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Volume 54, Number 3 Summer 2021
Edited by Olga Oliveira Chuna, NOVA University and Douglas Perkins, Vanderbilt University
Written by Olga Oliveira Cunha, NOVA FCSH - Psychology, Inclusion, and Equality Service (PsII+), APPsyCI- Applied Psychology Research Center Capabilities & Inclusion (ISPA-IU)
In Portugal, we have had psychological services within higher education institutions for about 20 years, mainly in public institutions. Initially, interventions and activities of these Psychological Services were mainly focused on Counselling and Clinical approaches for individual students. However, throughout the years, these services have increased their interventions to not only support other actors in these institutions-- namely teachers, non-teaching staff and administrators-- but also expand their psychological approaches through collaborative, consulting, and empowering methods.
In addition, there has also been increasing change of intervention modalities of Psychologists in Higher Education, centered not on only in solving individual problems in the field of mental health but trying to be preventive and focused on the whole person, in which the psychological, emotional, and social health are intertwined, and in which interaction with others and with the organizational environment plays a determining role for development and well-being.
One of the groups that have been targeted for a more preventive approach are Ph.D. students.
Why are Ph.D. students important?
Across OECD countries, the number of new Ph.D.s grew from 158,000 in 2000 to 247,000 in 2012, a rise of 56% (OECD, 2014). Although universities were traditionally regarded as low stress environments, research on occupational stress among academics indicates that it is alarmingly widespread and on the rise (Bozeman & Gaughan, 2011; Reevy & Deason, 2014); and it is more prevalent in younger academics (Kinman, 2001), a group that typically faces high levels of job insecurity. In addition, there are increasing reports of depression and anxiety, burnout, and emotional exhaustion among Ph.D. students.
However, the prevalence of mental health problems as shown in official registries remains low. Reluctance to seek help is often caused by fear of stigma, retaliation, or the expected negative impact on one’s future career (OECD, 2015).
The work of Ph.D. students themselves constitutes a major source of scientific advancement, as a doctoral dissertation requires an original contribution to the scientific knowledge base. As most Ph.D. students are part of larger research teams, whose composition determines scientific impact (Lee et al., 2015), students with mental health issues may pose a considerable cost to research institutions and teams.
Mental health problems of Ph.D. students impact both the supply and entrance to the research field. Organizational policies that are linked to mental health problems will lead individuals to quit their doctoral studies or leave the research industry altogether (Podsakoff et al., 2007). Several studies of Ph.D. students suggest that the dropout numbers range from 30 to 50 percent, depending on the scientific discipline and country (Stubb et al., 2012).
On the other hand, in the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the dynamics developed in the higher education institutions and the way in which Psychology Services operate in them, passing many of the activities to be carried out remotely. The demand for Psychological Services in universities and institutes was already increasing for students and educational staff when demand increased in a very prominent way with the pandemic, doubling the number of requests for psychological consultations in 2020 in some higher education institutions, and Ph.D. students were one of the targeted groups.
The “Ph.D. – The last kms of a marathon” Program
The decision to do a Ph.D. involves an investment that is not only scientific, but also involves time and emotional demands. Several studies demonstrate the impact that the academic path has on physical health and mentality of students, as is the case of a recent article published in the journal Nature Biotechnology (Evans et al, 2018). The Psychology, Inclusion and Equality Services (PsII +) of NOVA FCSH promote, in each semester, online / face-to-face sessions to support students who are attending the Ph.D. program, and who want to develop emotional management skills during this process. The participation is free and optional. "PhD - The last kilometers of a marathon", divided into ten sessions held fortnightly, runs every semester with groups of 6 to 8 students. Enrollment in the program occurs at the beginning of each semester.
This last semester, the program was held for the first time online due to Covid-19. Before we had only face-to-face sessions.
The ten sessions are themed and can be run independently as workshops. However, results show that participation in the whole program increases sense of community, well-being, and sense of connectedness as self-reported by the participants. The session themes in order are:
Session 1 - I am here, now what? Prospects from the program
Session 2 – Who am I and how am I? Construction and definition of a road map
Session 3 – Aid station 1: discomfort and avoidance
Session 4 – Aid station 2: difficulties in decision-making and commitment
Session 5 – Aid station 3: how do I organize myself? Time management
Session 6 – Aid station 4: anxiety and high stress
Session 7 - Aid station 5: external evaluation and control challenges
Session 8 - Aid station 6: the relationship with the advisor and other support sources
Session 9 - Aid station 7: writing and review process, priorities, decision-making and accountability for the mobilization of resources
Session 10 - Lesion assessment: what needs to be addressed
Although sessions are themed, participants are invited to propose other topics to enrich the program and they can also run a session if they feel like it. This collaborative process and empowerment are two of the main goals of this program.
These sessions can also be complemented with other interventions such as psychological counselling and support that contributes to psychological health, for the development of self-care strategies and for a greater resilience; support for training and continuous professional development; assessment, prevention, and intervention in terms of psychosocial risks; collaborative consultancy and intervention in crisis and emergency situations; skills development through specific training activities.
Some preliminary results
This year’s program being held online was one of the challenges, namely the involvement with the group and the development of a sense of connectedness. To address this issue, we introduced different ice breakers (more suitable for online sessions) in the first three sessions.
The program’s assessment was produced by self-report questionnaires with questions related to each session (e.g., topic, time length, methodology) and the program as a whole. There was also the possibility to give suggestions for improvement.
One of the themes that appeared most often in eight of the ten sessions was the relationship with one’s supervisor which seems to be one of the main sources of stress, as confirmed in the literature.
Another theme the participants report was very important to them, even in the online platform, was to be able to participate and share their feelings and emotions about the Ph.D. process and the awareness of others feeling the same: “I felt I was not alone in this process.”
Another theme that emerged was the perception that the mental health of graduate students is not really addressed or considered in their training program. According to the literature, this lack of visibility is problematic because feeling isolated can cause students’ mental health to deteriorate even further.
These are still preliminary results but they already emphasize the need to address mental health issues of graduate students in order to reduce drop-out and appreciate the work produced by this community.
The adjustment for online intervention was a challenge and, as a community psychologist, it was a time to revisit our involvement both in service delivery to the community and research (theory based) on social ecological practices.
Technology-based interventions could transform mental health in higher education. With new approaches, colleges and universities can envisage new intervention paradigms that build on traditional models to improve mental health and well-being in the lives of their students.
Bozeman, B., Gaughan, M., (2011). Job satisfaction among university faculty: individual, work, and institutional determinants. J. High. Educ. 82 (2), 154–186.
Evans, T., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol 36, 282–284 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089
Kinman, G., (2001). Pressure points: a review of research on stressors and strains in UK academics. Educ. Psychol. 21, 473–492;
Lee, Y.-N., Walsh, J.P., Wang, J. (2015). Creativity in scientific teams: unpacking novelty and impact. Res. Policy 44, 684–697.
OECD (2014). Who Are the Doctorate Holders and Where Do Their Qualifications Lead Them? Education Indicators in Focus. OECD. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/ 22267077
OECD (2015). Fit Mind, Fit Job: From Evidence to Practice in Mental Health at Work, Mental Health at Work. OECD. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/ 9789264228283
Stubb, J., Pyhältö, K., Lonka, K., (2012). The experienced meaning of working with a PhD thesis. Scand. J. High. Educ. 56, 439–456.
Reevy, G.M., Deason, G., (2014). Predictors of depression, stress, and anxiety among non-tenure track faculty. Front. Psychol., http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014. 00701.