Number of stressed PhD students has increased despite several initiatives by AU

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Aarhus University has not managed to reduce stress among PhD students. Since 2013, the number of stressed PhD students has risen and in a new survey, 20% of PhD students responded that their work causes serious symptoms of stress. The Aarhus University PhD Association, AUPA, now expects that more will be done to combat the problem.

2021.08.27 | Asger Søndergaard Nielsen

Since 2013, the number of stressed PhD students has risen and in a new survey, 20% of PhD students responded that their work causes serious symptoms of stress. Photo: Maria Randima/AU Foto, grafisk bearbejdning: Omnibus

 

Selected results from the PhD survey

Supervisor relationship

94% have a mutually respectful relationship with their supervisor

83% feel that they are respected as a research colleague

82% would highly recommend their supervisor

80% are satisfied with the range of PhD courses

Well-being

20% often or almost always experience serious symptoms of stress as a result of their work

37% believe that their work takes up so much time that it often or almost always impacts their private life

66% are uncertain as to whether their work is good enough

23% have feelings of loneliness during a normal working day

The coronavirus

78% are concerned that the coronavirus has had a negative effect on the quality of their PhD degree programme

90% find that their ability to establish networks has been negatively affected by the coronavirus

You can read the results in full here.

Every four years AU conducts a survey of its PhD process. In the most recent report from July, it was clear that in general the PhD students were very happy with their studies: 86% are happy with what they have learned, 94% have a mutually respectful relationship with their supervisor, and 83% feel that they are respected as research colleagues.      

But hidden among the many positive numbers is a problem, which has grown since the survey was first conducted in 2013.  Back then, 13% of PhD students responded that their work caused them serious stress symptoms. That number rose to 17% in the report from 2017, and now the number is at 20%.

This needs to be taken seriously, believes Gitte Wichmann-Hansen, who is in charge of the survey and is an associate professor at the Centre for Educational Development.


Gitte Wichmann-Hansen is in charge of the survey and is an associate professor at the Centre for Educational Development.

“The numbers in general are really positive, especially when we look at things that we know are important parameters for the students’ success. They feel that the supervision is good, they are by and large well-integrated into the research environment, and they are deeply motivated,” said Gitte Wichmann-Hansen and continued:

“But challenges with the students’ well-being still persist.  They concern the levels of stress, uncertainty and loneliness among the students. We cannot ignore these figures.”

Uncertainty is the root cause of stress

In addition to stress, other welfare problems are apparent among the students: 23% of the PhD students suffer from loneliness and 66% are unsure of whether their work is good enough. This is a serious problem argued AUPA, AU’s PhD Association.

”The numbers related to stress, uncertainty and loneliness are very worrying,” said AUPA’s chairperson Kristoffer Ibsen, who is a PhD student at the Department of Economics and Business Economics. 

In particular, uncertainty is something well-known to those at AUPA.  Kristoffer Ibsen explained that it might be the unclear expected targets that fuel the uncertainty among PhD students.

”Uncertainty is expressed at different times during the PhD journey.  Many questions go through the minds of students such as: am I good enough to present at a conference? Is my work good enough to be published? Will I get a job at the university after I finish my PhD and how do I go about getting this job? The requirements that students must meet and the processes they have to go through are very unclear while undertaking the PhD. We’ve talked about how some of this uncertainty contributes to students being stressed and doubting their own ability,” said Kristoffer Ibsen.

Double role and unclear requirements

According to Gitte Wichmann-Hansen, the report cannot explicitly explain the cause for the dissatisfaction among the PhD students, but she mentioned that they know from International Studies that the levels of uncertainty among the PhD students are rising and that uncertainty is closely tied to a feeling of loneliness, uncertain career paths, a competitive environment, high expectations of independence and, at the same time, unclear targets set for the students.  

”It’s not clear to all students what is expected of them and what level they should achieve. It’s difficult to know when good is good enough,” said Gitte Wichmann-Hansen, and continued:

“This also applies to experienced researchers. Uncertainty is a natural and healthy part of doing research. But for students, there is an increased risk that the uncertainty becomes an unhealthy mechanism. One of the reasons for this is that they are in the process of learning to master unfamiliar research processes as well as being expected to produce publishable high-quality research output.”

The coronavirus can’t take all the blame

The survey was conducted during the coronavirus pandemic, but it is difficult to say how much the pandemic has affected the numbers, explained Gitte Wichmann-Hansen. 

