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4TU.Ethics and PhD well-being: where does it all begin? - Part 1


The well-being of Ph.D. candidates has been an important and much-discussed issue within the 4TU.Ethics community and beyond. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, many Ph.D. candidates had to deal with chronic stress, performance anxiety, imposter syndrome, and other mental health challenges. 2020 was an exceptionally challenging year for the 4TU.Ethics community as a whole and for its Ph.D. candidates in particular. The COVID-19 crisis has presented our community with various challenges that need to be addressed to ensure our professional well-being and ability to stay productive. For many of our Ph.D. candidates, this pandemic has undoubtedly added to the challenging situation some of them found themselves in under normal conditions. Problems like isolation, loneliness, and mental overload amplified the risk for mental health. At the same time, opportunities to get in touch with people and to contribute to our community seemed challenging to obtain.

For this reason, in 2020, the 4TU Ethics Center Management Team and the Ph.D. Council initiated a Ph.D. well-being project that was supposed to not only take stock of the challenges many Ph.D. candidates face but also provide opportunities for them to get in touch with each other, share their problems, and engage with the community and beyond despite these challenging times. 

What served as a motivation to address concerns about Ph.D. well-being?

The decision to strengthen the Ph.D. community at 4TU.Ethics Center resulted primarily from two studies on the well-being of Ph.D. candidates. The first was conducted by the Department of Teacher Education at Groningen University in November 2019, and Promovendi Network Nederland conducted the second in August 2020. This decision, therefore, dates before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic but was reaffirmed by the challenges this pandemic presented. Both studies point towards problems common for many Ph.D. candidates that we wanted to address with our initiatives.

Out of the 76 participants from the study by the University of Groningen, only seven participants were based at 4TU.Ethics universities. Despite the low representation of our universities in this study, it could still point to the main challenges to well-being faced by international and Dutch Ph.D. candidates in philosophy. Alongside worries about performance and future careers, many Ph.D. candidates showed symptoms of mental health problems, according to the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ). 41% of the students who mentioned that they had suffered or are suffering from mental health problems stated that they had never experienced mental health problems before their Ph.D. Among the most common issues were feelings of being under constant strain (56.8%), not being able to concentrate on work (55.7%), not being able to enjoy day-to-day activities (51.1%), losing sleep over worry (47.7%), losing confidence in themselves (47.7%), and not feeling reasonably happy, all things considered (45.5%).  

The survey conducted by the Promovendi Network Nederland was conducted in March and May 2020 and included 1601 Ph.D. candidates currently working in the Netherlands in various disciplines. It is important to note that the Dutch government put the 'intelligent lockdown' into force when the survey was conducted. The survey found that 47.1% of the Ph.D. candidates have an increased risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, while most of the participants of the study rank their health as good or very good. Even the Ph.D.’s who ranked their health as very good showed 1.5 symptoms of mental health problems on average. 38.8% of the PhDs showed severe symptoms of burnout. The higher Ph.D. candidates ranked their workloads, the more they showed symptoms of burnout. The study resulted in recommendations to remove the stigma of mental illnesses in academia and to pay more attention to this problem. Publication pressure was identified as one of the leading causes of high work pressure among participants. Removing this pressure and focusing on the quality of the research rather than on quantity was considered to relieve a lot of stress experienced by the students.  

Both studies are precious for taking stock of many Ph.D. candidates’ situations. However, they provide little information about the Ph.D. candidates that are members of the 4TU.Ethics center. For this reason, a back then Ph.D. Council decided to apply a different method that would give us more insight into the situation of our Ph.D. candidates while at the same time offering them the chance to get in touch with their peers and engage in a transformative process aiming at improvements for their well-being. 

Back then, 4TU.Ethics Ph.D. Council proposed an approach to promote the well-being of Ph.D. candidates that tackles both professional and personal aspects of well-being. By following this strategy, the Ph.D. Council prioritized creating more space for the Ph.D. candidates to feel included, cared about, recognized, and empowered. Initially, the Ph.D. Council agreed that this task would be possible only if there were enough occasions where 4TU.Ethics Ph.D. candidates could meet and engage in formal and informal discussions, not only with their peers but also with more senior staff members.