How COVID-19 has caused anxiety and sleeplessness in PhD supervisors in the UK

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How COVID-19 has caused anxiety and sleeplessness in PhD supervisors in the UK

The ongoing pandemic has been a challenge for each segment in the academic world in different ways. One of the notable changes it has brought about is in how PhD supervisors and their students communicate and deal with research challenges. This article discusses findings from a recent survey on how COVID-19 has affected the lives of PhD supervisors.

The survey, conducted by the UK Council for Graduate Education in May 2021, was a national survey aimed at identifying the challenges research supervisors face and how they have changed since the pandemic began. The survey was taken by nearly 3,500 research supervisors in the UK.

Key findings

Overall, supervisors reported a positive attitude toward their role and felt motivated while supporting upcoming researchers.

  • Over 90% of the supervisors enjoyed and valued their role.
  • 82% felt their supervisory role had a positive impact on their own research.

However, many researchers admitted that they had been experiencing anxiety and sleeplessness because of the pressures of their role.

  • More than 30% agreed that concerns over supervision had kept them awake at night over the last 12 months.
  • More than 30% admitted having felt anxious while supervising doctoral candidates.

A considerable number of supervisors also felt that they are not supported and recognized enough.

  • 12% thought they didn’t get enough support to conduct good supervision.
  • Only 52% felt recognized by their institutions.
  • 12% of them reported that there was no limit on the number of students they supervised, while 18% reported their workplace did not have any policy related to this.
  • 55% asked for “more time” or “reduced workload” as the single improvement to their role.
  • 65% felt that supervisory responsibilities increased during the pandemic, and they found it difficult to balance these with their domestic chores.

What the results mean

Richard Freeman, who researches doctoral education at University College London, says “Like everyone, supervisors and PhD students have faced the stresses of living with COVID. It’s been incredibly challenging for some PhD work.”

Much scientific research has slowed down, got stalled, or needed a change in direction because of the pandemic, and researchers are struggling to cope with the effects of COVID-19 in their personal as well as professional life. However, the increase in supervisor responsibilities has especially not being acknowledged.

The results clearly indicate that the supervisors are overloaded with work and are exhausted.

The long working hours and the responsibility of supervising young researchers while managing their households have affected supervisors mentally. Not getting enough training on how to deal with the situation and not receiving enough acknowledgement for their efforts might also be contributing to anxiety and thus, insomnia.

“From a supervision perspective, pivoting research methods to balance PhD timelines and provide opportunities is an anxiety-inducing challenge,” says Christopher Madan, a neuroscientist at the University of Nottingham.

This survey was conducted to understand supervisors’ workplace experience and workplace culture in the UK higher education (HE), and what role COVID played in it. This online survey was conducted in four phases, first being with 3,400+ supervisors, followed by three online focus groups across STEM, Arts & Humanities, and Social Sciences.


Holly Else. Sleeplessness and anxiety: PhD supervisors on toll of COVID pandemic. 

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Published on: Nov 23, 2021


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