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Four years after a landmark study of Ph.D. student mental health, what has changed?

When sociologist Katia Levecque added a few last-minute questions to a 2013 survey of junior researchers in Flanders, Belgium, little did she expect the shock waves it would spread through academia. The results, which suggested an alarmingly high prevalence of mental health challenges among Ph.D. students, went viral on social media when they were published in 2017. The paper has since spurred research interest in a topic that until then had been largely overlooked, and it helped put well-being and mental health on the agendas of various academic institutions, funders, and governments around the world.

It also changed the course of Levecque’s career. At the time of the survey, Levecque was a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Research and Development Monitoring (ECOOM), an interuniversity consortium tasked with advising the Flemish government. “The response to the … paper has been so overwhelming that I have had to make a choice,” she says. She could either invest her time and energy on boosting her publication record to further her academic career, or on leveraging that paper to instill change and improve well-being and mental health in academia. “I opted for the second option, because I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help a lot of individuals and organizations to help themselves.”

Four years on, Levecque splits her time between co-leading ECOOM UGhent, a part-time professorship at Ghent University, activist mental health work, and other pursuits. Science Careers spoke with Levecque about the impact the paper has had on the research community as well as her own career. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What was it like for you after the study was published?

A: The response to the paper has been dominating my agenda on all kinds of levels. The first two-and-a-half years, I received 30 to 40 emails a day asking for my time and input. I did a tour of Europe, giving lectures, hosting workshops, and offering advice on well-being and mental health in academia. And I received a lot of heartwarming letters from young scientists saying things like, “This is a new start for me, because now I know I’m not alone,” and “I know it’s not just me personally, because there are also structural issues.” I also had a lot of people calling out for help, giving me files they had prepared for lawyers but weren’t ready to send out. That was quite heartbreaking. I really saw the dark side of academia. I felt I could help make a change. But it was also difficult because my ability to help individuals is limited—in time, but also in terms of power.

Q: How have things evolved since then?

A: Early on, a lot of policymakers started to ask for advice on how to do surveys and what kinds of programs should be put in place. Now, we see governments from different parts of the world really reacting with top-down initiatives. One country that picked it up immediately was the United Kingdom, where a pilot study that I helped with got a lot of things into motion. And last year, the United Kingdom implemented the Stepchange framework to help universities better support their students’ and employees’ well-being and mental health.

I have also seen a lot of initiatives being anchored within institutions, often driven by one or two faculty members wishing to instill change in their own departments. At the broader level, some universities have been focusing on changing structural or cultural features in academia—for example, they have set up a counseling agency within the university to enable Ph.D. students to talk about sensitive issues. Others have been focusing on the individual and implemented programs directed at changing their resilience, mindset, or competencies—for example by offering Ph.D. students yoga classes or tools to tackle impostor syndrome. In my opinion, the best approach has been universities addressing both the structural factors and the individual factors. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and you need to start somewhere.

Q: Do you think things are heading in the right direction?

A: There is a lot of awareness and a lot of goodwill, but there is still a long way to go. Academia is a very big ship that has been on its course for years and years, and you cannot change its path immediately, because otherwise it will fall apart.

Courtesy of Katia Levecque

Q: What advice do you have for others who are working on this issue?

A: Sometimes to the younger people I need to say, be a bit patient. We have planted the seed, and it needs some time to grow. It is also important that people recognize it’s not all the fault of the academic structure and culture, and it’s not all the fault of the individual. It’s a joint effort and a joint responsibility to look at the tools on both sides and leverage them to reach better working conditions and better career prospects in the academic sector.

Q: What are you doing now to further promote mental health in academia?

A: I want to help turn the academic boat by focusing on three main issues through my research at ECOOM. One criticism policymakers in many places raised is that, in their surveys, general job satisfaction among Ph.D. students is high. But job satisfaction and mental health are two different things. In our study group, four out of five Ph.D. students said, ‘I’m happy with my job in general,’ yet one in three reported experiencing a sufficient number of symptoms to suspect mental health problems. So, we are now looking at many more dimensions of well-being and connecting them with performance and productivity to try to find a common language and get everyone onboard. A second line of research is considering the Ph.D. as just one phase within the larger career context. This is because the way you think about your Ph.D. and the nonacademic labor market, and the way nonacademic employers think about a Ph.D., will have an impact on how you feel, how you perform, what you aspire to, and what motivates you during the Ph.D. Then, we’re also investigating the Ph.D. as just one part of a person’s life and its broader meaning. We’re looking at the time spent with family or doing hobbies, because this is what gives you the energy to keep going and what brings you transferable skills and opportunities to become a better person and a better employee. We have a lot of data already, but so far I have not been able to find the time to write them up as papers.

Q: How have your activities fostering mental health fit in with your job responsibilities and career progression?

A: Improving mental health in academia has become more of a mission than a job for me—but that has come at a price. My official job responsibilities have primarily consisted of teaching, running a government-advising expert center, and writing policy briefs. While my academic positions focus on research workforce issues, including mental health, they haven’t included any time or resources for my advocacy work, so I have to do that mainly on the side. I’ve also had to balance work and family obligations. Because of all these factors, I felt I needed to make a choice and put scholarly pursuits and outputs that would further a traditional academic career lower on my agenda. So I’ve needed to be flexible, piecing together part-time and sometimes precarious positions while also pursuing independent endeavors. There have been a lot of drawbacks, but I guess those are part of addressing that big boat that is not easily turned around.

Q: What have you done to cope?

A: People say to me, “You have given me a voice,” and “You have empowered me to take action.” It’s been rewarding enough to keep going. I also meditate a lot. Then, to help keep me from burning out and to invest in a way out if things go wrong professionally, on top of everything else I began to more seriously pursue one of my hobbies: For 2 years, I took courses on Wednesday evenings to get my Belgian certification as a chocolatier so I can start my own business. I also found that I really enjoy all the negotiation and mediation work that I have been doing as part of my advocacy work. This experience has taught me that I’m able to bring change by pushing the right buttons at the right time. So I have also become a certified mediator and negotiator, and I am currently setting up my own business advising governments, companies, and unions on social dialogue, negotiation, and conflict management. I see my mission bringing me more and more in this direction of optimizing individuals’ and companies’ well-being and performance.

Q: What advice do you have for others who decide to pursue advocacy projects in light of their research findings?

A: For those people who are bringing news that not everyone is happy about, try not to lose yourself, because there will be a lot of pressure. Know your strengths, know your limits, and know your energizers. For example, I don’t have Twitter or Instagram accounts because I simply was not able to keep up with that. If you want to communicate, look at what you will be communicating and how people will perceive it, because things can be taken out of context and can go viral very fast. Then, there are a lot of things you will not be able to anticipate, so you need to be agile and look for people who are able to join forces with you. And if you have opponents, try to understand them, open the dialogue, and look for the win-win. Often, you will find that you have the same goals, just different ways of thinking about how to achieve those goals.

Q: What do you see as your main accomplishment in the realm of well-being in academia?

A: In addition to the greater awareness, I really like that people have this regained connection to themselves and to their emotions, that they are inspired by their own strengths, and that they are connecting to their peers and to their professors. We are all in the same boat, and there’s a lot of value to be gained when talking to each other in a serene and honest way about how we feel and what we need to flourish.