“What we can confirm is that a large proportion of the students experienced that the coronavirus pandemic had a negative effect on the quality of their studies. We can also see a clear connection between those who expressed concern for the quality of their work because of the coronavirus and the high level of stress that they experienced. But there’s nothing in the data to indicate that the coronavirus should take all the blame.  If this was the case, then we should have seen an extreme change in our numbers from the 2013 and 2017 reports, but instead we’ve seen a steady increase over the years of dissatisfaction reported among students,” she said and added:

“However, the students’ feelings of social loneliness and isolation have increased dramatically, which is most likely due to the lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Serious consequences

In addition to the personal consequences of being under enormous stress, Gitte Wichmann-Hansen explained that a large number of studies in the field show that when there is a lack of well-being, typically in the form of stress, loneliness and uncertainty, the chances of students dropping out increases and this reduces productivity and progress along the way. These consequences are also worrying for AUPA.  


Kristoffer Ibsen, chair of AUPA  

Kristoffer Ibsen believes that the university has done too little to combat the problems. 

”Of course, these aren’t new figures. I don’t understand why there isn’t more focus on this issue from the university’s side. This should be a top priority among the graduate schools right now,” he said, questioning what the university has done since the last survey results were published.

“It seems that overall the university is satisfied with the status quo,” said the chair of AUPA.

Annoyed by the criticism

Anne Marie Pahuus, vice-dean and head of graduate school at the Faculty of Arts, rejects the idea that this is the case. She is the head of the committee that includes the five graduate school heads, who commissioned the survey. The graduate schools are a part of the organisational framework for the programme offering administration services, courses, student guidance, etc. 

”If they can’t see that the work we do aims to tackle the problem of this type of health-threatening stress, of course, I will take note of this, but I think it’s a great shame,” said Anne Marie Pahuus. 

But, at the same time, she acknowledged that many things have been put on hold due to high levels of work pressure on the administration during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It’s natural that they might have felt a lack of development initiatives aimed at reducing stress from the university’s side in 2020-21. This can be put down to the fact that our operations administration and PhD management have been very busy with urgent issues and the challenges that the pandemic brought into all parts of the PhD degree programme,” she said. 

Various initiatives

Even though Anne Marie Pahuus noted that there is generally a high level of satisfaction with the degree programme and everyday life among the PhD students, she agreed that the numbers relating to stress are far too high. Through various initiatives, AU has tried to reduce the level of stress among PhD students, insisted Anne Marie Pahuus.

”We’ve tried preventative measures. In this respect we have a practice where in collaboration with the PhD students we create structures that will alleviate pressures long before the critical tipping point. We have looked at and invested in various initiatives including dispensation, student guidance and advisory services and other measures in relation to a better university life, which will also help support the students at critical times during the PhD process when they are in need of help. We strive to react in time and before performance pressures become too overwhelming for many especially during the final year,” said Pahuus. 


Anne Marie Pahuus, vice-dean and head of graduate school at the Faculty of Arts   

She explained that the graduate schools put a lot of emphasis on making sure that the PhD students are integrated into the academic environments, so that they have a sense of collegial collaboration and recognition. 

“We’ve looked into whether there are some environments which are difficult to break into, especially for junior employees.  In such cases, we intervene to ensure that the research management take care of the PhD students at the department, and ensure a healthy independence for everyone,” said Anne Marie Pahuus. 

In addition, Anne Marie Pahuus emphasised that in the final third of the PhD process, it is common for serious stress symptoms to appear. Therefore, the graduate schools have in particular focused on what is included in the supervision of PhD students. This means that supervision not only focuses on developing the PhD project, but also focuses on the PhD process as a whole.

“In our supervisor training, attention needs to be paid to the natural crises that occur when a student is nearing the end of the PhD process.  Some PhD students become uncertain when their products need to be assessed as something else and more than an exam. Students need to get used to thinking of their work as a piece of research rather than a student assignment. Supervisors need to be able to understand how this impacts students, who otherwise have shown great skill and have been very confident during the PhD process,” said Pahuus.

The three measures

These initiatives are also supported by the research, explained Gitte Wichmann-Hansen. 

“Research shows that there are three measures which we can implement – two of these are considered very effective. The first one is about ensuring good integration into the daily research environment. This means having sufficient access to networks, resources and other colleagues on a daily basis and with that good opportunities for academic and social discussions and advice,” said Wichmann-Hansen.  

She offered examples of entire departments or research groups at AU going away together for a writing retreat for a few days, where there is time set aside for writing articles and at the same time they have the opportunity to discuss articles and the difficult writing process. 

“These are good examples of how you can deal with stress in an academic way and integrate it into regular research tasks,” said Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.

According to Gitte Wichmann-Hansen, the second measure is student guidance. 

”In general, the students are very satisfied with the relationship they have with their supervisors. But at the same time the survey points to the fact that supervisors need to be more aware of the rising number of students who are struggling with stress, loneliness and uncertainty. This requires specialised training for supervisors to spot signs of stress and lack of well-being in general, and to be able to address this with the students in an appropriate manner. Supervisors need to be able to apply various concepts, for example, ensure a clear vision of expectations, be sensitive to the handling of conflicts, be able to adjust the level of ambition for the project if necessary, and provide clear feedback – all of which we work with on the supervision courses given at AU,” said Gitte Wichmann-Hansen. 

