Meaningful or Meaningless? Organizational Conditions Influencing Doctoral Students’ Mental Health and Achievement

Francesco Tommasi, Ferdinando Toscano, Davide Giusino, Andrea Ceschi, Riccardo Sartori, Johanna Lisa Degen
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 17  •  2022  •  pp. 301-321

This paper presents a quantitative investigation of the organizational factors predicting the attrition of doctoral students’ experience of meaning and how meaningful experience and meaningless work affect doctoral students’ mental health and achievements.

Today’s academic environment subsumes neoliberal principles of individualism, instrumentality, and competition. Such an environment can harm doctoral students’ meaningful experience. Universities’ market-driven practices, indeed, can lower doctoral students’ motivation and affect their mental health.

In this paper, we referred to empirical knowledge to identify the ways through which today’s academia erodes doctoral students’ meaningful experiences. We hypothesized that environmental sources of meaning (e.g., coherence, significance, purpose, and belonging) become subsumed under neoliberal principles of individualism, instrumentality, and competition. Lower levels of sources of meaning directly predict the experience of meaningless work, which is linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and intention to quit among doctoral students. We conducted a cross-sectional study on a sample of N = 204 doctoral students who volunteered to participate by completing a survey with self-reported measures. We analyzed data collected via structural equation modelling to test the associations among the variables.

The present paper represents one an attempt attempts to investigate doctoral students’ experience as subsumed to market-driven principles of the neoliberal ideology.

Results of structural equation modelling show that higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms and intention to quit are associated with the lack of external supporting factors (i.e., PhD support), the perception of broad-based managerial practices as meaningless and instrumental, and a general sense of emptiness at work (i.e., meaningless work). Ultimately, doctoral students may strive to have a meaningful experience in today’s academic environment. The experience of meaningless work leads to the risk of mental illness symptoms and quitting intention.

This study suggests to practitioners to improve doctoral students’ well-being with multilevel interventions approach as well as including academic stakeholders to have broader practical implications.

For researchers, it is suggested to focus on the managerial and organizational conditions of the academic environment that influence the basis of doctoral students’ experience of doing a PhD.

This study affords society the importance of prioritizing the academic environment by looking at the meaning in work through the intersection of meaningful experience and meaningless work for doctoral students’ mental health and achievement.

Future research can consider the role of factors contributing to doctoral students’ meaningful experience by probing doctoral programs to understand students’ mental health and achievement.

doctoral students, meaningless work, mental health in academia
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