Research disruption during PhD studies and its impact on mental health

Research disruption during PhD studies and its impact on mental health: Implications for research and university policy


While disruptions, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, have a negative impact on PhD students' mental health and research progress, there are ways to support them, such as providing access to mental health support services and encouraging approach coping behaviours.


Research policy observers are increasingly concerned about the impact of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic on university research. Yet we know little about the effect of this disruption, specifically on PhD students, their mental health, and their research progress. This study drew from survey responses of UK PhD students during the Covid-19 pandemic. We explored evidence of depression and coping behaviour (N = 1780), and assessed factors relating to demographics, PhD characteristics, Covid-19-associated personal circumstances, and significant life events that could explain PhD student depression during the research disruption (N = 1433). The majority of the study population (86%) reported a negative effect on their research progress during the pandemic. Results based on eight mental health symptoms (PHQ-8) showed that three in four PhD students experienced significant depression. Live-in children and lack of funding were among the most significant factors associated with developing depression. Engaging in approach coping behaviours (i.e., those alleviating the problem directly) related to lower levels of depression. By assessing the impact of research disruption on the UK PhD researcher community, our findings indicate policies to manage short-term risks but also build resilience in academic communities against current and future disruptions.

The role of IET

Researchers from the fields of education (IET) and mental health (UCL) collaborated on this project. IET designed, hosted, and analysed the survey instrument.


The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the mental health of PhD students in the UK. This study found that three-quarters of PhD students experienced moderate to severe depression during the pandemic. This is a significant finding, given that depression can have a negative impact on academic performance and career success.

There are several reasons why PhD students have been particularly vulnerable to the mental health effects of the pandemic. First, PhD studies are already a challenging and stressful experience. Students are often under a lot of pressure to publish their research, graduate on time, and secure a post-doctoral position. The pandemic has added additional layers of stress and uncertainty, such as disruptions to research, travel restrictions, and financial hardship.

Second, PhD students are often isolated from their peers and support networks. The pandemic has made this isolation even worse, as students have been forced to work and study remotely. This can lead to feelings of loneliness, disconnection, and depression.

Third, PhD students are more likely to have caring responsibilities, such as childcare or eldercare. These responsibilities can make balancing PhD studies with other commitments difficult, especially during disruptions such as the pandemic.

The impact of the pandemic on the mental health of PhD students is a serious concern. It is important to note that the mental health challenges PhD students face are not unique to the pandemic. However, the pandemic has exacerbated these challenges and made them more visible.

Universities and policymakers need to take steps to address the mental health needs of PhD students. This includes providing access to counselling and support services, creating a more supportive and understanding environment, and offering training on coping and wellbeing. It is also important to provide PhD-funded extensions and expedited alternatives to the changes evoked by disruptions.

By taking these steps, we can help to ensure that all PhD students have an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of the challenges they face.

Looking to the future

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us valuable lessons about the mental health vulnerabilities of PhD students. Even as the pandemic wanes, it is important to remember that PhD students will continue to face disruptions in their research and studies. Universities and policymakers should use the lessons learned from the pandemic to develop and implement long-term strategies to support PhD students' mental health and well-being.

In addition to the measures mentioned above, it is also important to address the underlying fracture lines in the doctoral system that were exacerbated by the pandemic. This includes addressing issues such as gender inequality or socioeconomic disparities. By creating a more inclusive and equitable doctoral system, we can help to reduce the risk of mental health problems in PhD students.

The mental health of PhD students is a critical issue that deserves our attention. By taking steps to support the mental health and well-being of PhD students, we can help to ensure that they have the best possible chance of success.



  • The Open University


  • University College London, School of Management