Universiteit Leiden

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Study of wellbeing of PhD candidates at Leiden University

A study carried out at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) on the wellbeing of PhD candidates at Leiden University has shown that a number of them experience so much stress that they can develop mental health problems. The supervision of PhD candidates is a continuing focus of attention for the University.

The CWTS study is a follow-up on earlier research among PhD candidates in Northern Belgium, which showed that PhD candidates had a higher risk of mental health problems than the regular academically educated professional population in the region. CWTS was keen to analyse the situation for Leiden PhD candidates. 

Survey among Leiden PhD candidates

The CWTS surveyed PhD candidates at Leiden University to find out about their situation: 250 out of over 1200 PhD candidates, excluding those at LUMC, filled in the questionnaire. They were given the survey from the Belgian study, with a questionnaire adapted to the Dutch situation. They were asked about such issues as tasks, autonomy, supervision, leadership and career opportunities. They were also asked about the work-private life balance, handling work stress, and wellbeing. 

Young and international PhD candidates

The Leiden CWTS survey showed that 38% of the PhD candidates surveyed had an increased risk of mental  health problems. Young and international PhD candidates were particularly at risk. It is understandable that the transition to a 'new' country plays an important role here. Adapting to a new social environment is a stressful process. International students may also have to cope with a language barrier, immigration problems, culture shock, social differences and homesickness, and this period of adaptation may also be a time of feelings of loneliness.   

Handling work pressure

The CWTS survey also shows that work pressure as such is not a significant predicter of mental problems among PhD candidates. They are aware that they have a heavy workload and that this can - temporarily - impact the balance between work and private life. If PhD candidates experience problems with the amount and tempo of their work - the so-called ‘coping’ with work pressure - this is when mental health problems can occur. 

Very serious

The University takes the wellbeing of staff and signals from this research very seriously. Hester Bijl, Vice-Rector commented, 'Although only a small group of all PhD candidates at Leiden University were surveyed, and research is also needed with control groups, the indications are that the supervision and coaching of this group warrants continuous attention. I believe that the wellbeing of PhD candidates is very important and that broader research is needed. It would be good if other universities were to address this issue too. The ideal thing would be to carry out this kind research together among a larger population group.’

Supervision plan

Earlier research at the University in 2015 also produced some signals about work stress and how to handle it. After that, the University implemented a number of measures and the training and supervision of PhDs was improved. New measures are also in the pipeline. A trainig and supervision plan will be made for each PhD candidate within three months, and he or she will have an annual discussion with independent staff members. 

Psychologist for PhD candidates

In addition, every PhD candidate will have a compulsory - broad - range of courses aimed at research and teaching and the development of general skills. Each Graduate School will have a confidential counsellor for PhD candidates and the University will appoint a psychologist specifically for this group. There are also plans to work with a buddy system for international PhD candidates in the Netherlands. 

Recognising the risks

In the autumn of 2017 a special training course will start for members of staff who are supervising a PhD candidate for the first time. The course will include specific attention for recognising risks and warning signs when a PhD candidate is experiencing too much stress, communication with PhD candidates with a non-Western background and preparation for their future career.  Career support will also be improved.