Rector intends to offer psychological support to PhDs, following petition

Today, October 24th 2018, the petition for psychological support for UU PhDs was handed in to the rector of Utrecht University. In the meeting, the organizers of the petition discussed with the rector the importance of PhD mental health and what will be the next steps to address this issue at UU.

Handing in petition Oct 24

We were glad to hand in our petition with 1000+ signatures for PhD mental health support to the UU rector, Henk Kummeling.

The rector said he was concerned with PhD wellbeing and mental health, and agreed to discuss with us concrete scenarios for offering mental health support in November, and to have a final decision in December/January. The rector also said that the help should be provided by trained psychologists.

The petition ran from June to October 2018, and gathered 1021 signatures across all faculties of the University, from PhD candidates (695), all levels of academic staff (e.g. 21 Professors, 108 Assistant or Associate Professors), support staff (33), and alumni (29 former PhDs) (see below).

We are glad with the support of so many people for a topic that is still very much taboo, and we were especially touched and encouraged by the many comments people left on the petition, sharing their personal experience, and adding other good arguments for the university to care more about its employees.

Finally, we are pleased with the commitment shown by the Rector of the University and we look forward to discuss concrete solutions for implementing psychological support for PhDs at UU as soon as possible

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Outdated – we have now more than 1000 signatures!

On June 13th Prout launched, together with UPP, a petition for psychological support for PhDs to be implemented at UU.

By mid-September we reached more than 700 signatures, from all across UU, including PhDs but also Professors, Assistant and Associate Professors, other research and support staff, and some ex-PhDs and alumni. Here are some statistics from September 18th (731 signatures). Update: by September 27th we have more than 900 signatures. Update 2: The petition closed on October 3rd, with more than 1000 signatures. An update with final statistics will follow.

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Can we display your name in the petition?

More than half of the people have shared why they signed the petition. Many PhDs mentioned that they signed the petition because of personal experience. Others explain how it is in the interest of the university to support the mental health of its employees. Here are some of those comments.

“Because I think psychological support specifically for PhD students would be very welcome and needed. Ultimately the financial benefits may also be substantial for Utrecht University if this support will help prevent PhD students to fall ill, get a burnout etc.”  –  Martin Junginger, Professor, Geosciences

“It is alarming how many burnout and stress signs I see among friends who did or are still doing a PhD, and my own wasn’t a stroll. Psychological support should be widely publicised and made easily accessible to PhD students without referrals, and ideally presented in such a way that they would be prompted to reach out early on.” – Anonymous, Former PhD Candidate, Science

“I believe that low threshold mental healthcare is very important for PhD students. Especially since a large amount of the PhD’s are from abroad, which makes it harder for them to find the right care in the Dutch system. Further, it’s a special group of people with comparable challenges, so group sessions can be very effective.” – Eelke Bontekoe, Junior Researcher, Geosciences

“The PhD process can be difficult. Perhaps you don’t want to jeopardise the relation you have with your supervisors by telling them that you struggle with issues which are not directly related to the content of your thesis. For example, that you are struggling with stress or the feeling that you must succeed or other things like this. I have noticed that lots of PhD students are struggling with these feelings – especially PhD students who just have started like me. I think it would be helpful if there would be psychological support besides the substantive support of your supervisors to discuss or get help with topics like this.” – Anonymous, PhD Candidate, Law, Economics and Governance

“There’s a lot of stress in academia, people should receive more psychological support in general – so this is surely the case also for PhD students.” –  Mara Baudena, Assistant Professor, Geosciences

“Psychological wellbeing is of prime importance to a healthy working/living situation for everybody and should always be made available to employees by any employer who takes the lives of his/her workers seriously. Especially during a PhD project, for which it is well-know (yet a kind of public secret) that apart from fighting your own demons, candidates can get caught up in wider already existing power structures and struggles that can have tremendous impact on wellbeing. Support is super necessary!” – Elke Linders, PhD Candidate, Social and Behavioural Sciences

“This is an important issue, and one that is only going to become more urgent in our neoliberal universities. As someone who has, and still does struggle with their own mental health difficulties, I was shocked by the lack of explicit, institutional support available at Utrecht University.” –  Richard Lane, Post-Doc, Geosciences

“A lot of PhDs are dealing with stress, job pressure and mental health issues accordingly. There is support (free or for a small fee) for students, but not for PhDs (!). If PhDs need help/support they have to pay it themselves (which is often too expensive and they CAN NOT do it). Also, courses to prevent larger problems such as depression and burnout are very expensive for PhDs (or it will be paid off their research budget what is also not a solution, because they need that money to perform their job!!!), so they also CAN NOT do that. Attention and help is needed!!” – Ilona Domen, PhD Candidate, Social and Behavioural Sciences

“In my view, even more than an intellectual challenge, a PhD is a mental challenge. It is logical that scientists or peers do not necessarily have the expertise to support PhDs in this regard. There is a clear role for a dedicated professional on this issue.” – Wouter Schram, PhD Candidate, Geosciences

“Doing a PhD is challenging. Apart from the high quality work you are expected to do, you also often work your own, you are solely responsible for your own project and time management, while most people have not had much previous work experience. For the internationals, there is the extra challenge of adapting to a new environment and finding a support system. I know I’ve had some of these struggles myself as a PhD student. Therefore, I believe it is important that the University provides psychological support for PhDs. Apart from improving their quality of life, I think there’s also a good chance that this support would increase success rate and decrease the amount of delays.” – Narcisa Nechita-Banda, Post-Doc, Science

“When I read about your claims and troubles (depression, burnout, unhappiness, anxiety and high levels of stress), for a moment I thought you were talking about all staff members and not only PhD candidates ;-) I support your initiative and I consider that, sometime in the future, it should be extended to UU members in general.” – Anonymous, Assistant Professor, Science

“The kind of work a PhD student is expected to do is impossible without a healthy mind. It is the responsibility of the university to ensure its employees are fit for work and to give its employees the tools to manage themselves; mental health is no longer seen as an individual’s responsibility, but rather as something that should be cared for by the community.” – Nina Kopacz, PhD Candidate, Geosciences

“It’s NOT about bashing the UU administration! These are trying times for young people in the early stages of their (academic) careers. I believe academia in general and UU in particular could and should take up its societal responsibility and set an example in being supportive of healthy professional and personal development.” – Arjan Sieverink, Support Staff,  University Corporate Office

“It’s time. We need to understand the research process and how to make it work efficiently. No PhD student wants to pass through serious health issues, neither their professors and family. And research doesn’t need it either. It’s time we realize it, openly discuss it. Every profession has its picks and throws. The throws of research are still tabu. To improve productivity in research and resiliently pass through its throws, to break the chain of inefficient research habits/issues passing from generation to generation of scholars, to form healthy and productive scholars/professionals, it’s time we deeply understand the implications and risks during the initiating research process, and accordingly support PhD students passing and learning through it.” – Teresa Farinha, PhD Candidate, Geosciences

You can sign and read more about the petition  here .

If you would also like your comment to be published here (with your name, or anonymously) contact Ana:

The petition is open for signatures until the end of September 2018.

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:

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.


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.


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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