In the US, "PhD students" have traditionally focused on classroom time and course requirements, while their European counterparts, "doctoral candidates" followed the apprenticeship model. Now in Europe more institutionalised and structured doctoral programmes have taken shape. However, in the US, overregulation, higher costs and less time for independent research are cause for concern.
I came to the US for the first time in 1986 with a postdoctoral fellowship from the German Research Council after having completed a doctoral degree in natural sciences at the University of Duesseldorf. My graduate education had been Old World style. Nobody would have called me a graduate or doctoral “student.” I was supposed to generate new knowledge rather than study existing knowledge. If I needed more information or training to be successful in my research, I was of course encouraged to acquire it. How, when, and where I would do that, was completely up to me. Since university attendance was free and students weren’t charged tuition, monetary incentives for mandatory course requirements did not exist. Making me sit in a classroom wouldn’t have increased the university’s bottom line, so it didn’t matter to the institution if I went to a seminar, read a book or had a one-on-one tutorial with my advisor or any other faculty member. The assumption at the time in Europe was that doctoral candidates were mature enough to be in charge of their education and identify their gaps and needs.
With that in mind, it was a big surprise to see a PhD student in my new research group in Palo Alto, California regularly leave the lab in the Veterans Administration Hospital and drive to the Stanford campus to attend a physiology class. It seemed to be nothing more than a hoop he was made to jump through since he already had a Master’s degree in physiology. He was in his early thirties, worked completely independently, had published a number of articles in top journals and was a better and far more accomplished scientist than I was at the time.
While course requirements existed even back in the eighties, they did not significantly interfere with the ability of PhD students to freely pursue their own ideas in research and learning. Today, many PhD programs in the US have the flavour of managed care. The individual and unpredictable journey through a doctoral research project has been replaced by an overly structured pathway through graduate school that is loaded with class requirements and leaves little room for choice and autonomy. At least that was the impression I got during my time as graduate dean. When I asked PhD students about research opportunities in their programs, most of them would answer, “Too little, too late.” They would point out to me how much time they had to spend in the first year(s) on “getting requirements out of the way” and how this prevented them from getting a taste of independent research early on. Faculty, on the other hand, seemed more concerned with getting another graduate seminar on the books that would count towards their teaching load and, as a welcome side effect, reduce their undergraduate teaching. Graduate students were less enthusiastic about this side effect - they had to fill in as teaching assistants and deal with growing numbers of undergrads in their classes. Ultimately, this ate up even more of their time that otherwise could have been used for research. It is no wonder that unionisation has become increasingly popular as a strategy among PhD students to be heard and taken more seriously as employees.
What are the forces behind these changes in graduate education in the US? Probably the same forces that are behind changes in undergraduate education – increased dependence on tuition revenue and pompous bureaucracies that cost money and make further tuition hikes necessary. Corporate business models that were introduced to unleash academia’s entrepreneurial spirit haven’t really helped either. In decentralized budget systems, such as Responsibility Center Management (RCM), individual departments get to keep the tuition for the courses they teach. Simply put, forcing students to take more courses means more money for the program that teaches them. This to me is a classic conflict of interest, similar to the doctor who orders more procedures for his patient to make more money. And just like the doctor who does not want to lose a bill-paying patient to some other physician, departments with RCM do not like to see their students take courses and pay tuition elsewhere on campus. This pits entire disciplines against each other and makes the university look more parochial than universal. Not all PhD students pay tuition, but in the world of RCM budgeting, programs need to be reimbursed for every single credit hour they teach. If the money is not coming from students or grants, it has to come from somewhere else, and that is usually some pot of money in the central budget, which means the university pays itself. It also means the university spends a whole lot of time and effort on shuffling money back and forth internally without ever increasing its bottom line. That is what is called “funny money” in administrative circles and could be called “Kafkaesque transactions” by those in the department of comparative literature.
Students who pay high tuition want tangible returns and the university feels compelled to provide those in the form of student services. In recent years, the academic service sector on American campuses has expanded beyond the undergraduate world and now includes graduate students and postdocs as fee-paying customers. This has led to an astonishing duplication, sometimes multiplication of administrative offices in areas such as student conflict resolution, student wellbeing or career development. All these offices, of course, need visible leaders, so in addition to the vice-provost for student life there is now the vice-president for student success. This is nothing more than outsourcing the responsibility for one’s life and success to university bureaucrats. To me this feels like an eerie mix of helicopter parenting and Orwell’s 1984 - and not the kind of environment that leads to self-guided graduates who are immune to group thinking.
