Study on PhD student wellbeing: positive psychology interventions

I look back on my PhD as one of the best periods of my life. It was very demanding but I enjoyed the sense of ownership and progression, and I had a great ‘family’ of other PhD-ers around me. I watched some of my peers really struggle though, with all kinds of things including having family to care for, difficult supervisors and a general lack of motivation. I too found it an overwhelming emotional burden at times. However, I had already acquired certain skills and resilience to manage this. I’ve always been fairly good at self-motivation and I tried to look after myself with regular yoga, meditation and exercise.

At the beginning of 2016 I was employed on a three-month research project on doctoral student wellbeing and access to support. Our findings have recently been published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Immediately after the research post ended I was pleased to be employed with student services at the University of Southampton to work on the implementation of recommendations arising from the project. This included the launch of a ‘5-Ways to Wellbeing’ campaign, new PhD support website, mindfulness classes and a draft of recommendations for supervisors. An earlier draft of our journal paper included an in-depth look at recommendations for supporting student wellbeing. It draws on the positive psychology literature to discuss resilience-building activities. Because it was cut from the paper I thought I publish some of this missing section myself here! But first, some context –

Student mental health is a pressing concern and whilst much of the emphasis has been on undergraduate students, a few studies have turned their attention to postgraduate students. We might expect that, being fully-fledged adults, PhD students are better equipped to deal with academic demands. However, when you consider that a full-time PhD usually lasts at least three years, requires a huge sustained mental effort, involves working alone or at least isolated in your thoughts, and leads to a very precarious job situation at the end, you can see why people struggle. On top of that, you’re at the age where you might have children to look after, want a mortgage and see your friends in well-paid ‘normal’ jobs. Many people now do PhD’s part-time whilst working, eurgh! Many leave their home country/city to do their PhD. And everyone, at some point, feels totally and utterly stupid.

The mental health of Flemish doctoral students was highlighted in a recent academic study (Levecque et al 2017). The data found 51 per cent of students had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health over the course of their research degree, and 40 per cent, three or more symptoms. Work-life balance was the strongest indicator of psychological distress according to Levecque et al’s study, closely followed by job demands (i.e. workload). This same study found that doctoral students were significantly more likely to be affected by poor mental health than the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students in total. Our own study, which you can read about in the paper, found a prevalence of anxiety, stress and depression. 20% of our students said they’d been to their doctor about feelings of mental distress since starting their PhD and more than 10% had attended counselling. We concluded that the university needed a more proactive stance on mental health. Drawing on Positive Psychology was a fruitful approach to develop ideas for building resilience; thoughts outlined below:

Positive psychology reinforces the notion that psychological capital can build on an individuals’ strengths in order to provide the resources needed to form positive outcomes in ones’ relationships, wellbeing, academic and professional success. A focus on wellbeing, and thus psychological capital, has been increasing in the workplace over the last decade. Positive Psychological capital (PsyCap) is defined as:

“an individual’s positive psychological state of development characterized by: (1) having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks; (2) making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future; (3) persevering toward the goals, and when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed; and (4) when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resilience) to attain success” (Luthans, Youssef, et al., 2007, p. 3).

The discipline of positive psychology has three main concerns, understanding positive emotions, understanding positive individual traits and understanding positive institutions. This triad encompasses the holistic, joined up approach we believe is necessary for doctoral student support. As an example, positive emotions have been found to momentarily improve individual performance and broaden thought-action repertoires responsible for building enduring personal resources. With performance seemingly key to researcher wellbeing, it seems reasonable to assume that promoting positive emotions can improve doctoral experiences and thus success.

Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are treatment methods or intentional activities that aim to cultivate positive feelings, behaviours, or cognitions. PPIs can, according to Donaldson et al (2015), be categorised into five key areas; mindfulness and meditation based, coaching interventions, strength-based interventions, affect-based interventions and gratitude interventions. They can be delivered on an individual basis, in groups or online. I will now focus on the first three here, starting with mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness is a popular intervention and its status as a recognised wellbeing technique has increased hugely in recent years. It includes various methods such as yoga meditation, mindfulness based cognitive behavioural therapy and stress-management programmes. Structured mindfulness training delivered as an incremental course has been found to have positive effects on stress management, resilience and subjective wellbeing in a range of groups, including students. Doctoral researchers in our focus groups asked for more opportunities to take part in mindfulness training. The challenge comes in offering this to a wide range of students with limited institutional resources, and in encouraging students to stay for the 8-week course. Such initiatives need to be embedded in cultural change whereby students (and staff) understand the benefits of taking proactive steps to support their mental health.

Another PPI highlighted by Donaldson et al (2015) is coaching interventions. Most of these were rooted in what they call a solution-based cognitive model; identifying areas of ones’ life that could be improved through dedicated steps. In a higher education setting we are more likely to refer to coaching as mentoring, again something raised in the focus groups as a preferred method of dedicated doctoral support. As a PPI, coaching has been found to increase cognitive resilience and hope, increase goal attainment and related feelings of wellbeing and enhance self-motivation and engagement.

The final PPI I wish to focus on is Strength-based intervention. This is about focusing on stengths rather than weaknesses. Proyer et al (2015) shun the term weakness completely, in favour of ‘lesser strengths’. The study found that focusing interventions on character strengths improved happiness and ameliorated feelings of depression. They used a list of 24 character strengths, suggesting that every individual possesses three to seven strengths that characterise them best. Focusing on activities that use these strengths promote excitement, increasing life-satisfaction, self-awareness and long-term wellbeing. This seems particularly interesting to consider in the case of doctoral researchers, who are often plagued with self-doubt and peer comparison. Strength-based interventions could be incorporated organically into postgraduate teacher training, benefiting both the doctoral student and their students.

Personally, I can’t imagine my life without yoga. I also practice general mindfulness and Autogenic Training. I learnt long ago to focus on what I have achieved rather than what I haven’t, and I know that stress is bad for my health and indeed my productivity so I try not to let things get to me!

Donaldson, S.I., Dollwet, M. and Rao, M.A. (2015) Happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10:3, 185-195

Levecque, K., Ansel, F., Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. and Gisle, L. 2017. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46: 868-879

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. M., and Avolio, B. J. (2007). Psychological capital: Developing the human competitive edge. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

Proyer, R.T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S. and Ruch, W. (2015) Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 456

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