The Mental Health of PhD Candidates - a workshop at the Max Planck Alumni and Early Career Researchers meeting on improving mental health conditions

by Yorick Peterse

October 31, 2017

From August 31st to September 2nd 2017, the Max Planck Symposium for Alumni and Early Career Researchers (MPSAESCR) took place in Berlin. Its primary aim was to connect alumni and early career researchers from all over the world, and to provide an environment to discuss with and learn from each other.

There was also the opportunity to be informed about specific topics in a range of networking sessions and workshops. Yorick Peterse and Maria Eichel of the Offspring Group hosted a workshop on “Improving the Mental Health of Employees”, which focused on the work situation for PhD candidates. The rest of this article will recapture the core facts on mental health of PhD candidates that were mentioned during the workshop, and more importantly, the measures that the attendees came up with to improve working conditions. Click on the following respective links if you want to read more about the MPSAECR or the Max Planck Alumni Association (MPAA) (Facebook link) (previous Offspring article).

Some facts about mental health disorders

As many as one in three people will suffer from any mental health disorder at one point in their life. The form in which this occurs can differ widely, with mood and anxiety disorders being the most common psychiatric illnesses, but with significant contributions of other illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, eating disorders and substance (ab)use or addiction. Even though these disorders are rarely lethal, they cause a very high morbidity for the people suffering from them. In fact, seven out of twenty of the world’s leading disabling conditions are neuropsychiatric disorders. A high level of disability inevitably means a high economic burden for society, and in 2013 the cost of psychiatric disorders for the US economy was estimated at 201 billion dollars. An important note is, that here we are still only talking about officially diagnosed illness. To fulfill the criteria for diagnosis with a mental health disorder, a minimum number of symptoms with a certain minimum duration have to be met. However, if someone experiences fewer symptoms, or for a shorter period of time, this of course does not mean that this person does not suffer, or is unimpaired in performing their daily activities. Generally speaking, people suffering from mental health issues are at increased risk for developing a full mental health disorder later.

Mental health issues in academia

In recent years, mental health on the work floor has been an increasingly trending topic in the media, and several big companies have started to pay attention to this aspect. The direct and indirect economic costs mentioned above should be enough to explain why – (partially) impaired employees will lead to impaired productivity. Just in the past year, several reports specific for the situation in academia have come out. One British report concluded that 37% of people working in academia suffer from a mental health disorder, and that many more suffered from psychological distress. The lack of job security, high work demands, and lack of support by management were found to be particularly stressful factors. A Belgian study specific for PhD students found that 52% of PhD students experienced psychological distress, and 32% were at very high risk for developing a mental health illness. Compared to three control groups: people who are also highly educated, people who are highly educated and who have a demanding job, and higher education students, this risk was respectively 2.43, 2.84 and 1.85 times higher. This indicates that there are factors specific to doing a PhD that result in a particularly bad situation for maintaining good mental health. Factors identified in the study included work-family conflict, job demands, family-work conflict, job control, leadership style (by the supervisor) and closed decision making.

The workshop

The group of workshop participants consisted of both alumni and early career researchers. They were divided into small groups and asked to discuss the situations they confronted while doing their PhD, and to identify stressful and positive aspects. After this, the main aim of the workshop was performed: formulating concrete measures that can be taken to improve and relief the stressful work conditions for PhDs. The proposed solutions are listed in the table below, together with the categories of problematic work conditions.

Many of the stressful aspects that came up had to do with supervision. Among the mentioned situations were projects that had not been properly defined, too much work that needed to be completed in too little time, and a supervisor that was either not involved, or too controlling. The proposed solutions were defining a detailed PhD plan at the start of the PhD, which includes alternatives if research is not going as planned. Additionally, limiting the number of PhD candidates per supervisor, having mandatory regular meetings with the supervisor and providing leadership training to PhD supervisors was proposed. Moreover, satisfaction of candidates that have completed their PhD with their former supervisor could be monitored, to avoid failing supervisors to continue with other PhD candidates, and to help supervisors improve their management style.

