Flemish PhD students’ mental health is quite poor, but apparently, Leiden-based PhD students are even worse off. The Dutch PhD Students’ Network (PNN) feels that universities must assume the responsibilities of a good employer and that it is high time they did something about the situation.

A large survey of 3,600 Flemish PhD candidates showed that many of them suffer mental health issues. They are two to three times more likely to be in poor mental health than other highly-educated people their age. The survey raised a lot of concerns, leaving some to wonder what the situation would be like in the Netherlands. The Dutch Socialist Party asked questions in the Lower House.

Above-average level of unhappiness

‘In Leiden, the figures are even worse than in Flanders,’ researchers affiliated with Leiden University’s CWTS wrote last Friday. Nearly 40 percent of Leiden’s PhD students is ‘at risk’ for severe mental health issues.

Approximately half of the 250 respondents indicated that they experienced a ‘sense of constant pressure’. One in three admitted to experiencing above-average unhappiness or even depression. The same number of respondents reported difficulty sleeping. Only PhD students’ ‘sense of uselessness’ proved worse in Flanders than it did in Leiden.

CWTS’ researchers emphasised that it would take more than a survey to determine whether the PhD candidates were actually suffering from disorders or depression. This would require a doctor’s consultation.

Looking the other way

This was not the first study investigating the mental health of Dutch PhD students. A previous study carried out at the University of Amsterdam showed that one in three PhD students may suffer clinical depression. However, there has never been a large nation-wide study.

The Dutch PhD Students’ Network (PNN) is ‘glad to see’ that Leiden University’s executive board had ‘the guts’ to publicise the survey results, and is keen not to point any fingers, said PNN president Rolf van Wegberg. ‘But we have had to draw the conclusion that things are no different here from Flanders, and that they may actually be worse. As long as universities keep looking the other way, this problem will not be resolved. All that will happen is that more PhD students will fall ill.’

Leiden University wishes to appoint a university psychologist especially for PhD candidates. This is a good plan, Van Wegberg said, as are more thorough supervision of foreign PhD students and clearer requirements with regard to PhD theses.

Publication madness

However, he feels that the main thing that needs to change is the working conditions in which PhD students are used as ‘workhorses in this publication madness’. ‘We urge all universities to come up with an action plan.’ For the time being, he has no suggestions as to what such an action plan might entail.

It should be noted that the study showed that a high workload per se does not always result in mental health issues. What matters is whether the PhD students can handle the workload. It has been shown that younger PhD students and foreign PhD students are more likely to run into problems.