Social Work Doctoral Student Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Descriptive Study

Kylie E Evans, Megan R Holmes, Dana M Prince, Victor Groza
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 569-592

This descriptive study examines indicators of well-being and sources of emotional connection for social work doctoral students at American institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, work-related burnout, emotional connection to others, and changes in child care among parent respondents. This study also explores if particular groups of doctoral students experience heightened risks to well-being during the pandemic.

Social isolation strategies associated with the COVID-19 pandemic present challenges for doctoral student well-being, mental health, professional relationships, and degree persistence. Of particular concern is the potentially disproportionate impact the pandemic may have on the well-being of students who already face additional barriers to degree completion, such as parents and caregivers, as well as those who face obstacles associated with structural oppression, including persons of color, women, and sexual minority (SM) students.

Baseline data was used from a longitudinal survey study conducted by the authors on social work doctoral student well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants (N = 297) were recruited through the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work’s (GADE’s) publicly available list of 89 member institutions in the United States. The majority of respondents identified as women (80.1%), 35% of the sample identified as a person of color and/or non-White race, 30% identified as a sexual minority, and 32% were parents of children under 18 years of age.

This study contributes to the larger body of literature on factors associated with risk, resilience, and well-being among doctoral students, and it offers a specific exploration of these factors within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study deepens our understanding of social work doctoral students in particular, who have higher rates of doctoral enrollment by women and persons of color than many other academic disciplines.

Emotional connection to loved ones was significantly correlated with lower levels of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and work-related burnout. Outcomes varied by race, with Black and Asian respondents indicating higher levels of emotional connection to loved ones as compared to White respondents, and Black respondents indicating lower levels of anxiety and depression compared to White respondents. SM respondents indicated significantly lower levels of emotional connection and higher levels of depression and anxiety, as compared to heterosexual respondents. Parents reported receiving substantially less child care assistance than they were before the pandemic, but also reported lower levels of anxiety, depression, and work-related burnout compared to childless respondents.

Recommendations for doctoral program directors and chairs include implementing a purposive communication strategy, faculty modeling self-care and boundaries, creating opportunities for connection, scheduling value-added activities driven by student interest and needs, approaching student needs and plans of study with flexibility, and creating virtual affinity groups to help students connect with those facing similar challenges.

Outcome evaluation studies of doctoral program initiatives and policies to promote student well-being--both during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic-- is warranted.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents complex financial, interpersonal, and programmatic challenges for doctoral faculty and program directors, many of which affect the well-being and mental health of their students. Findings and recommendations from this study may be used to address the needs of doctoral students and support their path to doctoral degree completion.

Future studies should include measures that tap a broader range of indicators of depression, anxiety, and emotional connection, and additional domains of well-being. Multivariate analyses would permit predictive conclusions, and follow-up qualitative analyses would offer deeper insights into doctoral students’ well-being, coping skills, and experiences within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

doctoral students, COVID-19, well-being, emotional connection, burnout
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