Meet the new psychologist for PhDs: Annelies Aquarius

Many PhD candidates struggle with the pressures and expectations that come with writing a dissertation. For those who are feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to receive psychological support. Since this month, PhDs at Tilburg University have their own psychologist to turn to: Annelies Aquarius.

Annelies Aquarius

Annelies Aquarius

Annelies Aquarius has already held her first sessions as the university’s newly appointed PhD psychologist. Having written a dissertation on medical psychology in 2005, she knows from first-hand experience which problems PhD candidates may run into.

The need for psychological support is high among PhD candidates, as a number of recent surveys have clearly shown. Many doctoral candidates struggle with depression, burnout and insomnia. Some universities decided to appoint a psychologist specifically for PhDs. Tilburg University initially didn’t see the need for a PhD psychologist, but later changed its opinion.

And so for the next two years, TiU student psychologist Annelies Aquarius will dedicate one day a week to providing psychological support for PhD candidates. Univers had a chat with her.

Why do PhD candidates need their own psychologist?

“Doing a PhD is a unique experience, which demands a lot from a person intellectually. PhDs are often young academics at the start of their careers, who are under a lot of (time) pressure. In those circumstances, psychological problems may develop more easily.

In addition, PhD candidates must navigate a particularly complex position within the academic world. They are expected to be highly independent and self-motivated, but at the same time they have a dependent position in relation to their supervisors and their co-authors, for example. That can lead to tensions.

That’s why I think it’s a good thing that Tilburg University is now offering short-term and easily accessible psychological support to its PhD candidates. It gives them the ability to (preventively) look for ways to deal with those tensions early on.”

Are there any identifiable causes that have led to an increased pressure on PhD candidates in recent years?

 “That’s a complex question. I think pressure has increased on regular bachelor’s and master’s students as well as PhD candidates. On a national level, what we as university psychologists are currently seeing is a very high level of perfectionism and an increased fear of making mistakes, often combined with financial stress or the pressure of having to complete a trajectory within a certain time.

These pressures may have a negative or even counterproductive effect on creative processes, such as writing a dissertation.”

With which problems can PhD candidates come to you?

 “They might be experiencing concentration or motivational problems, stress symptoms, fear of failure or procrastination behavior. But they may also seek help for more general psychological complaints, such as anxiety or mood issues.

Whenever someone applies for psychological support, there’s always an intake session during which we explore that person’s individual needs and we discuss which form of support fits those needs.”

In which ways do you offer support as a psychologist?

“Through conversations, I help PhD candidates gain a deeper insight and more clarity about the complaints they are experiencing. In addition, I give them tools that they can use themselves to address their issues. In doing so, I mostly use scientifically proven conversation-based interventions, such as cognitive (behavioral) therapy.”

Is one day a week enough to support everyone?

“Good question. In the next two years that this pilot project will run, we’re starting out with one day a week. Applications for support are already coming in, and the first sessions have already taken place. In the time to come, we will have to carefully evaluate whether one day a week suffices or not.”

Is there anything PhDs can do themselves when they run into problems?

“That obviously depends strongly on your specific complaints. Especially in these times of restrictions due to Covid-19, it’s not always easy to take action on your own.  

Generally speaking, it’s important to maintain a daily routine that allows you to have a good night’s rest, a healthy diet and – especially – regular moments of relaxation.

A PhD trajectory is an extremely intense experience, and often it’s difficult to let go of. But by taking some distance from your work every now and then – by exercising, listening to music, talking to others or spending time on your hobby, for example – you can create the mental space needed to generate new ideas or insights.”

What do you enjoy about your job as a psychologist?

“It’s important to me to find meaning in my job. I do that by offering guidance to others as they tackle the issues they are struggling with. Working with students and PhDs is especially challenging, because they often set very high standards for themselves and for their work.”

You obtained a PhD degree in the field of medical psychology in 2005. How did you experience your own time as a doctoral candidate?

“I experienced those years as very special, but also very intense. It constantly occupies your mind. It felt like an enormous milestone when I was finally able to hand in my manuscript after four years.

Visiting international conferences, endlessly writing and re-writing, and seeing hundreds of patients – those experiences all taught me a lot about life. And it was nice to have supportive colleagues. That helped me a lot.

One of my PhD supervisors, Johan Denollet, sadly passed away recently at a relatively young age. His death made me think back a lot to my time as a doctoral candidate. It made me realize again how special and formative those years were for me.”

Need support?

PhD candidates who are in need of advice or a listening ear can apply for a session with Annelies Aquarius by sending an email to

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