Postgraduate researchers at UK universities suffer from high rates of mental ill-health, with female, non-binary and LGBTQ+ communities faring particularly badly, new research suggests.
The findings, published in the journal Current Psychology, are drawn from a survey of 479 postgraduate researchers (PGRs) working at 48 UK universities.
The study, led by researchers from the University of Glasgow, asked respondents to report their experience of subjective wellbeing, as well as symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia and suicidal thoughts.
They were also asked for their feedback on the research culture of their universities, their social support networks, and how closely they identified with personal characteristics like workaholism and perfectionism.
The study revealed that close to a quarter of respondents (23%) had considered suicide or self-harm in the past two weeks, with 22% reporting that they had actually planned their suicide. 5% had already attempted to take their own lives at some point in the past.
Among those who reported suicidal ideation, people who identified as bisexual or other were at significantly elevated risk of suicide, as were those who reported having workaholic or perfectionist traits, and those in their fifth year of study or above. PGRs who reported having access to a social support network and who worked in a positive environment had reduced risk of suicidal thoughts.
High levels of anxiety and depression were also reported. 41% of respondents said they lived with anxiety, and 20% with severe anxiety. Depression affected 40%, and severe or moderately severe depression 20%.
Women reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than men, as did those who reported traits of workaholism and perfectionism. Those who felt positively about their progress and preparation were less likely to experience anxiety and depression.
Close to half of the PGRs (46%) suffered from insomnia, a problem which had affected 37% for more than a year. 29% felt that concentration and productivity were significantly affected by their sleep problems.
Respondents who identified as non-binary were most likely to suffer from sleep problems, as did workaholics. On the other hand, positive perceptions of PhD progression and preparedness for the future challenges were linked to lower levels of insomnia.
More than 85% of respondents said their general wellbeing was either low or medium. Nonbinary and gay PGRs were more likely to have lower levels of wellbeing, along with those who reported workaholism or perfectionism. Among those with higher reported levels of wellbeing were PGRs working in the field of the arts, those who felt they were prepared and making progress, and those with access to social support.
Jelena Milicev, a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow’s MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit is the study first author. She said: "This study adds to the growing body of evidence showing that postgraduate researchers experience a greater prevalence of mental ill-health than the general population.
"Our results suggest that PGRs who are living with maladaptive perfectionism and workaholism are much more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression, insomnia and generally low wellbeing. Female, transgender, non-binary, homosexual, bisexual and queer PGRs are generally more likely to report these kinds of mental health problems.
"On the other hand, we can also see clearly that PGRs who have access to good social support networks, who feel they are making progress and are able to prepare appropriately, and who work in a positive departmental atmosphere, with supportive supervisors, are likely to have better mental health outcomes."
Dr Maria Gardani led the study at the University of Glasgow’s School of Psychology, and is now based at the University of Edinburgh. Dr Gardani added: "We believe this study could provide valuable insight for UK universities on how they can help shape better mental health outcomes for their postgraduate researchers.
"The results were gathered before COVID-19 affected campuses across the UK, so it’s possible that existing issues may have been exacerbated by the additional stresses of the pandemic.
"Renewed institutional efforts to promote equality, diversity, resilience, integration and work-life balance for PGRs could go a long way to addressing the kinds of mental health problems this study reveals."
The paper, titled ’Evaluating Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers: Prevalence and Contributing Factors’, is published in Current Psychology.
Prof Sharon Simpson, Dr Mark McCann and Prof Stephany Biello are also co-authors of the study.