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Safeguarding the mental health of doctoral candidates in Europe

Rather than a problem, mental health is an opportunity for the scientific community to create healthy and empowering working conditions. Mathias Schroijen tells us how Eurodoc aims to raise awareness and advocate for independent research on mental health among early-career researchers in Europe in order to provide preventive policies and share good practices.

The development of doctoral candidates into autonomous and critical early-career professionals lies at the heart of doctoral training. This development typically takes place in flexible and self-managed working conditions, which ideally encourage them to manage their own individual career development. However, a recent study in Belgium (Leveque et al., 2016 and 2017) has shown worrying figures on the prevalence of mental health problems in doctoral candidates, when compared to a similar cohort of highly educated individuals from the general population. Approximately 40% reported feeling under constant strain, while 30% reported feeling unhappy and depressed. Similar observations have been made at the University of California in the United States (University of California Graduate Student Well-Being Survey 2016) and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands (van der Weijden et al., 2017), with comparable high reports of anxiety and depression. Despite such consistent findings, these results are limited in scope and we do not know how prevalent such issues are in doctoral candidates across Europe, what the exact causes are, and how to tackle these issues effectively.

Mental health is a top priority for the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc) and as such we aim to raise awareness of mental health issues, facilitate research funding on mental health issues, train and support early-career researchers, and finally provide policy recommendations and examples of good practices. Two exemplary initiatives are noteworthy from within the Eurodoc network. Firstly, the Polish Association of Doctoral Candidates (KRD) has undertaken the initiative to evaluate mental health among doctoral candidates in Poland using David Goldberg’s General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-28). Secondly, the Association of Italian PhD Candidates and PhDs (ADI) is currently collecting information in collaboration with the psychological consulting centres within the Italian universities.

Preliminary results from KRD confirm that doctoral candidates in Poland feel exposed to high pressure in a competitive environment which requires them to develop very specific, complex, and demanding skills. Between 40% and 50% of all respondents have reported feeling exhausted, overworked and overwhelmed by their responsibilities. Forty-six percent have felt the need to improve their health condition and 34% reported a strongly reduced enjoyment of ordinary daily life. A minority has even reported feeling “worthless” as a person (14%), to have thought about their own death (7%), or to have experienced suicidal thoughts (6%). ADI is currently working on a protocol for a multicentric study to evaluate the mental health conditions of doctoral candidates working in Italy. In addition, they are now trying to raise awareness on mental health issues and to identify possible risk factors for researchers. Several meetings with doctoral candidates, postdoctoral researchers, and the wider academic community are scheduled to take place in the coming months to openly discuss these issues and come up with practical positive solutions.

We can hypothesise a wide array of factors that may individually or collectively lead to the development of mental health issues in doctoral candidates. Examples include a lack of career prospects in academia, the doctoral candidate-supervisor relationship, imposter syndrome, poor institutional support, the publish-or-perish mentality, working conditions, funding pressure, isolation, mobility, lack of social support, high teaching load, and work-life balance. For a better understanding of these risk factors, we will focus on four important challenges which most early-career researchers are confronted with. 

A first challenge is the observation that many doctoral candidates feel ill-prepared and highly uncertain when facing the transition in their professional career to the non-academic labour market. Moreover, their training remains primarily focused on an academic career, a career which doctoral candidates themselves continue to desire and often deem as the superior career path when compared to career opportunities outside of academia. A second challenge is the taboo surrounding work-related stress and mental health issues in academia. Doctoral candidates are expected to work independently and to be able to deal with the high demands of academic life. Those who are stressed or facing mental health issues often do not dare to tell anyone because of the potential risk of jeopardising their academic career by being deemed unsuitable for academia. A third challenge is the support needed for doctoral candidates who admit that they are experiencing difficulties. Many institutions have counsellors for students and staff, but most do not have specific counsellors who are trained for the particular issues that doctoral candidates face during their research. Finally, doctoral candidates often struggle with the feeling that, besides their publications, many of their other tasks (lab management, administrative tasks, team management, student guidance, science vulgarization, etc.) often remain poorly recognised. 

Factors such as a lack of professional perspective, social isolation, non-supportive working environments, and a lack of recognition are potentially causal factors for the development of mental health issues. However, the problem is that we do not have systematic data to make evidence-based and effective policies. For Eurodoc, our priority is thus to raise awareness and advocate for independent research on mental health issues among doctoral candidates in Europe in order to develop proper solutions and preventive measures. In light of this, we deem it crucial that there are adequate health support structures in place to support doctoral candidates, that doctoral candidates find inspirational leadership and guidance along with satisfactory and constructive work relations, and that doctoral candidates can optimally develop themselves in both their scientific expertise and their career prospects outside of academia.

A supportive network of inspirational mentors and sustainable resources for continuous self-development are likely positive factors in preventing and alleviating mental health issues. We strongly encourage the scientific community to look at mental health as an opportunity instead of a problem. Scientific breakthroughs and major innovations are built on human capital, on individual scientists’ creativity, resilience, perseverance and curiosity. As these qualities require a healthy mind, mental health acts as a barometer for the quality and potential of our scientific work. Actions to better understand and improve mental health allow the scientific community to re-think and re-design the conditions under which science is practised. This is our opportunity to create empowering working conditions in which scientists are able to develop and reach their full potential. Even minor actions can make the difference: actively keep an eye on your colleagues, reach out if you think there are issues, and take care of yourself and each other.

With contributions by Mateusz Kowalczyk (Medical University of Lodz/KRD), Giulia Malaguarnera (University of Catania/ADI), Gareth O’Neill (Leiden University/Eurodoc), and Ewelina Pabjańczyk-Wlazło (Lodz University of Technology/KRD).

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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.

About the author

Mathias Schroijen is a doctoral candidate in health psychology at KU Leuven in Belgium and Secretary of Eurodoc where he also coordinates the mental health working group. Eurodoc aims to raise awareness and advocates for independent research on mental health among early-career researchers in Europe in order to provide preventive policies and share good practices. 

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