experience constant stress. Half of them feel unable to overcome difficulties and suffer from sleep deprivation.

Professional
Of the surveyed PhD candidates, 29 percent care for a loved one. That is slightly more than the national average among Dutch employees: 25 percent.

It is striking that only 36 percent of these caregiving PhD candidates have informed their supervisor of their caring responsibilities. That percentage is considerably lower than for other employees: more than half of them raise the subject.

“Some PhD candidates prefer to keep the relationship with their supervisor purely professional,” explains researcher Josephine Bergmans. “They consider informal care too private as a topic for discussion. Even with burnout complaints they think: I will solve this myself. For other PhD candidates it is the exact opposite. They feel that their supervisor is not interested in their private life.”

Care leave
Bergmans thinks that the PhD candidates would benefit from better information about leave options. “Many of them, for example, do not know that they are entitled to care leave,” says Bergmans. "There is still a task for the HR departments of universities."

Also, PhD candidates should not have to bear the consequences for any leave taken. “A PhD candidate who is going on maternity leave may extend the doctoral programme by the same number of weeks afterwards,” says Bergmans. "But that does not apply to someone who takes care leave."

Training
The Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN; PhD Network of the Netherlands) is pleased with the attention paid to PhD candidates who provide informal care. “It is a group that you may not immediately think of,” says chairman Lucille Mattijssen.

The researchers therefore advocate better training for supervisors of caregiving PhD candidates. Not only so that they can recognise any psychological issues, but also so that they can initiate the discussion about the caring responsibilities.

 

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