Social support and burnout in the doctoral study process

This is a guest post by Solveig Cornér, who is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her research focus involves social support for early career researchers’ in Higher Education Institutions, on wellbeing, and on youth identities. Together with her supervisors, Professor Kirsi Pyhältö and Professor Erika Löfström, she recently published an article on ‘The Relationship Between Doctoral Students perceptions of Supervision and Burnout’.

When PhD challenges become overbearing
MATCHINGIN PROGRESS.pngAchieving a PhD can be a long and tough journey and the doctoral study process is often described as an ‘intensive’ and an ‘intellectually and emotionally challenging’ period of time. Doctoral students’ usually face many kinds of pressures that might pull them away and prevent them from maintaining their focus on achieving the doctorate. For instance, their work with their Dissertation (Thesis) becomes too stressful and overwhelming, or, their funding is ending and hence the researcher faces financial hardship.

Another factor that can affect the study process is that the doctoral student doesn’t receive adequate support from others, for their academic development, or even the support to respond to the inevitable PhD challenges.

The combined result when students experience challenges and their community of practice fails to provide adequate and constructive support for those challenges, can lead to increased ‘ill-being’, and even withdrawal from their doctoral program.

In our recent study, we investigated the interrelation between social support structures and experiences of burnout*. Burnout in the doctoral study process is a symptom of ill-being that is not often talked about in this group. We looked closely into doctoral students’ perceptions of supervision, including the frequency of supervision and overall satisfaction with supervision, and we connected this with their perceptions of burnout.

We used an internationally validated instrument, namely the Doctoral Experience Survey (Pyhältö et al., 2017) to collect data in three universities in Finland. The sample consisted of 248 doctoral students representing Humanities and Theology, Natural Sciences and Engineering, Social Sciences and Law, Behavioral Sciences, Economics and Medicine.

Support comes from a range of players

Firstly, the students’ in our study benefited from having several and varying sources of doctoral supervision beyond their main supervisor. These other sources included peers and individuals from the researcher community, both nationally and internationally.

Secondly, the students’ reported on the frequency of their supervisions, varying from daily meetings to less than once every sixth months. Most typically, students received supervision either once every second month (30%) or every month (26%).

Thirdly, the doctoral students who participated also had varying experiences of the quality of supervisory support. On average, students reported that they received overall constructive supervision e.g. receiving encouragement and positive attention. They also reported that they received support from the researcher community, entailing acceptance, appreciation and collegial support.

What’s more, the students we researched commented on whether or not they were treated as equals in the research community, including: observing justice and fair play among fellow doctoral students.

  • Overall, doctoral students who reported high levels of support from the researcher community, who perceived that they received constructive supervision, and who felt that they were equally treated were more satisfied with supervision than their peers.
  • On the other hand, several factors were associated with experiences of burnout. Lack of satisfaction with their supervision, a low frequency of supervision and poor experiences of equality within the researcher community were related to experiences of burnout.
  • Finally, and importantly, our results showed that experiences of burnout, were connected with the student’s intention to leave their PhD course. It’s worth noting that students who received supervision from several supervisors reported less intention to leave their PhD. Hence, a collective model of supervision is related with reduced risks of students experiencing burnout.
In conclusion, we suggest that by enhancing various sources of social support we can offer a substantial base for future development of enabling practices in researcher education. We call for greater emphasis on group supervision and other collective forms of supervision. If our doctoral students are not provided with sufficient social support to overcome the challenges faced in the study process, it is likely to reduce experiences of wellbeing, and, in the long run, increase the risk of doctoral students abandoning their studies.

* “Burnout is defined as prolonged work-related stress together with symptoms of exhaustion and cynicism and when these symptoms are combined it may lead to burnout. Exhaustion is described by feelings of strain, chronic fatigue and lack of emotional energy. Cynicism, on the other hand, is characterized as depersonalization and an excessively detached response to colleagues and other aspects of the job. Often, both exhaustion and cynicism, has shown to emerge from overload at work, heavy job demands, and, also social conflict.” (Maslach, 2003Maslach & Jackson, 1981).

Author: Dr Kay Guccione

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.

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