Petition for PhD psychological support – more than 250 signatures in one week

On June 13th, PhDs at Utrecht University launched a petition for psychological support to be available for PhDs at the university. While mental health issues are prevalent among PhDs, a proper support system is lacking. This need is reflected in the large number of signatures (more than 250) collected in one week. The petition is supported by PhDs (62%), and by UU staff from all levels of the university.

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The petition follows two actions by the two UU-wide PhD organizations: Prout – PhD Network Utrecht, and UPP – Utrecht PhD Party. Prout and UPP have coordinated the first symposium on PhD mental health at Utrecht University in January 25th 2018. This was followed-up by a guide for PhDs, and a letter with 10 recommendations for PhD well-being, sent to the UU board in March, and strongly supported by PhD councils.

In early April, the UU board responded to the letter in a university council meeting. The UU board expressed their understanding and willingness to implement the recommendations, all except for the first one: “Appoint a full-time PhD psychologist – make it easy for PhDs who are struggling to get specialized professional help”. It was reasoned that providing healthcare is not a core task of the University. According to the UU board, PhDs should follow the current procedures, i.e. consulting with the company doctor (bedrijfsarts), and with the social workers (maatschappelijk werker). The board said it would look into the possibility of training the company doctor and social workers in specific PhD issues.

However, considering the prevalence of mental health issues among PhD candidates, there is a need for specific psychological support services. While UU students can go to the student psychologist, PhDs can only meet with social workers, or with a confidential advisor. For mental health problems, they are forced to seek help outside the university. Comments to the petition show that many PhDs feel or felt the need to have mental health support during the PhD. Some mention that when seeking help outside, general psychologists do not understand very well the particular situation of doing a PhD.

Having dedicated psychologists and sessions for PhDs at UU would be the best-suited approach, following the steps of other universities: TU Delft appointed a PhD psychologist, and UvA made the student psychological services available to PhDs.

In sum, paraphrasing petition comments, doing a PhD is not only an intellectual, but also a mental challenge, for which support from mental health professionals should be available. Ultimately, it is also in the interest of the university that PhDs are healthy and able to finish. Providing psychological services would acknowledge the importance of mental health, and contribute to a healthier work environment at UU.

While 250 signatures is a good start, we would like to collect many more in the coming months. So, please share it around, and let us know if you have any questions!

Read and sign the petition here: http://bit.do/PHDpetition.

Petition for psychological support for PhDs at Utrecht University

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In the past months we co-organized a PhD mental health symposium, and we wrote a letter of 10 recommendations for PhD wellbeing to the UU board (see here the response of the board). As a follow-up we decided to start a petition for psychological support for PhDs at Utrecht University.

Petition

To the board of Utrecht University,

We, the undersigned, want to ask for psychological support for PhD candidates at Utrecht University. This request is supported by Prout (PhD network Utrecht) and UPP (Utrecht PhD Party). This is a follow-up of the PhD mental health symposium organized on January 25th 2018 with about 130 participants, and of the 10-recommendations letter for PhD well-being sent to the UU board in March this year.

It has been repeatedly shown that PhDs are at high risk of mental health issues, such as depression, burnout, unhappiness, anxiety and high levels of stress. While currently PhDs at UU can consult with a staff confidential advisor and with social workers, this is not enough when it comes to mental health.

PhDs should have free access to psychological support, including individual consultations with psychologists, walk-in hours, group sessions, and courses addressing the psychological challenges of doing a PhD (e.g. stress, motivation, work-life balance, etc.).

UU can follow the example of other Dutch universities. TU Delft appointed a PhD psychologist, and UvA made the student psychological services available to PhDs. Offering low-threshold access to psychological support improves employee wellbeing, and prevents PhD dropout and delay, compensating potential costs.

We urge the UU board to take action and provide psychological support for all UU PhDs.

 


Sign it on this link, or here below!

Response of UU board to Prout’s recommendations

On April 9th we heard the response of the UU board to our letter of recommendations, during a university council meeting with Anton Pijpers, the chair of the UU board.

The UU board understands most of the recommendations and they have added it to the Graduate Agenda (the general plan of how to improve the PhD phase at UU).

They were less enthusiastic about appointing a psychologist, but they said they will ensure that the social workers are sufficiently equipped to deal with PhD issues.

They will also investigate how to make transferable skills courses more accessible to everyone, regardless of which graduate school you belong to, or what your budget is.

Next steps

We are happy that the UU board agreed with almost all of our recommendations (except the PhD psychologist – the first recommendation on our list). We have agreed to re-evaluate these measures with the UU board in October, to see if they are sufficient.

However, we still think that it would be very important to provide psychological support to PhDs at UU, so we decided to start a petition! You can read it and sign it here.

“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.

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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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