Crises, stress and reduced well-being can be part of the doctoral research process. According to a recent study from Belgium, almost half of doctoral researchers report psychological problems. Initial studies on effects of the Corona pandemic in 2020 suggest that the mental health of doctoral candidates is, compared with other researchers, more negatively affected by it. This is due to more uncertainty of (future) employment, and the stronger potential for isolation in doctoral candidates (study from the UK).
There is a widespread expectation that working on a doctoral thesis must be difficult and stressful and that promising doctoral candidates must be able to "endure" this. In contrast to this, it will be made clear on these pages that there is support available to help cope with crises. There are strategies for going through this phase of life and career as productively and happily as possible. The information provided below is aimed at doctoral researchers, supervisors and anyone else who would like to find out more about well-being during the doctoral process. Below are options for preventing and coping with crises, there is information on how to recognize crises, information on the most important points of contact, helpful literature and materials, as well as contact details for peer exchange networks.
In collaboration with the SIS-Idea-Lab, in 2021 a special event called "Speak out - how to handle the PhD stress" was organized by the DocService. The focus of the session was on the mental health and wellbeing of doctoral researchers. Expert panellists who adressed questions by doctoral candidates: Harald Kreimer, Psychological Counselling Center Graz, University of Graz, Andrea Andorfer, PhD candidate, Medical University of Graz, Irene Trummer, Beratungsstelle für MitarbeiterInnen Lebens- und Sozialberatung/ Life and social counseling, University of Graz.
|A recording of this 1,5 hour session can be requested by writing a short email to doktorat(at)uni-graz.at.|
|Folder Counselling Services for Academic & Administrative Staff of the University of Graz|
|Link to psychological help and support for students "Psychologische Studierendenberatung" Graz|
The authors of an interdisciplinary study in Belgium state:
a sizeable group of PhD students experience psychological distress or is at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder. Most prevalent are feelings of being under constant strain, unhappiness and depression, sleeping problems due to worries, inability to overcome difficulties and not being able to enjoy day-to-day activities.
According to this and other research, the following factors can increase the risk of mental health problems:
- High workload
- Problems with the supervisors of the dissertation
- Uncertain future prospects inside and outside the academic job market
- Hierarchies and dependencies as defining elements of the scientific system
- Isolation, lack of peer networks
- Occurrence of discrimination and sexual harassment
- Challenges in the research process
- Troubles with financing the project
- Challenges in personal relationships, work-life balance
The following groups can be particularly exposed to the risk of psychological crises:
- Internationally mobile researchers (due to the familiarization with a new environment, funding, visa, new language environment, low contact with family and social networks)
- Isolated researchers (e.g. in remote research areas)
- Part-time researchers (due to isolation from a research community, financial hardship, work-life balance problems)
- Researchers with disabilities (if no appropriate support is available, if the environment contains barriers)
 Levencque, K. et al. (2017): Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy 46(4), 868-879.
Signals of poor mental well-being could be the more frequent occurrence of illnesses, an inexplicable frequency of headaches and digestive problems, as well as changes in sleeping habits (see information sheet from the Federal Association for Psychotherapy on burn-out). The following actions can be helpful in preventing and managing crises:
Optional action: Build & maintain supporting networks in a professional context (especially with peers & external mentors).
Potential: You notice that others also have burdens, learn about their coping strategies and can ask for help and offer help. You have access to external and independent, but experienced support who looks at your issues with fresh eyes.
Optional action: Find out how a counselling session at one of the contact points (see below) works. Obtain basic information about the contact points and their offers.
Potential: You gain familiarity with processes of support and can assess whether you could benefit from it and what might be useful in case of emergencies.
Optional action: Be aware of personal symptoms of overload and take countermeasures with what usually feels good (e.g. participating more intensely in social life, playing sports, practicing relaxation techniques).
Potential: You experience yourself as self-effective and integrated into a community.
Optional action: Think about which stabilizing factors and supporting organizations & people you can fall back on in a stressful situation.
Potential: You strengthen yourself through self-care. In the event of a stressful situation, you have access to continuous support through the coping process.
Optional action: Talk to trusted people in your personal environment about the stress.
Potential: This can be a relief. It could show that other people share the experience and they might offer coping techniques or empathy.
General tips for managing the workload:
|Sleep is a priority when you want to remain productive|
|When planning your work, ask yourself not “what is expected of me” but “What is realistic to achieve in a day so I can also do it tomorrow and the day after tomorrow; how long can I concentrate for?”|
|Time blocking: plan 3-4 blocks of 1,5 hours each day to work on a specific task instead of telling yourself you need to work from 9 to 5|
|Set a time for finishing the working day; discipline is also to know when to quit the work (i.e. “I checked the emails for the last time today, I will check them again tomorrow”)|
|Rituals are useful for transferring from work to leisure time; put leisure events in your calendar and take them as seriously, this keeps you from working on when you feel like you have not finished|
Checking in: Psychologist Desiree Dickerson reccommends some useful strategies to support others in the text "How do I support my group members`mental health and wellbeing right now? A cheat sheet for checking in".
