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PNN: PhDs also suffer from heavy workload

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PhD candidates at Dutch universities often burn the candle at both ends, working long hours that sometimes result in burnouts and other psychological problems. Something needs to be done about the workload, says the Dutch network for PhDs, Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN).

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Heavy workloads at universities are once again on everyone’s mind. WOinAction and the Rathenau Institute and others reported this week that overtime is the norm rather than the exception among many researchers. Students will stage a protest in Utrecht on Monday out of solidarity with their overworked lecturers.

PhD candidates also work a considerable amount of overtime, according to a new report published today by PNN. The interest group based its report on a survey of 1,601 PhD students at Dutch universities and university hospitals between March and May 2020.

Stress
Some 63 percent of the respondents work more weekly hours than agreed in their contract: an average of 4.4 additional hours. Among PhD students at university hospitals, as much as 82 percent work unpaid overtime, for an average of 6.4 hours per week.

In other words, a majority of the respondents experience a workload that is too heavy. Nearly half (47 percent) suffer from multiple psychological symptoms such as stress, lack of sleep, problems concentrating or even depression.

Not unusual
Nevertheless, only 11 percent of PhD students feel that their mental health is at risk. This is because these kinds of symptoms have become par for the course in the world of research, suspects PNN chairperson Lucille Mattijssen. “If all of your colleagues are continually fatigued and stressed, you probably won’t find such symptoms unusual in yourself.”

Moreover, many PhD supervisors tend to downplay the problems, says Mattijssen. But this is because they also suffer from heavy workloads. “Some of their work gets shifted onto their students, who end up with more and more tasks.”

Fight
When is enough enough? A quarter of the PhD students surveyed have considered stopping their doctoral programme because of doubts about a future in science. Mattijssen can certainly understand that. “The stress doesn’t end when you get that doctorate: you then face a whole series of temporary contracts and a fight for research funding or a permanent appointment.”

PNN wants universities to train their PhD supervisors better and to engage specialised psychologists who understand the needs and problems of PhD students. The ‘publish or perish’ mentality also needs tempering.

"What we really need is a reduction in the workload in the field of science as a whole,” says Mattijssen. “The high standard that Dutch universities maintain is praiseworthy, of course, but it should not be at the expense of the staff health.”

Extensive
PNN’s survey is the first of its size among PhD students in the Netherlands. The survey itself was so extensive, that multiple reports will be needed to present the range of results. These will be published in the weeks to come.

Although PhD students from all Dutch universities completed the survey, not all institutions are equally well represented. About a third of the respondents were from Wageningen University.

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