Depression, Anxiety and Frustration in Doctoral Student Learning

Year: 2018

Author: Khurshid, Shumaila, Holbrook, Allyson, Scevak, Jill

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Doctoral level study involves learning outcomes such as acquiring deep understanding of existing knowledge, creating new knowledge, creative and critical thinking and reasoning, and defining unique problems. It is a challenging regime, and high attrition among candidates has attracted the attention of governments, universities and researchers. In addition, attention is being drawn to candidate health and wellbeing (Juniper et al. 2012; Levecque et al. 2017).  While it is known that emotions pervade learning, there has been relatively limited research that seeks to establish the emotional impact of frequently experienced learning challenges in candidature. Much of the focus in the literature has been in connection with challenges arising from the supervisory relationship. It is also rare to find research specific to emotional states, although a small number of studies are revealing that somewhere between 32% and 47% of HDR students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, especially depression (Graduate assembly 2014; Levecque et al. 2017). It has been found in a study with a representative sample undertaken in Belgium that:
The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students. (Levecque et al. 2017, p.874)
This vulnerability demands attention and is not satisfactorily explained by supervisory relationship, stage or background factors alone. We ask, whether, in what ways and to what extent the demands of the doctoral task, and indeed the pressures of research, give rise to more serious health issues. Frustration, anxiety and depression all qualify as emotional states, and there is need for research that explores how and why for some candidates, the challenges of candidature deepen into more serious and sustained emotional states. The presentation is based on the findings of a systematic review of the literature on intellectual and emotional challenges in doctoral degrees, including candidate management of affect. 
Graduate Assembly (2014). Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report.  Berkeley California.
Juniper, B., Walsh, E., Richardson, A., & Morley, B. (2012). A new approach to evaluating the well-being of PhD research students. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(5), 563-576.
Levecque, K., Anseel, F.,  De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., Gisle L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy 46, 868–879.