“Institutional action is needed”- a review of the PhD mental health symposium

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. 

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PhD Movies Screening in Filmtheater ’t Hoogt

Wednesday 27 January 2016 from 17:45 to 21:00
Filmtheater ‘t Hoogt – Hoogt 4, 3512 GW, Utrecht
Piled Higher and Deeper: Still in Grad School” is the sequel to the film adaptation of the popular comic strip “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham. The film takes a smart and humorous look at the world of academia through the eyes of four grad students, and features real academics (including a Nobel Prize winner!) in many of the roles. Click here to view the trailer.
The PhD Movie 1 takes a humorous and poignant look at four graduate students as they grapple with research, being a teaching assistant and finding balance in their over-worked lives. The PhD Movie 2 looks at themes of competition in research, overcoming writer’s block, and finding your voice.
Please join The PhD Movies screening on 27 January 2016 organised by Prout | PhD Network Utrecht and the Graduate School of Life Sciences (GSLS).
Sign up now! The event is free for PhD candidates. Registration is limited to 130 seats, first come first serve!


Prout calls on Executive Board to improve status of PhD candidates

On 19 May, Prout sent a letter to the Executive Board to draw their attention to the problems that especially bursary PhD candidates of Utrecht University encounter. These PhD candidates neither have an employee status nor a student status within the University, causing them to find themselves disadvantaged legally and socially. For example, they don’t have access to housing facilities for students (because they are not students), but neither can they find accommodation through the social and private rental sector (because they do not have a labour contract). Another problem is that they have no voting rights at University and Faculty Council elections. Prout has urged the Executive Board to give bursary PhD candidates and PhD candidates employed by the UMCU the same rights and resources as their fellow PhD candidates employed by the university. Read the English translation of our letter here.

Utrechtse Promovendi: Bussemaker’s experiment promotiestudenten slecht plan

Minister Bussemaker van Onderwijs wil per 2016 een experiment starten waarbij promovendi geen werknemers van de universiteit meer zijn, maar studenten met een studiebeurs. Prout, het netwerk van Utrechtse promovendi, is kritisch. In een eerder experiment met het zogeheten bursalensysteem werden de beoogde doelen niet behaald. Prout vreest dat het experiment in zijn huidige vorm te weinig verschilt van het eerdere experiment om tot betere resultaten te leiden.

In tegenstelling tot de werknemerpromovendi hoeven promotiestudenten geen onderwijs te geven. Daardoor zouden ze zich meer kunnen concentreren op hun eigen opleiding en onderzoek. In het experiment met promotiestudenten dat de Universiteit Utrecht in de jaren negentig uitvoerde, bleek echter dat de twee typen promovendi in de praktijk niet van elkaar verschilden: het beloofde extra onderwijs voor promotiestudenten was niet beschikbaar, zij kregen niet meer begeleiding van hun promotor, en zij gaven nog steeds onderwijs.

Prout maakt zich vooral zorgen over de financiële en sociale positie van promotiestudenten en hun carrièreperspectieven. Promotiestudenten krijgen geen reiskostenvergoeding, bouwen geen pensioen op en hebben geen arbeidsongeschiktheidsverzekering. Als zij een beurs krijgen die even hoog is als het nettosalaris van een werknemerpromovendus, dan moeten zij deze onkosten dus uit eigen portemonnee betalen. De kans op een baan na afronding van de promotie is volgens Prout ook kleiner: werkgevers buiten de universiteit zullen het promotietraject niet als ‘werkervaring’ beschouwen, terwijl universiteiten zullen wijzen op het gebrek aan onderwijservaring.

Promoveren wordt volgens Prout op deze manier onaantrekkelijk. “Als promotiestudent kun je eind twintig zijn en nog steeds student, terwijl je voormalige studiegenoten al een paar jaar een ‘echte’ baan hebben,” aldus Prout-voorzitter Sophie van Uijen. “De Minister wil meer promovendi aantrekken, maar wij verwachten exact het tegenovergestelde.”

PrOUt Charter on Bursaries

PrOUt is concerned by the recent debate on the implementation of a bursary PhD student system in the Netherlands. In contrast to previous political views, the current government seeks to legally enable Dutch universities to facilitate Dutch bursary PhD students. Although this could possibly lead to an increase in cost efficiency for universities and hence to a larger number of PhD students, PrOUt believes the introduction of bursary PhD students is a bad idea. We wrote a charter that was offered to the University Council (U-raad [Dutch]), the University Board (CvB) and the rector magnificus.

Also, the national PhD candidates network (PNN) calls upon all PhD candidates to sign a petition on www.promovendus.org, which also contains a list of arguments (NB: the website is in Dutch). So let’s all join our forces!