In Europe, doctoral education is still viewed as a separate cycle that focuses on developing intellectual autonomy rather than classroom-based learning. According to the Salzburg II Recommendations, doctoral candidates are “recognised as early stage researchers with commensurate rights and duties - regardless of legal status they are to be seen and treated as professionals.” This makes unionisation unnecessary. University education is not free in most European countries either, but universities do not depend on tuition to the extent that American universities do. The European ECTS credit system reflects learning outcomes and student workload, not classroom seat time or faculty teaching load. Luckily, ECTS credits do not easily translate into euros and therefore have not been used to drive tuition up in the same way the US credit hour has. Tuition in Europe is usually assessed as a flat semester fee at the university level that prevents the interdepartmental feeding frenzy over tuition. In fact, the Salzburg II Recommendations state that: “Applied wrongly, rigid credit requirements can be detrimental to the development of independent research professionals. High quality doctoral education needs a stimulating research environment driven by research enthusiasm, curiosity and creativity, not motivated by the collection of credits.” We need more of that Salzburg spirit in US higher education.
All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA Council for Doctoral Education. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.
While questions of mental health and wellbeing are present in society in general, universities have a unique responsibility to protect students, doctoral candidates and staff from the causes of mental health issues and promote their wellbeing. Doctoral candidates, in particular, are at risk as they are under great pressure to succeed, may be enrolled in a programme in a country that is not their own, and may not know where to find help as many resources are addressed to “students”, and not doctoral candidates.
In addition, there is a lack of solid information on the topic and terminology surrounding the issue may be unclear and require a conceptional revamping. This contributes to slow progress in the debate. That is why EUA-CDE has gathered some of the best experts from our community across Europe to talk about mental health and wellbeing in The Doctoral Debate. The authors of our articles have provided explanations, shared perspectives and experiences, as well as recommendations.
Katia Leveque and Anneleen Mortier from Ghent University clear up the conceptional confusion by addressing the difference between mental health and wellbeing, explaining why this distinction is so very important. Barbara Dooley, CDE Steering Committee member, shares perspectives from the institutions regarding the overall relevance of the topic and suggests how to tackle it. Janet Metcalfe and Sarah Nalden from Vitae talk about what is being done in the UK and what other institutions across Europe can learn from this experience. And Mathias Schroijen from Eurodoc shares a view from the side of doctoral candidates and describes the issue from different national contexts in Europe.
At EUA-CDE we feel that it is important to openly discuss this issue and we will be happy to receive feedback on these articles from the CDE community. We are looking forward to your perspectives and experiences and we hope you enjoy and learn from this month of reading on mental health and wellbeing on The Doctoral Debate.Read more
Over the next few weeks, The EUA-CDE Doctoral Debate will focus on the mental health and wellbeing of doctoral students and the importance of addressing this issue from an individual, institutional and societal perspective. Wellbeing and mental health tie in with the traditional focus of EUA-CDE regarding the professionalisation of doctoral education in Europe, in that there is an institutional-level responsibility to provide support and training for early-stage researchers.
Manuela Schmidt and Erika Hansson of Kristianstad University in Sweden propose a student-centred approach to meeting the needs of doctoral students, which will lead to the enhancement of doctoral students’ wellbeing as a long-term goal in order to improve it, as well as better productivity.
To put mental health into context, it is important to start with some key definitions such as mental health, mental disorder and resilience. Resilience is key to navigating the stress and uncertainty that doctoral students can encounter. The following definitions are taken from The Lancet Commission on global mental health and sustainable development:
“Mental health: The capacity of thought, emotion, and behaviour that enables every individual to realise their own potential in relation to their developmental stage, to cope with the normal stresses of life, to study or work productively and fruitfully, and to contribute to their community.
