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The crisis facing PhD students

According to a recent study conducted by Ghent University in Belgium, one in two PhD students experience ‘psychological distress’, whilst a third are at risk of developing depression or another common psychiatric disorder.

The research also suggests that the prevalence of mental health issues in PhD students is far higher than in the general highly educated population. Results showed that 32% of the 3659 students involved were at risk of developing a disorder, which was more than double the number of the highly educated control groups.

Most commonly, symptoms involved feeling under constant strain, being unhappy, and losing sleep because of worry. However, the work and organisational context were significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health. Balancing work with family commitments, high job demand, and low job control were associated with increased symptoms.

However, having an inspirational supervisor with a good leadership style was associated with decreased symptoms. The authors of the study wrote: “When people have a clear vision of the future and the path that they are taking, this provides a sense of meaningfulness, progress and control, which should be a protective factor against mental health problems”.

Although the sample was small, and 90% of the students involved were studying science or a social science, this comes in light of increasing prevalence of mental health issues in academia. A study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that 47% of PhD students scored at least 10 out of 30 on the scale to be considered depressed.

Co-author of the study, Katia Levecque of Ghent University, said she would expect the results of a similar study to be much worse in the UK, where fees are higher and grants are lower.

Nathan Vanderford, an assistant dean for academic development at the University of Kentucky, wrote: “The study underscores what has long been presumed; that work conditions and career outlook plays a key role in the mental state of PhD trainees. Institutions, departments and PIs have long ignored the systemic mental health issues among PhD trainees.”

Recent research suggests that mental health across universities needs to be better addressed. In 2016, a YouGov survey found that 21% of UK students did not find their university’s mental health services to be adequate.

Earlier this year, students at Oxford University were labelled as the most unhappy in the UK by a study conducted by Sodexo. It found that 22% of students at both Oxford University and Oxford Brookes regretted enrolling.

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