RUG study: Groningen PhDs under pressure

A study performed last year by the university shows that many RUG PhD candidates are experiencing stress at work to an unhealthy degree.
By Rob Siebelink

The results correspond to other studies concerning the work stress PhDs feel. 42 percent of the Groningen respondents experience at least four of the twelve symptoms that indicate mental health issues.

This result is comparable to similar but more limited studies among PhD candidates in Flanders and the University of Leiden.

More stress

Of the 3,600 RUG PhDs contacted, a little over 25 percent filled in the questionnaire. There is a clear correlation to the stage of the PhD track the candidates are in: PhDs experience more stress as the track continues, and candidates whose contract is concluded while they’re still working on their research experience the highest level of stress.

Much of the stress seems to stem from uncertainty, for example about the demands asked of the PhD candidates and their thesis, and about their career after they obtained their degree.


RUG rector magnificus Elmer Sterken is worried. ‘The results of this study confirm the recent reports about the stress that PhDs feel, whether they’re students, employees, or external doctoral candidates. Over the past few years we achieved a lot when it comes to coaching PhD candidates with mental issues at the Graduate Schools and at a more central level. But apparently it hasn’t been enough.’

‘I think it’s worrisome that the PhDs experience so much unhealthy stress. The entire board of directors care about them. We’re taking the findings from the study very seriously and we’ll immediately take action.’

Action plan

The results of the study have led to an action plan to take measures. These are aimed at both the prevention and decrease of stress (through early diagnosis) and treatment.

The RUG board has decided to hire a psychologist to focus solely on PhD candidates, which the universities of Utrecht and Delft recently did as well.

Other measures will include intensive screening at the start of a promotion track, hiring PhD counsellors, a wide range of courses to prevent stress, and a programme to help PhD candidates prepare for their career after obtaining their degree.


The study has also shown that the demands of a thesis need to be documented more clearly.

Candidates should be able to finish their degree in the available time (usually four years), and the research and the demands a thesis needs to meet, such as the number of chapters, should be in line with this. To that end, the RUG will also provide (further) training for PhD candidates and their supervisors.


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