Mental disorder: Disturbances of thought, emotion, behaviour, and relationships with others that lead to substantial suffering and functional impairment in one or more major life activities, as identified in the major classification systems such as the WHO International Classification of Diseases and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Resilience: The capacity of individuals to adapt to adversity or stress, including the capacity to cope with future negative events.”
Epidemiological research worldwide has indicated a concerning growth in the prevalence of mental health issues, particularly among young adults - indicating negative psychosocial, educational and vocational consequences at the individual level, as well as a weighty social and economic cost. This is shown in the work of Patrick McGorry, Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne in Australia and Executive Director of Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health.
Coupled with this is the widespread and increasing prevalence of psychological morbidity among higher education students, representing a neglected public health issue, which holds major implications for campus health services and policy development. Recently there has been an increased focus on the mental health and wellbeing of doctoral students globally with organisations in the UK, the USA and across Europe acknowledging the mental health challenges experienced by graduate research students.
Many universities have well developed services for undergraduates but provide little or no structured information regarding accessing available resources for their doctoral community. Part of the issue with regard to doctoral candidates lies with their status. In some universities, doctoral candidates are considered students. In others they are considered employees with a contract and, in another category, the doctoral candidate is treated as an academic in the institution whilst also completing his or her doctorate. These very differences can lead to confused pathways of care for doctoral candidates when they encounter mental health difficulties.
The very nature of the doctoral experience could increase the risk of psychological distress. For some doctoral candidates this experience includes: poor supervision, conflict with supervisor or supervisory team, financial stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, balancing the need to work and conduct doctoral research, if not funded. Additional pressures include: completing the doctorate within a specified timeframe and external pressures, such as publishing, funding, career prospects, etc. - none of which are going away any time soon.
This is echoed in a recent Vitae report listing the following additional factors affecting postgraduate researchers’ wellbeing: lack of clarity with regard to what is expected as part of the research process, limited feedback on progress and expectations of high achievement and high workloads. It is a combination of risk factors rather than any single risk factor that can result in, or exacerbate, mental health issues among doctoral students.
The following reflection from a doctoral candidate captures many of the issues that published studies report. “The research environment itself can be a negative one, with little or no support for students struggling with mental health issues, particularly depression or anxiety. Even the day-to-day stresses of struggling through a difficult research project is often unsupported by facilities within the department, or even other researchers, and no information regarding accessing available resources within our higher education institutions.”
Doctoral students are very important to the research output of a university system and as such supporting them is key to strategic missions. Therefore, universities need to look beyond risk factors and focus on constructive solutions. To ensure that doctoral students are supported, universities need to take both a top-down and bottom-up, solution-focused approach. At the top, universities need to develop institutional-level structures, policies and practices to provide clarity to all involved in doctoral education.
Research points to the supervisor as key. Supervisor training should include how to identify when a doctoral student is struggling, having a constructive conversation and signposting them to appropriate support. Supervisor training should include not only good practice in supervision and feedback, but also mentoring more broadly on career pathways and where they fit within the organisational structure, areas that many doctoral students struggle with.
At an individual level, doctoral candidates themselves need to be made aware of the signs of mental health difficulties and seek help early to ensure a good outcome. Seeking help and timely intervention have consistently been shown to lead to better outcomes.
At a broader system level, institutions need to provide appropriate training for all relevant staff with roles in the wider mental health support system to understand the needs of doctoral students. Furthermore, institutions need to develop an evidence-based approach by mapping demand and systematically collecting empirical data to understand when and how to support the doctoral community.
World-class research asks for healthy and supportive work environments that allow researchers to flourish. The organisational benefits of high levels of wellbeing and good mental health in employees are well-known: better performance, less turnover, less absenteeism, less presenteeism and more organisational commitment. However, compared to the non-academic sector, universities are lagging far behind in terms of investments in the wellbeing and mental health of their doctoral researchers and academic staff. This lag is unfortunate as the European Union explicitly acknowledges that mental health is a key resource for the EU’s success as a knowledge-based society.
Is this due to a lack of need in academia? When exploring social media, the emerging picture suggests a pressing need: academics provide testimonies of stress, depressions, anxieties, addictions, burnout, suicidal ideation and suicides. According to some, the frame of “a mental health crisis in academia” is warranted.
