The Effort-Reward-Imbalance Among PhD Students – A Qualitative Study

Melanie Vilser, Sabrina Rauh, Irmgard Mausz, Dieter Frey
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 17  •  2022  •  pp. 401-432

The purpose of this paper is to examine the perceived efforts, rewards, motives, and coping strategies of a sample of PhD students in Germany based on tested stress models, the Effort-Reward-Imbalance Model and the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping.

Pursuing a PhD can be challenging and stressful. Students face conflicts, isolation, and competition as well as difficulties with their supervisors. However, there is little known about how students perceive their PhD.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted in 2021 with 21 male and female doctoral students from various fields of research. The recorded interviews were transcribed and analyzed according to Mayring’s qualitative content analysis.

Little is known about the work stress of PhD students. Most studies focus on single aspects (e.g., the relationship with the supervisor or the heavy workload) and use questionnaires that do not show all aspects causing work stress and how to prevent it. In this study, we examined the elements of work stress and coping strategies by using the Effort-Reward-Imbalance Model and the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping in a theoretical framework.

The analysis yielded two main categories for efforts and three main categories for rewards as well as several sub-categories. Participants persisted in the PhD program for five reasons: an intrinsic motivation, an interest in improving one’s skills, the motivation to become an expert in one’s field, the ability to contribute to research, and because of the flexibility and freedom offered during a PhD. Further, the study analyzed how PhD students cope with stress. Engaging in physical activities or spending time with family and friends were the most common coping strategies used, followed by work routines (like scheduling time for deep work and breaks) and seeking assistance from other PhD students.

To decrease the stress factors and negative health outcomes, we recommend incorporating personal as well as organizational measurements in the university setting. Through kick-off events and personal development workshops, PhD students should be made aware of the potential stress factors and coping strategies. Mentoring programs with postdocs can further support the doctoral students. On an organizational level, the knowledge about the elements of work stress should be incorporated in the recruiting process and supervisor workshops.

As past research has investigated the effects of stress on physiological parameters, the framework of this study proposes the incorporation of the imbalance component into biological stress research.

Understanding the efforts, rewards, and motives for a doctoral degree will help to reduce work stress of PhD students and create a more positive over-all workplace, for example, by improving the relationship between students and their supervisors.

Additional work is required to explore how the Effort-Reward-Imbalance model and coping strategies could interact and influence different outcomes. As the majority of the participants pursed a PhD degree in psychology, further studies need to be conducted that include other disciplines.

coping strategies, effort-reward-imbalance, motives, PhD students
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