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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Top tips for completing your PhD

hat Phd graduation pixabay

I started my PhD in June 2011, went nominal in June 2014, submitted in November 2014, passed my viva in January 2015 and had my corrections approved in June 2015. There are many end points when you’re working on a PhD, but I think I can truly now say I’ve ‘finished’. Last month my Facebook was filled with pictures of friends graduating, some started before me, some after. And next year I will go through the ceremony with other peers who made it to ‘finish’.

In all honesty, it does feel like a massive accomplishment. At the moment I feel like if I do nothing much more with my life, I’ll be content to have got my PhD. Of course, for a career in academia a PhD is just the start, but right now, I’m happy to cruise for a bit. Because it was hard. And in some ways it’s only now looking back that I can see how hard it was, because at the time I was grateful to be doing something I thought worthwhile, to be learning (and getting paid for it), and to manage my own time and schedule. Now I’m relatively ‘free’ and can see friends going through the angst of writing up I can see how all-encompassing the process is and how, at times, it made me a little bit crazy. My thesis was the centre of my universe, and now I’ve set it free I’m able to think about other areas of my life.

That said, I wouldn’t change anything about my PhD experience and I certainly don’t regret doing it. I think others often saw me as hardworking, in control and not easily flustered. A lecturer once asked me to cover a lecture for him because he knew I’d ‘stay calm’. That’s all very nice but I had the same insecurities as everyone else. Should I be working this weekend? Why haven’t I heard of that theorist? Is that even a WORD?

I think there are two key traits that have got me through my entire education though and they are a consistent work ethic and organisation skills (note not immense intelligence!). Before I share some of my tips however, I think it’s essential to highlight the importance of a positive attitude and general wellbeing. I learnt to accept when to cut my losses and call it a day. On those days it is more productive in the long run to leave your desk and go to bed, or go read outside. Oh and do yoga and/or exercise – you DO have the time.

Consistent work ethic

As soon as I moved back to my University town three months in, I was in the office five days a week working. Some people can only work under pressure. They cruise along for a few weeks not doing much and then stay up three days straight to meet a deadline. Not me, not if I can help it.

• Do take holidays, but not for too long. Even when I went on holiday I usually took a bit of reading to do. I know some people who took weeks off over the summer which might be ok but do that every year and you’re unlikely to finish in three. Holidays or some kind of break are really important though, and much more productive than not taking one (says she who panics about taking more than a week off work).

• Stick to deadlines. Again, deadlines seem to mean absolute zilch to some people. The world can’t function like that and nor should you, for one thing it’s disrespectful to your supervisors or whomever you owe work to. It’s likely they’ve blocked out time to read your work and handing it over late means they won’t give it the attention they would have done. This links to the next point.

• Ask if you need help. This is so important and there are so many places to get information: your peers, supervisors, library staff and the wider community (Twitter for instance is great for reading recommendations or to join weekly chat groups like PhDchat). Don’t be the annoying person in the office who has to ask someone else how to use the copier every time you need it, but do ask for help about the big things. I asked to join undergrad lectures in my first year because I’d moved to a different subject area and felt I lacked some of the basics. I asked the library staff when I wanted access to a particular report and they directed me to a better one. You can also learn a huge amount from your peers.

• Make Uni your second home (but do go home!)*. It’s clear to me that PhDers working remotely miss out. Because they aren’t there for the informal chats, the impromptu staff tutorials over coffee and the post-viva celebrations of others they miss out on key information, like what actually happens in a viva. Again, because I was working in a subject area different to my previous degrees this probably benefited me most because I needed to soak up the discipline – the terminology, the big names. Yes there are distractions in the office, but I genuinely think my thesis and overall experience is better because I was there participating and listening. Also, even in academia, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ holds some weight. Honing social networks can lead to opportunities for teaching and part-time work, and people are more likely to help you out when you need it. This is how I justified my coffee break chats, but you don’t need to be a social scientist to know it’s true!

books phd pixabay

Organisation: It’s obvious, but organisation is essential to completing a PhD.

• Make productive lists. I love lists. I have annual lists (a timetable really, or work plan), monthly lists, weekly lists and daily lists. Even out here in China away from the pressures of a regular workday I have a list (write blog – tick). A PhD friend once said to me that when he wakes up in the morning he doesn’t know what he’s going to do that day. I find that astonishing. My problem is over-ambition. I write long lists and can’t do everything, which then makes me feel bad. So I make a real effort to focus on the positives; at the end of the day I run through what I have achieved rather than what I haven’t. You will never reach the end of your to-do list; just accept it and keep ploughing on.

• Keep your files organised. Save file names with the date and back them up. Organise your folders. Keep track of all bibliographical references! I wasn’t great at this, but it really saves time in the long run. Use software to keep track of your references. I had a love-hate relationship with Endnote (it froze my PC just before I was about to print and submit) but I’d still recommend it.

• Don’t put things off. It’s easy to say don’t procrastinate but we all do it. However, I do feel like I’ve had a break through of late. Every time I feel a twinge about not wanting to do something, I do it. Before I have a chance to think about it, before it becomes a big deal. This works for the small stuff, like when you’re anxious about making a phone call. For the big things, break them down into manageable sections and treat each section like the small stuff. To borrow from a well-known sports brand; just do it.

So consistency, organisation and attitude are vital. You don’t need to work 24/7 to get your PhD, in fact that’s counterproductive. In my first year particularly I was often in the office at weekends but I wasn’t working on my thesis, I was blogging. To earn extra cash I was writing about boot and bodices rather than Bourdieu. I spent a lot of time working on stuff that wasn’t my thesis, so I’m sure I could have finished quicker had I wanted to but that’s another nice thing about doing a PhD, you do have relative time and freedom. These other interests provided balance, variety and stopped me feeling suffocated by the PhD, because sometimes distance can do wonders.

I know this all sounds very virtuous but good habits can save so much pain in the long run. Don’t compare yourself to others. Every PhD project is different and every person is different. Life doesn’t stop because you’re studying either; both happy things and tragic things will justly cause you to take time out at some point. That’s ok. You will still make it to finish; if you want to.

* I understand this isn’t possible for all. For a start some Uni’s don’t give doctoral students their own office space. For others family commitments mean they can’t move close to uni but that doesn’t stop you making the most of it when you do go in. You have to go to supervision meetings right? I’d also really recommend the supportive and abundant academic community Twitter (try #PhdChat).

Other resources:

10 steps to PhD failure (Article)
The Thesis Whisperer (Website/blog)
How to get a PhD (Book)
Guardian PhD network (Online)
Planning your PhD (Book)

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