The final measure mentioned by Gitte Wichmann-Hansen relates to what the individual student can do themselves. 

Coping strategies and to develop good habits such as getting exercise, eating healthily and taking time off are skills that can be learned at stress workshops, and I fully support the idea of offering stress workshops at AU or elsewhere. But I would warn against turning this into an individual problem. What we are dealing with here is more of a systematic problem, which has to be dealt with in a more preventative way. Stress relating to high performance pressure, competitive academic environments, unclear career paths, etc. is not dealt with by simply giving the students individual coping strategies and by telling them that they should remember to take more time off,” said Wichmann-Hansen. 

Anne Marie Pahuus shared this view:

“We need to avoid individualising the problem too much. It’s not a case of fragile individuals breaking. These individuals really do have their academic studies in check. Instead we need to look at the students’ networks and their academic communities. And to ensure that the supervisors are well equipped at both supervising the project and the process,” said Anne Marie Pahuus.

More transparency

AUPA also has a list of suggestions for how to deal with the problem of stress and not least uncertainty. One of them relates to creating more transparency in the PhD process. 

“In AUPA, we believe that the university can do much more to create transparency throughout the process. For example, what do you need to do in order to continue at the university once you have finished your PhD? Likewise, the university should be very clear about the steps a PhD student can take if they are having problems, e.g. with stress or with their supervisors. We would like to encourage a review of the PhD journey with the aim of identifying areas that could be improved,” said Kristoffer Ibsen. 

AUPA wants more visible career paths and this is exactly the form of transparency that is being implemented at the faculties, explained Anne Marie Pahuus.

”The universities could of course be clearer on the kinds of career paths open to PhD students, but all the faculties are in the process of or have already finished putting together documents in which the merit criteria for all academic career stages are outlined. In these documents, PhD students can read what is expected of them at all career stages, but this is often quite a general description,” she admitted. 

Moreover, she agreed that a clearer performance management could be beneficial.

“Breaking things up into reasonably achievable parts is a good way to create meaning in our working lives. I believe that we need to be more transparent and can do so by being clearer so that students no longer have to guess whether or not they are good enough,” said Pahuus.

The next step

Despite the efforts from the graduate schools, Anne Marie Pahuus admits that the continued growing problem calls for new solutions. 

“Something is not working because the number shouldn’t be going up. We need to stand by the fact that a PhD degree programme at AU is among the best in the world and it is a very demanding degree programme to embark on, but it’s not reasonable that for some this experience is combined with an overwhelming and unhealthy pressure in the final stages. We just don’t have an easy solution that we can use to combat stress,” she said. 

She explained that the graduate schools first and foremost need to look more closely at the survey results so that they can separate the problems that are caused by the coronavirus and those that are more long-term, structural problems that can be solved by the universities themselves. Following this, a decision needs to be made regarding which special initiatives should be implemented first, and which permanent initiatives should be set up and prioritised with the available funds. She emphasised again the importance of not making stress into an individual problem. Furthermore, the stress action plans need to be looked at and these plans, among other things, will ensure the correct emergency response in relation to psychological assistance. And further work is needed on the initiatives to ensure proper career guidance, to create integrating academic environments, and to strengthen the supervisors’ ability within process supervision. 

With regard to the risk of losing PhD students due to a lack of well-being, which both Gitte Wichmann-Hansen and AUPA have expressed concerns about, Anne Marie Pahuus noted that this is not something that the graduate schools experience often:

“It happens, but fortunately very few fail to complete the process. The problem is that the final phase is so difficult for many. They stay to complete their PhDs, they write up their theses, and they receive their degrees, but it is difficult to accept that a fifth finish with fresh memories of being stressed. All studies show that if you have lived with serious stress symptoms for months, the stress remains in your body forever, and then these people are more likely to experience stress later in their working lives. So it’s not without consequences,” said Anne Marie Pahuus.

The report was published at the beginning of July and you can read it in full here.

Translated by Marian Flanagan

Selected results from the PhD survey

Supervisor relationship

94% have a mutually respectful relationship with their supervisor

83% feel that they are respected as a research colleague

82% would highly recommend their supervisor

 

80% are satisfied with the range of PhD courses

 

Well-being

20% often or almost always experience serious symptoms of stress as a result of their work

37% believe that their work takes up so much time that it often or almost always impacts their private life

66% are uncertain as to whether their work is good enough

 

23% have feelings of loneliness during a normal working day

 

The coronavirus

 

78% are concerned that the coronavirus has had a negative effect on the quality of their PhD degree programme

90% find that their ability to establish networks has been negatively affected by the coronavirus

You can read the results in full here.

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