Acceptability and Perceived Effectiveness of Approaches to Support Biomedical Doctoral Student Wellness: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Alexander J. Hish, Gabriela A. Nagy, Caitlin M. Fang, Lisalynn Kelley, Christopher V. Nicchitta, Kafui Dzirasa, M. Zachary Rosenthal
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 653-684

National and international survey studies have begun to identify heightened levels of depression, anxiety, and burnout among doctoral students. Nevertheless, little research has been done to evaluate which interventions may support doctoral student wellness.

To guide future interventions research, this study evaluated perceptions of the acceptability and effectiveness of wellness approaches among biomedical doctoral students.

In this study, 69 biomedical doctoral students were sampled from a research institution in the southeastern United States. Participants completed a structured psychiatric diagnostic interview and self-report questionnaires. Questionnaires assessed participants’ beliefs about the acceptability and effectiveness of 36 wellness approaches in reducing burnout symptoms and depression symptoms, and the participants’ attitudes towards psychological services.

This study demonstrates that approaches to support biomedical doctoral student wellness should be tailored according to a student’s history of problems with mental health.

Among candidate approaches, those involving spending time socializing with friends and family were rated most favorably by the entire sample. However, participants with high burnout or depression symptoms negatively evaluated approaches involving social engagement. Participants with high burnout symptoms or a history of psychological diagnoses or treatment rated individual therapy more favorably.

Social engagement is highly valued by biomedical doctoral students, above and beyond institution-based wellness resources. University administrators should prioritize interventions favored by students struggling with symptoms of burnout and mental health problems, especially individual therapy.

Randomized trials should be conducted to assess the effectiveness in reducing problems with mental health of the approaches rated favorably, particularly those involving social engagement. Studies should investigate facilitators and barriers to approaches rated highly likely to be effective, but not acceptable, including peer support groups and individual therapy.

In the interest of preventing attrition from biomedical doctoral programs and promoting the wellness and success of future scientists, it is important to develop training programs sensitive to the mental health needs of their students. This study provides important insights guiding next steps in intervention testing and implementation to support biomedical doctoral students.

Future studies should validate the findings in this study with large internationally representative samples of students across various fields of doctoral study. Future intervention studies should include rigorous evaluation of facilitators and barriers for approaches rated favorably in this study.

burnout, depression, doctoral students, intervention, wellness
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