Mentoring Programmes can help establish a professional network outside of your immediate workplace. The University of Graz offers, for example, a mentoring programme for female researchers as well as, until 2022, mentoring stays as part of the Arqus university alliance.
Offers by the University
|Contact point for conflict resolution for employees|
|Counselling for all staff members of the University of Graz|
|Working group for equality issues: Support in cases of bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination|
|Advice & intervention by the worker’s council for scientific staff|
|Advice & service for compatibility of studies / work & family through unikid & unicare|
|Advice regarding dis/ability, mental health, and chronic illness through the Center for Integrated Studies|
Central contact points independent from the University
|Overview of Contact Points for psychological counselling, collected by Plattform Psyche, Link|
|Mentale Gesundheit - ÖH Uni Graz (oehunigraz.at)|
|Student Ombudsperson of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research, Link|
|European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers Equality Working Group, Email|
|Help in case of conflicts at work by the Austrian Union for Public Service: Konflikt- und Mobbingberatung, Email|
Peer networks are useful for your own research, for professional development and for maintaining your own well-being during the doctoral phase (and beyond).
There are a number of independent, self-organized networks with different focuses around the University of Graz and across Austria, as well as some networks within the university. The list below contains networks/groups that may be of interest to doctoral researchers at the University of Graz. It is based on careful research - however, no guarantee can be given for the accuracy of the information.
|Open Writing Group for Doctoral Candidates: Working on texts and motivating each other: Info|
|Feminist Mothering, Open discussion for everyone who is interested in feminist mother*hood and trying to practice it in all its diversity, Contact|
|Netzwerk Qualitative Research: Interdisciplinary platform for the exchange of qualitative research methods and their application|
|Var.Ges: Peer Counselling for people with variations of sex characteristics and/or their family members|
You may inform us of any groups you know and we will put them on the list. If you would like to set up a peer network yourself and need support with the organization (e.g. room search), please feel free to contact the DocService team.
Self-care during COVID-19 and everyday: Tips by academic coaches and experts
|Petra Boynton (2020): Being Well in Academia: Ways to Feel Stronger, Safer and More Connected, Routledge.|
|Tyia Grange Isaacson: Mental Health Guidance for Graduate Students during COVID-19, 15.04.2020, in: The Professor is In (Blog von Karen L. Kelsky)|
|Desiree Dickerson: "I wish I’d taken my mental health more seriously in grad school", 20.01.2020, in: Sciencemag.org|
|Desiree Dickerson: Seven tips to manage your mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak, 26.03.2020, in: Nature.com|
Handling rejections (papers, jobs,...) and criticism in Academia
|Book Series: Insider Guides to Success in Academia - Book Series - Routledge & CRC Press|
|"Dealing With Rejection", Podcast by Karen L. Kelsky PhD (The Professor is In).|
|Jaremka, Lisa M. et al. (2020): Common Academic Experiences No One Talks About: Repeated Rejection, Impostor Syndrome, and Burnout, In: Perspectives on Psychological Science Volume: 15 issue: 3, p. 519-543.|
|Glass, R.L. (2000): A letter from the frustrated author of a journal paper, In: Journal of Systems and Software, volume 54, issue 1, p.1.|
Experiences as told by doctoral researchers (on crisis/-management)
|Birck, Angelika (2003): Laura gets her PhD. A satire in Seven Acts. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Art. 17|
Dealing with crisis and success in the research process
|Lerchenmueller, M. J. et al. (2019): Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study, BMJ 2019;367:l6573, doi: 10.1136/bmj.l6573, Link.|
Online information platforms about well-being related issues
|Information portal against sexual harassment on campus, with tips for action, real-life case examples, and materials, created by Leuphana University Luneburg|
|Information for university members affected by discrimination, provided by Graz university|
|Portal against Homophobia: Information and Counselling on sexualities, relationships, gender identity by Graz counselling center Courage.|
Recent studies on mental health in academia/doctoral education
|Sverdlik, A., & Hall, N. C. (2020). Not just a phase: Exploring the role of doctoral program stage on motivation and well-being. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education. Vol. 26(1) 97–124.|
|Evans, T. M. et al. (2018): Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education, Nature Biotechnology 36, 282-284.|
|Levencque K. et al. (2017): Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy 46(4), 868-879.|
|Panger, G. et al. (2014): The Graduate Assembly of University of California, Berkeley Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report 2014.|
|Reevy, G. M. & Deason, G. (2014): Predictors of depression, stress, and anxiety among non-tenure track faculty. Frontiers in Psychology 5, 701.|
|Janta, H. et al. (2014): Coping with loneliness: A netographic study of doctoral students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 38(4), 553-71.|
Studies and reports on wellbeing-related issues at universities
|List (2017): Gender-Based Violence Against Female Students in European University Settings. In: International Annals of Criminology 55 (2), S. 172–188.|
|Durbach/Grey (2018): Grounds for concern: an Australian perspective on responses to sexual assault and harassment in university settings. In: Sundari/Lewis (Hg.): Gender based violence in university communities. Policy, prevention and educational initiatives. Bristol: Policy Press, S. 83–104.|
|Zabrodska/Kveton (2013): Prevalence and Forms of Workplace Bullying Among University Employees. In: Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal 25 (2), S. 89–108.|