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Are we looking after the wellbeing of our doctoral researchers?

There is increasing interest in the wellbeing and mental health of researchers. Janet Metcalfe and Sarah Nalden from Vitae discuss how a recent project exploring the experiences of doctoral researchers and institutional support for their wellbeing and mental health reveals challenges and suggestions on how to provide appropriate support.

Earlier this year, Vitae, together with the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and Professor Katia Levecque from Ghent University, were commissioned by the (then) Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to explore wellbeing and mental health and associated services for postgraduate researchers within the UK. Our findings revealed a mix of issues that need to be addressed.

Professor Levecque’s 2017 study on the mental health of doctoral researchers in Flanders identified that 32% are “at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, especially depression.” In the UK there has been a lot of attention recently on the mental health of undergraduates, whereas much less attention has been paid to the wellbeing and mental health of doctoral researchers - and even less on research staff. But doctoral degrees are stressful, and arguably doctoral researchers are potentially at a higher risk of developing a mental health condition than undergraduates.

The academic culture of high achievement and expectations of high workloads creates an environment in which wellbeing is more likely to be at risk and doctoral researchers may feel less able to talk about these issues, which can lead to a devastating impact on an individual. The UK’s biennial survey of doctoral researchers (PRES 2017) revealed that although more than 60% of doctoral researchers were satisfied with their work-life balance and 85% felt that their degree programme was worthwhile, as many as 26% of respondents had considered leaving or suspending their degree programme, with a concerning 60% of doctoral researchers with a mental health condition more likely to have considered leaving or suspending their studies.

The issues uncovered

We studied the policies and provision related to the wellbeing and mental health of doctoral researchers at ten UK universities through interviews with key staff and focus groups with doctoral researchers.

Discussions amongst professional support staff within doctoral schools, student support services and faculty recognised that some groups of doctoral researchers were potentially more vulnerable to developing poor mental health than others. International doctoral researchers were regularly singled out. Staff recognised that doctoral researchers coming to the UK from countries with very different cultures could experience a combination of risk factors, such as adjusting to a new culture, potentially working in a non-native language, less access to family and friend support, finance and visa issues. Many Asian countries have cultures in which it is difficult to acknowledge mental health issues. Other significant vulnerable groups identified were isolated researchers, part-time researchers, researchers with disabilities and researchers with family or caring responsibilities.

A further issue identified was that whilst doctoral researchers are registered as students in the UK, most doctoral researchers did not identify as students and did not relate to key institutional messages about supporting student wellbeing and the importance of good mental health. Despite significant promotion of related support services to all students, some doctoral researchers reported feeling bewildered by numerous sources of support – partly attributed to their perceptions of “falling between student and staff”. 

With these overlooked messages around student support, the quality of a doctoral researcher’s relationship with his or her supervisor/s becomes even more critical to wellbeing. As the primary point of contact, supervisors can and should play a critical role in ensuring the wellbeing of doctoral researchers. Difficulties in the supervisory relationship can be highly stressful but, even in the most positive supervisory relationships, doctoral researchers may feel uncomfortable about raising wellbeing issues. Supervisors should know when and how to intervene, and where to direct their researchers for appropriate support. Most supervisors, however, lack the appropriate training and support to do so confidently.

What can institutions do?

Universities UK has recently developed “StepChange”, a mental health framework encouraging a whole institution approach to mental health in the higher education sector. The language of the framework is primarily focused on undergraduate students but, with the associated resources, provides a very helpful process to develop institutional strategies to support the wellbeing and mental health of doctoral researchers with an aim of prevention and early intervention.

In practical terms this means that universities should:

  • invest in wellbeing and mental health support and resources to meet expected doctoral researcher demand and integrate this as an integral part of researcher developmentprogrammes;

  • provide mental health literacy training for supervisors, including support for the identification and early intervention into the wellbeing and mental health of doctoral researchers;

  • provide researchers with a safe and supportive environment where they can ask for help and mental health literacy training so they know when and how to do so; and consider targeted support for at-riskpopulations;

  • signpost wellbeing and mental health support services specifically to doctoral researchers, reviewing and monitoring the effectiveness and demand for these resources andactivities. 

For research institutions to provide a safe working environment for all researchers, which supports their wellbeing and mental health, commitment by institutional leadership is needed, together with systemic cultural change across the academic environment. Our current academic culture of high expectations, high achievements and armour-like resilience is not particularly conducive to feeling in a safe enough environment where such vulnerabilities can be exposed. Imposter syndrome – internal fear of being exposed as a “fraud” - is common in the academia environment (affecting men and women equally) and more likely at the early career level. In the current landscape of increasing competition for fewer academic contracts, the perceived fear of risking career advancement and credibility by revealing mental health issues is understandable.

In the UK, the wellbeing and mental health of our researchers is getting increased attention. Since the Vitae report, the Office for Students and Research England has provided £1.5M (€ 1.68 M) in competitive funding for 17 projects in English universities over the next two years aimed at improving the wellbeing and mental health of doctoral researchers. Vitae and Universities UK have been commissioned to evaluate the impact of this funding programme, identify good practice and facilitate the sharing practices and experiences across the UK academic sector. The aim is to support the practicalities of implementing wellbeing and mental health initiatives across the sector. Projects include identifying needs, developing peer support and mentoring programmes, integrating wellbeing into researcher development programmes, developing supervisory resources and improving signposting and links to National Health Services (NHS).

A current UK consultation relating to the independent review of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers will provide a prime opportunity to consider how the current research culture is impacting on the wellbeing and mental health of researchers. Vitae members are able to join a Researcher Wellbeing Community.

There is good evidence that helping people thrive by providing a healthy, motivating and high-performance work environment helps produce a happy, engaged and productive workforce. Effective management of mental health in the research environment (and in industry), will not only boost productivity and performance, but can have a positive impact on progression and retention too. To produce world-class research, we must provide a healthy and supportive research environment that allows the new generation of researchers to flourish.

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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

Janet Metcalfe is the Head of Vitae, which is committed to providing world-class career and professional development for researchers. She leads on the implementation of the UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. She works internationally with institutions and governments to create inclusive and healthy research environments for researchers to flourish. She was a member of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Advisory Group (2015-18) and led on the H2020 funded project to create career support for researchers on intersectoral mobility for EURAXESS. Her latest publication is the “Wellbeing and mental health and associated services for postgraduate researchers”. 

Sarah Nalden is Communications and Marketing Executive for CRAC and manages the “voice” of Vitae. Vitae enhances the skills and careers of researchers and works with more than 200 institutions in 20 countries as they strive for research excellence, innovation and impact.

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