In Delft, struggling doctoral candidates can go to a PhD psychologist. The University of Utrecht has also announced that it will start offering psychological support specifically for PhD candidates. At Tilburg University, the Independents Faction is urging the university to appoint a psychologist for its PhDs. But the university board is not jumping at the idea.
The psychological stress faced by PhD candidates has been a topic of discussion for several years now. In 2017, a large-scale Belgian study showed that almost one-third of PhD candidates is at risk for depression or burnout. Compared to other highly educated people within the same age group, they are two to three times more likely to experience mental health problems such as feelings of apathy, sleep problems and sombreness.
These findings are supported by smaller studies examining the psychological health of PhD candidates in the Netherlands. At Dutch universities, many are suffering from stress, depression and burnout symptoms.
Struggling PhD candidates at Tilburg University
A 2017 survey also looked into the well-being of PhD candidates at Tilburg University. Of the total 846 PhDs who were approached, 385 filled out the online survey. About half of them, 51 percent, reported experiencing the overall workload as (too) high. In addition, 53 percent said to experience occupational stress.
Anna Berti Suman, who is a member of the Independent Faction as well as a PhD candidate at Tilburg Law School, explains why so many doctoral candidates experience mental health problems. “The position of a PhD candidate is a difficult one. You have to complete a good research project within four years. You’re not a student anymore, but you’re also not an established and independent academic yet. On top of that, many PhD candidates are aiming for an academic career. Competition is fierce, you have to stand out. That means you’re under high pressure to perform. And no matter how hard you work, you’re never completely certain whether you’ll get a position at the university once you’ve finish your dissertation.”
Psychological support on campus
Most PhD candidates are university staff members, which means they can use the counseling and psychological that are available to all employees. In addition, PhDs can also go to the university’s student psychologists. But according to the Independents Faction, there should be a PhD psychologist with special expertise in mental health issues faced by doctoral candidates.
“For PhD candidates, the threshold for seeking help is high”
During the most recent meeting of the OO&I (Education, Research & Impact) committee, the Board of Executives did not express enthusiasm for the Independent Faction’s proposal to appoint a PhD psychologist. All psychologists connected to the university are familiar with mental health issues that are common in academia, rector magnificus Emile Aarts said, so they are well-informed about PhD candidates and their specific problems. In addition, the board believes these problems could also be tackled by encouraging PhD candidates to share the problems they face amongst each other and to learn from each other’s experiences.
The Independents point out that, for PhD candidates, the threshold for seeking help is high. “This threshold would be lower if there was a mental health professional with a specific expertise in the issues faced by young researchers, who can better understand and tackle their problems,” Berti Suman says.
‘Information is lacking’
An intranet search learns that there is virtually no information available online about psychological support for employees or PhD candidates at Tilburg University. Only the Tilburg Law School website provides information about the possibility to seek psychological help, linking to an English-written page for PhD candidates. On this page, it is stated that PhD candidates can get a referral to a mental health professional from the occupational health physician, but it remains unclear who this is.
After Anna Berti Suman pointed out during the OO&I meeting that information about psychological support facilities is lacking, the board agreed to explore how information about the available services can be better communicated to PhD candidates.
Utrecht University needed convincing too
Initially, the executive board of the University of Utrecht was not convinced of the need for a PhD psychologist. Only after the university’s PhD community collected more than a thousand signatures in support of the idea, the rector magnificus agreed to appoint a psychologist who specifically focuses on PhD issues.
It’s still unclear when exactly Utrecht University’s PhD psychologist will start. The initial pilot phase will last six months, after which the results will be evaluated. The PhD Candidates Network of the Netherlands (PNN) supports the initiative. “We think every university should have a psychologist like that,” the network’s president Anne de Vries, who is a PhD candidate at Tilburg University, told Utrecht University’s independent news platform DUB.
The fact that Delft University has been working with a PhD psychologist since 2011 indicates that it’s a relevant matter, Berti Suman says. The Independents are currently preparing further steps to convince Tilburg University’s executive board of that as well.
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