A substantial number of PhD students at the University of Groningen (UG) are experiencing a great deal of unhealthy stress in their work. This is a result of a large-scale wellbeing survey conducted in 2018. The results are in line with those of other studies on work pressure among PhD students. 42% of the Groningen respondents experienced at least four of the 12 symptoms that indicate mental health problems. This result is comparable to findings from similar but more limited studies conducted in Flanders and at Leiden University.
Of the 3,600 UG PhD students who were invited to participate in the survey, 26% completed the extensive questionnaire. It was possible to clearly categorize the results due to the many aspects discussed. For example, stress symptoms turn out to be clearly related to the phase of the PhD programme that students are in: they experience more stress as they progress in the programme, and stress levels are highest for the PhD students whose contract has already ended. In addition, stress also seems to be closely related to insecurity – about what exactly is expected of a PhD candidate, which requirements apply to their thesis and how to find a job after they graduate.
UG Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken expressed his concern: ‘The results of this study confirm recent signals of work pressure perceived by both PhD students and PhD students with employment status. We have made great efforts in recent years in the field of support for PhD students with mental health issues within the Graduate Schools and at the University level. However, this has turned out to be insufficient. It worries me that our PhD students suffer from so much unhealthy stress, and the Board of the University shares this concern. We are taking the findings from the study very seriously and will immediately proceed to take measures.’
A plan of actions and measures has been drawn up in response to the results of the study, focusing on preventing stress as well as on early diagnoses and treatment to reduce stress. For example, the Board of the University has decided to appoint a psychologist who will exclusively focus on PhD students, as has recently been done at Utrecht University and earlier at Delft University. Other measures include careful screening at the start of the PhD programme, appointing PhD counsellors (‘study advisers’ for PhD students), a wide range of preventive courses, and supporting PhD students right from the start of the programme in preparing for their career after they graduate.
The study also shows that the requirements that apply to the PhD thesis must be more clearly defined. PhD students must be able to complete their programme within the available time (usually 4 years). The research and the thesis requirements, such as the required number of chapters, must be in line with this timeframe. Several training programmes for PhD supervisors will therefore also be introduced.
Both the existing and newly developed support facilities will be made available to all PhD students: those with an employment status, PhD scholarship students and external PhD students. The range of support offered will be further expanded in the coming period.
This study, conducted by Dr Els van Rooij, Dr Marjon Fokkens-Bruinsma, Dr Ellen Jansen and Yvonne van der Meer from the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, discusses the results of a survey conducted on the request of the Dean of Graduate Schools of the UG, Lou de Leij.
The full report can be downloaded from www.rug.nl/education/phd-programmes/about/phd-survey/
 General Health Questionnaire (GHQ)
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