Press release: Nearly half of PhDs have increased risk of mental problems, 40% have considered quitting

47% of PhDs in the Netherlands have an increased risk of mental health problems. This is shown by the PhD Survey of the PhD Network Netherlands (PNN), in which 1,601 PhD candidates in the Netherlands participated. Especially international PhDs have an increased risk of mental health problems: no less than 55.6% of them have an increased risk of mental health problems.

As in the rest of academia, work pressure is also a major problem for PhDs: almost 60% of PhDs indicate that they experience a high or too high work pressure, mainly due to the large amount of work, perfectionism and publication pressure. In addition, no less than 62.5% of PhDs work more hours than agreed upon in their contract: on average about 4.4 hours more. 38.8% of PhDs also show serious symptoms of burnout: PhDs who experience a high workload more often show burnout symptoms. More than a quarter of the PhDs indicate that they expect not to be able to complete their project within the agreed time, especially if they have contracts shorter than 4 years.

It is therefore not surprising that 41.6% of PhDs have ever considered quitting their PhD trajectory; 6% even do so very regularly. For 24% of PhDs, doubts about academia are a reason to consider quitting, for 12.8% mental health problems play a role. Other important reasons are doubts about their own ability to complete the PhD trajectory and problems with supervisors.

Although PNN president Lucille Mattijssen is not surprised by the results, she still finds the results alarming. “This is not the first study to show that many PhD candidates have mental health problems and a high workload, but it is the first to show this at the national level. It is sobering to see that especially the workload is the same everywhere, regardless of the type of institution, type of PhD arrangement or discipline. It is now up to universities, UMCs and research institutes to make their working environment healthier, otherwise they run the risk that many PhDs will turn their backs on science for good”.

As a result of the research, PNN recommends that PhD trajectories should not be shorter than four years. “This is already the standard for universities, but too often institutions deviate from this norm,” says Mattijssen. PNN also pleads for better training of PhD supervisors: this way supervisors can not only prevent their PhDs from causing a higher work pressure themselves, but they can also intervene if the PhDs’ workload becomes too high due to other causes. However, as supervisors often experience a high work pressure themselves, as research by the Rathenau Institute this week also showed, it is important that the work pressure is reduced across the board. Finally, PNN recommends that the new Recognition and Rewards of academics should also be concretely applied to PhD candidates and that hard publication criteria should be abandoned. “The number of publications is not a perfect predictor of the quality of researchers, including PhDs”.

Soon, more reports based on the PNN PhD survey will be published, including reports on contract characteristics, supervision, teaching, and non-standard PhD trajectories.