Bergwerff-van der Giessen has only been at Erasmus University for ten days. She is still meeting all the PhD students at the various faculties, but she is already certain of one thing: “I’m not going to be bored here!”

Which makes sense, considering how alarming the figures are. “Studies have shown that 30 percent of PhD students are at increased risk of burnout or depression.” Last July, PhD students sent a letter to rector magnificus Rutger Engels, requesting psychological support. They told Engels that their workload was too heavy and that it was causing physical and mental health issues.


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Complicated position for ambitious people

Engels decided to honour their request by appointing Bergwerff-van der Giessen. Before even introducing herself, she embarks on a discussion of the problems experienced by PhD candidates. Judging from the introductory interviews she is having, they often find themselves in a complicated position.

“They are ambitious and talented people. Perfectionists. Their careers in this highly competitive world depend on supervisors who can be very demanding. This may result in disturbed relationships and a heavy workload.”

This is one of the major causes of mental health issues in PhD candidates. “There is no clear job description telling PhD students what they are expected to do or create in order to be good PhD students. This makes it hard for them to put their foot down, particularly when it involves taking on the very persons on whom their doctorates depend.”

Positive outlook

Bergwerff-van der Giessen is a very experienced psychologist. While she was still studying for her master degree, she embarked on her first job in child and adolescent psychiatry. Later she got herself a job in Rotterdam’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where she helped families that were experiencing problems.

Neither discipline turned out to be her cup of tea. “I don’t like labelling people, and I do like people who seek help of their own accord, rather than me telling them they need help.”

Bergwerff-van der Giessen then became an independent psychologist working at Nijmegen’s Radboud University Medical Center, where she dealt with depression and burnout prevention for medical staff. “I preferred that job. I get a lot more satisfaction from problem prevention.”

So how can you see her? All PhD students are free to request an intake interview through a sign-up form. “If you enter ‘psychologist’ in the search bar at, you will find me.” During the intake interview, Iris will determine whether there is anything she can do for you, or whether you will need a referral to a different psychologist who will provide more intensive therapy. Iris herself typically spends five sessions with each PhD student.

Dragonfly: use your time well

During her sessions, she determines how best to help her clients on a client-by-client basis. “My therapy is mostly based on values. What do you consider important in your life, and how can you ensure that you will have time to devote to it?” This is something she herself occasionally needs to be reminded of as well. “On such occasions I’ll reach for my upper arm.”

Her upper arm, you see, comes with a dragonfly tattoo. “Dragonflies only live up to two months, so they have to make clear choices as to what they are going to focus on. I like that idea: choose what actually matters to you, because you won’t be able to do everything.”