As a reaction to the increasingly voiced concerns about wellbeing and mental health of academics on social and other media, more and more universities in Europe have put wellbeing on their policy radar, either as a totally new policy objective or as a policy objective in need of higher priority. In several universities, surveys and monitoring devices are set up, and prevention and action plans are developed or extended.
In the light of these recent developments, we call for some caution in the framing of “wellbeing” and “mental health” as these concepts refer to delicate and sensitive issues. When setting up programs, universities mostly use the framing of “wellbeing”. The terminology “mental health” is expressed far less, which might be related to the stigma and taboo surrounding it. Contrary to “mental health”, the use of a broad umbrella concept such as “wellbeing” has shown to ease the mobilisation of a critical mass of management support for initiating and adopting action programs. In addition, it might also ease the acceptance of action programs by those for whom they are developed. As categorising well-meant initiatives under the “wellbeing” umbrella has merits for its mobilising capacities, accurate reflections on term usage is in place. We’ll just initiate a few reflections.
First, in many European countries, the concept of wellbeing has no official definition. Across Europe, the conceptualisation of wellbeing differs. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work identified as many as 11 different terms in use to describe wellbeing at work. General wellbeing at work might cover physical and mental wellbeing, psychosocial issues and the working environment. At a very high level of generalisation, all conceptualisations of wellbeing refer to an individual’s positive evaluations of his or her life, as it includes positive emotion, engagement, satisfaction, and meaning. Such broad definitions enable the understanding of wellbeing, but offer no clear guidelines for research, policy or action.
Second, as for the concept of mental health, definitions vary depending on cultural differences, subjective assessments, and competing theories and paradigms. Depending on the definition, there is an assumption of a certain level of pathology. Differences in the level of pathology refer to differences in “normal” or “non-clinical” mental health status versus “abnormal”, “pathological” or “(sub-)clinical” ones. Depending on the conceptualisation, another terminology is used to indicate mental health: “distress”, “issues”, “problems”, “disorders”, “illness”, “disease”. One consequence of this lack of agreement on the conceptualisation of mental health, is that the same concept, for example “depression”, might refer to very different levels of pathology, ranging from a single, transient and normal depressed feeling, to a severe, chronic and psychiatrically diagnosed depressive disorder. Needless to say, this might lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, the hollowing out of concepts and the downplaying of severe emotional pain and suffering as a simple feeling of sadness.
Third, within occupational wellbeing research, researchers have mostly studied job outcomes (e.g. job satisfaction, absenteeism) and health outcomes (e.g. depression, emotional exhaustion) independently. Most studies have focussed on the causes of the outcomes, not on the interrelatedness of the outcomes themselves. Many people assume (often implicitly) that job and health outcomes are highly correlated. For example, many people assume that high job satisfaction is highly and positively linked with general mental health. But existing empirical evidence shows that the correlation is not as strong as usually assumed. As a consequence of the assumption, some organisations wipe out the possibility of mental health problems in their work force, using the argument that everyone is happy with their jobs, as their satisfaction surveys show. Another consequence of some assumptions made about the interrelatedness of outcomes, is that well-meant action programs might succeed in triggering desired effects in one outcome, while simultaneously triggering undesired effects in another outcome. To illustrate: an initiative aimed at reducing absenteeism might be very effective in lowering absenteeism statistics but might simultaneously trigger higher levels of presenteeism in the organisation, especially when underlying problematic working conditions are not adequately addressed.
In sum, universities that aim at efficient and effective management programs that support doctoral researchers and academic staff to flourish, might benefit from thorough reflection on how wellbeing and mental health are explicitly and implicitly conceptualised within their organisation. On top of that and more importantly, they should reflect on the (potential) consequences of these conceptualisations in terms of individual vs organisational responsibility, and in terms of approach. When work stress is reformulated in terms of a pathology or disease, it will trigger a different approach than framed in terms of psychosocial stress. The first will bring clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and medical specialists to the front stage, the latter will bring in human resources managers, job coaches and organisational change managers. The framing of wellbeing and mental health at work is not at all innocent: the concepts are real in their consequences. Nomen est omen.Read more
Thematic workshopsInter-institutional collaboration in doctoral education
Hosted by VU Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Annual meetingsThe societal dimension of doctoral education
Hosted by University of Brescia, Italy