Post-covid mental health perils for doctoral students and early career researchers

Patricia Jackman and Rebecca Sanderson argue that universities must help early career and doctoral researchers to thrive

Rebecca Sanderson is a researcher and doctoral student in the Lincoln Higher Education Research Institute and the School of Education at the University of Lincoln.


Patricia Jackman is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Lincoln

Doctoral and early career researchers (ECRs) represent the future of scientific excellence, academic succession and industry innovation. So why don’t we take better care of them and their mental health?

Two recent research projects with the UKRI funded Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) have given us some insights into mental health in ECRs and doctoral researchers.

The impact of the first national lockdown for doctoral and early career researchers in the UK was a collaborative project between ECRs and doctoral researchers from across the UK and beyond.

Getting off to a mentally healthy start in doctoral study, focussed on understanding the experiences of new doctoral students and how these could support or undermine mental health and wellbeing.

Drawing on these data, we’ve been exploring qualitatively the impact of experience, culture and the pandemic on this group.

Significant impacts

It’s clear that the experience of trying to continue research over the lockdowns and the continuing disruptions as the pandemic rumbles on has created stress and anxiety for many. Loss of laboratory facilities, isolation from peers and even greater financial precarity were salient themes.

It’s also clear that the disruptions of the pandemic have disproportionately impacted some groups of researchers more than others. International researchers have dealt with the stress of watching from afar as their families face the pandemic without them.

Researchers from minority ethnic groups reported racism as social media amplified racist and xenophobic political rhetoric earlier in the pandemic.

Those with caring responsibilities expressed frustration as their access to support and childcare was lost during lockdowns (it remains problematic for many), reducing their capacity to work.

Clinically vulnerable researchers, and those shielding to protect their families, continue to live with fear and risks to their health.

Yet there are also silver linings. The normalisation of remote working was welcomed by some participants for enabling more flexible ways of working. This flexibility can help researchers to begin to overcome the extensive barriers to full participation experienced by disabled researchers and those juggling caring responsibilities with work-study commitments.

One disabled doctoral researcher told us:

…the move to virtual connectivity has been what I have been asking and hoping for, for years.”

Principles for supporting researcher mental health

As we move through what we hope is the autumn of the pandemic, what should we learn and take forward so that we can make a fair and equitable environment for doctoral researchers and ECRs that supports positive mental health and wellbeing? We advocate for the following principles.

Person-centred, accessible support

The importance of raising awareness of the uneven impacts of the pandemic (for example loss of health support and experiences of racism and xenophobia) on both ECRs and doctoral students cannot be overstated. University leaders, managers and supervisors should be prepared to listen to the experiences of diverse researchers, acknowledge these differences, and act.

Support should be provided to help researchers to overcome the difficulties faced in these uncertain times, but this support won’t be useful if it is designed without reference to these challenges, delivered inflexibly or hidden behind bureaucratic barriers. Health, wellbeing and career interventions should be visible and accessible to all, taking into account the reality of individual circumstances.

Proactively work to mitigate inequity

Inequity will never solve itself, so universities must look for ways to address it. Improving researcher job security will be helpful, as will participation in structured schemes like the Race Equality Charter if early career and doctoral researcher needs are explicitly identified and addressed.

Equity and fairness in career progression

Inequities in career progression for researchers have long been noted, and research suggests that the pandemic will exacerbate these differences.

The ongoing disruptions to social care, childcare and schooling, along with the difficulties in accessing care for physical and mental health conditions are just two examples of the additional challenges facing some researchers now. In the context of a highly competitive professional environment, which often demands long working hours but provides only precarious conditions, a sustained commitment from universities is needed to address job insecurity and excessive workload.

Silver linings and learning lessons

The pandemic continues to shape how we work, and some of these adaptive practices have been helpful. Continuing use of technology that increases accessibility and supporting, not just allowing, working from home and flexible working will provide benefits for some researchers.

Foster belonging

We agree with Pathik Pathak’s calls about the need to go beyond narratives about inclusivity and work towards fostering an authentic sense of belonging. As there can be a tendency for jobs, programmes of study, and staff and student support services to be designed around the needs of a relatively homogenous group, universities must make sure they create a research environment that welcomes and fosters a sense of belonging for all doctoral and early career researchers, including disabled staff and students, those studying part-time, at distance or juggling multiple commitments.

Following these principles will guide higher education institutions towards a better, fairer, healthier and more inclusive research environment. Given the longstanding concerns about researcher mental and evidence of the impact of Covid-19 universities must act now to provide an environment in which early career and doctoral researchers can thrive.

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