Almost half of PhD candidates have an increased risk of mental health problems, and 40% are considering quitting.

47% of PhD candidates in the Netherlands have an increased risk of mental health problems, according to PhD Survey conducted by the PhD Network Netherlands (PNN), in which 1,601 PhD candidates in the Netherlands participated. International PhD candidates in particular are at an increased risk of mental health problems: a whopping 55.6% of them have an increased chance of mental health problems.

Work pressure is also a major problem for PhD candidates: almost 60% of them indicate that they experience high or too high work pressure, especially due to the large amount of work, perfectionism, and publication pressure. In addition, as many as 62.5% of PhD candidates work more hours than agreed upon in their contracts, on average about 4.4 hours more. A third of PhD candidates also show severe symptoms of burnout, especially those who experience high work pressure exhibit burnout symptoms more often. Also, more than a quarter of PhD candidates indicate that they expect not to be able to complete their project within the agreed time, especially when they have contracts that are shorter than 4 years.

It is therefore not surprising that 41.6% of PhD candidates have considered quitting their PhD program, of which 6% do so very regularly. For 24% of PhD candidates, doubts about science are a reason to consider quitting, while 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 chair 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 are dealing with mental health problems and high work pressure, but it is the first to show this at a national level. It is sobering to see that work pressure is equally high everywhere, regardless of the type of institution, type of PhD trajectory or field of study. It is now up to universities, university medical centers, and research institutions to make their work environment healthier for PhD candidates, otherwise they run the risk that many PhD candidates will definitively turn their backs on science."

Based on the survey, PNN recommends that PhD trajectories should not be shorter than four years. "That is already the standard, but it is still deviated from too often," says Mattijssen. PNN also advocates for better training of PhD supervisors so that they can not only prevent themselves from causing higher work pressure for their PhD candidates, but also intervene if PhD candidates are under too much pressure for other reasons. Finally, PNN recommends applying the new Recognition and Appreciation of Scientists to PhD candidates as well, and to let go of hard publication criteria for them. "The number of publications is not a perfect predictor of the quality of researchers, so not for PhD candidates either."

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

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