The numbers are striking. Up to 25- 30% of UU PhD candidates experience significant stress-related mental health problems during their PhD. Many would not feel free to talk to their supervisors about these issues, and most voices resonate the need for change to come from above.
Such were the conclusions of the first symposium on PhD Mental Health held at UU last January 25th, organized by Prout, in cooperation with the UPP, University Council, and the Graduate School of Life Sciences.
The urgency felt by PhD’s to address the problem was highlighted by the popularity of the event, with more than 120 participants attending an event fully booked weeks ahead of time. This urgency become more poignant when it was surveyed that 38% of participants had sought professional advice for stress-related issues, and 26% would not talk about these issues with their supervisor.
The symposium had two aims: “What can you do” – to exchange personal tips and tricks for a healthy PhD, and “What can the UU do?” – to bring this underplayed issue to the attention of UU policymakers and supervisors.
In the first part of the symposium, three experts on PhD mental health shared their expertise. Dr. Inge van der Weijdenfrom Leiden University presented research concluding that 40% of Leiden University PhDs had mental health issues – a figure much higher than corresponding figures for non-academic same-age same-education counterparts. The psychologist appointed at Delft University to address PhD-issues, Paula Meesters, described the mental health support system for PhDs at TU Delft, inspired the audience with a short medidation session, and emphasized the importance of having a variety of coping skills. The third expert, Dr. Amber Davis, a PhD Coach at Happy PhD, gave personal advise on how to do more by working less, but also stressed that this is a collective issue, not an individual one.
The talks were followed by an interactive panel discussion. The panel was moderated by Janneke Plantenga, the new dean of the Law, Economics and Governance Faculty, with Hans de Bresser (vice-dean in Geosciences), Estrella Montoya (PhD mentor and Jr. Ass. Prof at Social and Behavioural Sciences), and Jeff Smit (PNN representative) participating. The guest speakers considered having transparent two-way communication between PhD and supervisors and setting clear boundaries and expectations when it comes to working hours and thesis requirements, as important steps a PhD can take. However, the PhD’s presented the flip-side of this argument, stating that they feel the atmosphere and openness of a department is largely determined by the supervisor, and that falling in line with pre-formed expectations is imperative to avoid the “complainer-label” and to have decent working relationships with those in the department.
Once audience member noted – to a rousing applause from the crowd –how shockingly little attention and awareness there is for general wellbeing, career training, and supervision quality in academia when compared to industry and the public sector. The panel and audience seemed to agree that structural improvement of PhD mental health must be spear-headed and supported by policy from above. An example of how this could be achieved is mandatory supervision training for professors.
The organizers were very pleased with the involvement of and interaction between PhDs and policy makers. They hope this event marks the start of collaborative push to change culture and policy at Utrecht University.
Missed it? Check here the presentations, know whom to contact if you have problems, or consider attending the stress management course set up by Prout and UPP with the Graduate School of Natural Sciences, open to all UU PhDs.
We also assembled a PhD Wellbeing Guide based on the input of the symposium.