A second category of stressful aspects of doctoral research is the high level of job insecurity. The expected statements about low salaries were made, but most importantly the offering of multiple short-term contracts, despite knowing a PhD project will take several years to complete, was considered to be particularly stressful. Also the lack of an overview of career perspectives inside, and particularly outside of, academia was listed. Project-based PhD funding, where the completion of research and publishable results, rather than a time-period, is the determining factor, was mentioned as a solution. Also, providing a career-service for PhD candidates and other early-career researchers was recommended.

Generally, work demand for PhD candidates was considered high, with a high number of working hours, working on the weekends, and pressure to deliver publications and to compete with other researchers. Interestingly, the proposed measures were not necessarily changing these aspects (although closing research institutes entirely on the weekend was proposed), but focused more on providing the means to relieve the stress caused by these aspects. Mentioned solutions were mandatory work breaks, and free stress-relief courses provided by the institutes.

Some aspects of the administrative and material support were mentioned as distressing factors, e.g. in case of slow and complicated administrative processes to conduct research, or materials being unavailable. Apart from minimizing these issues, it was suggested to pay more attention to mental health issues during medical check-ups, and to make sure quick-guides are available on where people can find psychological help, or on how to recognize mental health issues in themselves. Particular attention should be paid to non-German employees, that can experience problems finding appropriate assistance in English or a different language.

The workshop participants agreed that the aspects of planning a family and work-family balance, were crucially stressful aspects during the PhD phase of their career. However, since a lot of effort is currently being made to improve this situation in the Max Planck Society, they did not focus on proposing additional measures to the existing family-support programs.  

Finally, several aspects of the social environment were identified. In the first place, contact with other PhD candidates and researchers was considered crucial for an environment to make friends, and to discuss problems that specifically occur in doctoral research situations. Secondary, the need for an open communication about mental health issues was considered crucial , as well as the need to de-normalize the occurrence of mental health problems while working in science. Solutions include setting up a structured social program for new PhD candidates, organizing social events (e.g. department-wise) and committing to awareness initiatives, such as the Awareness Months. Additionally, it should be stimulated that sick days can also apply to the "mental health days”.

Problem category Examples of stressful aspects Concrete solutions
Support / supervision
  • Unrealistic time planning
  • No concrete plan for PhD
  • No plan B, if initial plan fails
  • Lack of involvement by supervisor
  • Lack of independence (too much control by supervisor)
  • No constructive feedback
  • Definition of a clear PhD plan, with goals, alternatives, and a realistic time path
  • Limiting the number of allowed PhD students per supervisor (e.g. max. 4)
  • Mandatory interval meetings between supervisor and PhD
  • Mandatory management / leadership training for supervisors
  • Monitoring of outgoing-PhD satisfaction levels with supervisors
Job / financial security
  • Low payment
  • Lack of security (i.e. no extension given)
  • Unclear view of career perspectives (especially non-academic)
  • Increase of PhD salaries
  • A contract duration that is more dependent on actual project duration
  • A career service
Work demands
  • High number of working hours
  • Expectation to publish in limited time period
  • Stress-relief breaks at work
  • Stress-relief courses provided by institutes
Administrative and material support
  • Administrative hurdles for conducting research
  • Lack of research supplies
  • Difficulty for non-German PhDs
  • Inclusion of mental health in medical check-ups
  • Free psychological support
  • Guide on how and where to find psychological support, also for non-German speakers
  • Minimization of administrative hurdles for conducting research
Work-family balance
  • Too little money to support family
  • No space in apartment for a family
  • Contract duration too short to make secure plans
  • Elaboration of the family-support structures
Social environment
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of contact with experienced PhDs or postdocs
  • Normalization of mental health symptoms
  • Student peer groups
  • Regular social events
  • Awareness initiatives (for mental health, but also for other minorities, which are at increased risk)
  • Mental health days

In conclusion, the workshop participants provided some concrete measures that can be taken by any research institution to reduce the stressful aspects of performing doctoral research, and we hope that this will inspire institutes to make some necessary changes. For any individual researcher, it remains crucial to contribute to an open communication about the mental health aspect of work, and to seek assistance when needed. There are many sources of information, or platforms to share experiences, available online. For instance, have a look at the Academic Mental Health Collective (AMHC)>.

If you want to have more information about the workshop, feel free to contact the organizers, or listen to the podcast, which will be published later on this year on PhD Career Stories.

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