Nature PhD survey puts spotlight on mental health, harassment and student debt

Survey of over 6,300 PhD students worldwide shows most to be satisfied with their PhD experience, but highlights issues affecting student well-being such as working hours, funding and bullying

Survey of over 6,300 PhD students worldwide shows most to be satisfied with their PhD experience, but highlights issues affecting student well-being such as working hours, funding and bullying

London | New York, 13 November 2019 

The fifth biennial survey of PhD students, conducted by the journal Nature in conjunction with UK education market research company Shift Learning, provides insight into the challenges and concerns currently faced by PhD students worldwide. The survey, which was completed by the highest number of respondents since its inception, included for the first time questions on mental health, bullying, harassment and student debt. Respondents were self-selecting, based all over the world and represented the full spectrum of scientific fields. In addition to English, the survey was also available in Chinese, French, Portuguese and Spanish.
 
Overall, the results indicated that most PhD students were satisfied with their decision to pursue a PhD (75 percent) and were also generally satisfied with their PhD experience (71 percent). However, further questions that explored students’ concerns revealed that uncertainty with career prospects, maintaining a work-life balance and funding were important issues. 

Some key findings from the survey include:

  • 21 percent of respondents reported experiencing bullying, and the main perpetrators were supervisors, other students or staff.
  • Discrimination or harassment in their PhD programme was experienced by 21 percent of respondents. 
  • 36 percent of respondents sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their studies. 
  • 27 percent of respondents reported that they spend 41-50 hours per week on their PhD programme, with a quarter saying that they spend 51-60 hours per week. 

Just under 50 percent of respondents reported a long-hours culture at their university. Almost 20 percent of respondents said they have a job alongside their PhD studies and the main reason given was to help make ends meet (53 percent).

Detailed analyses of the survey results will be published in the careers section of three upcoming editions of Nature. The first gives a general overview of the results, the second focuses on the mentoring of PhD students and the third explores the PhD experience in China. The full data set of the survey is also available here.

David Payne, Managing Editor at Springer Nature, said: “Many people assume that once someone has enrolled on a PhD programme they are set up for life, but sometimes reality can be quite different. Polls like Nature’s PhD survey allow us to understand the challenges students face and can be invaluable to institutions when they are considering the needs of their students. We are particularly pleased that this year’s survey – the fifth in a decade – included important questions about mental health and well-being. We hope that these results will serve as a guidance for decision- makers at universities as well as prospective and current PhD students.”

Published: 20 Nov 2019

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