Research · Editorial
Research identifies the impact of disruption on PhD students’ mental health
The research project, supported by the OU’s coronavirus research fund and the University College London School of Management, was co-led by Dr Maria Aristeidou, Senior Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning at The Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology (IET), and Dr Angela Aristidou, Assistant Professor at University College London (UCL) School of Management and UKRI Future Leader Fellow.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the project conducted a survey of 1790 PhD students from 95 UK Universities, with three questionnaires designed to measure effective and ineffective ways to cope with a stressful life event, mental health, and whether PhD students had experienced any significant life events in the 12 months prior to taking part in the research.
Discussing the research findings, Dr Maria Aristeidou, Senior Lecturer at IET, said:
“Our research reveals that disruptions, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can take a heavy toll on the mental health of PhD students - with three-quarters of respondents reporting moderate-severe depression. This is a significant finding, given that depression can have a negative impact on academic performance and career success. We urge universities to take steps to address the mental health needs of their PhD students, such as by providing access to counselling and support services and creating a more supportive and understanding environment.”
Responses from the survey identified that 86% of participants reported that their research progress had been impacted in a negative way during the Covid-19 pandemic, pivoting to the importance of strategies for students to deal with disruption.
Dr Angela Aristidou, Assistant Professor at UCL, added:
“Our findings suggest that approaching coping behaviours, such as seeking emotional support and positive reframing, can help PhD students reduce their risk of depression, while avoidant coping behaviours, such as denial and substance use, can increase their risk. We recommend that PhD students be offered training on coping and wellbeing and that a more supportive environment be created for them.”
The prevalence of depression was also uncovered in the study. Students whose surveys revealed avoidant coping behaviours, such as denial and substance use, were associated with higher depression levels. Research also found that PhD students were at increased risk of depression if they lived with children or parents, had caring responsibilities, were without funded extensions, and were in the execution phase of their PhD.
Dr Maria Aristeidou, Senior Lecturer at IET explains:
“Our research reveals that PhD students with caring responsibilities are more likely to experience depression, especially during disruptions. We urge institutions and funders to provide PhD-funded extensions and expedited alternatives to the changes evoked by the disruption, such as flexible childcare options or financial assistance for childcare providers. This is essential to ensuring that all PhD students have an equal opportunity to succeed.”
Implications of research and policy recommendations
The findings of the study have been published in an open-access journal article, in which the authors have identified policy recommendations that higher education institutions could take, which if implemented would provide urgent action to support the mental health of PhD students during times of disruption.
Based on their findings, researchers have suggested the following policy recommendations:
- Provide PhD-funded extensions to all students who need them, regardless of their discipline or stage of study. This is especially important for students with live-in children or partners, those with caring responsibilities, and those who will probably be disproportionately affected by disruptions.
- Develop expedited alternatives to the changes evoked by the pandemic, such as new and adjusted policies that explicitly consider PhD students with caring responsibilities. For example, universities could offer more flexible childcare options or provide financial assistance to students who need to hire childcare providers.
- Offer training for PhD students on coping and wellbeing, which could in the form of workshops, online resources, or individual counselling sessions.
- Create a more supportive environment for PhD students, which could involve fostering a culture of open communication and understanding and providing students access to resources and support services.
The authors write:
“By implementing the policy changes suggested above, institutions and funders can help to create a more supportive environment for PhD students and reduce the risk of negative mental health outcomes.”
Dr Angela Aristidou