Access features, news and views from the latest issue and from our chemistry archives.

December 2015/January 2016

Resilience of PhD students under the microscope

Aiming to reduce dropout rates


The resilience and mental health of Australia’s PhD students will go under the microscope as part of a free new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) aimed at reducing drop-out rates.

Dr Inger Mewburn, course presenter and Australian National University (ANU) Director of Research Training and founding editor of the Thesis Whisperer blog, said the financial and emotional stress placed on PhD students contributes to nearly one-quarter dropping out.

‘They’re sitting on the poverty line, and we’re starting to see mental health issues becoming as issue as well,’ Mewburn said.

‘One university counselling service told us that there was a four times higher instance of PhD students using the service compared to other students.’

Mewburn thinks part of the issue is that PhD students are studying at an age where they have higher priorities.

‘The average age of students starting a PhD in Australia is 32, so these are people with families, mortgages and responsibilities.

‘A lot of them take a long time, so they are paying an opportunity cost, not being out there earning money.’

The course, How to Survive Your PhD, is designed to help students understand and recognise common issues. Each week the course will explore emotions such as fear, boredom and love. Friends and family are also encouraged to enrol to get an understanding of what their loved ones may be going through.

‘Family and friends are important; it’s important to be able to talk through these issues.’

One of the most common issues for PhD students is to develop a psychological condition known as ‘imposter syndrome’, where they feel they are faking it and not really up to the task.

‘It’s amazingly common. They start feeling that someone’s made a mistake by letting them do a PhD in the first place.’

‘It’s because they’re so intelligent, they judge themselves harshly and think they’re a lot dumber than they really are,’ she said.

The Massive Open Online Course ran for six weeks earlier this year through the edX website.


Book and software reviews

To offer your services as a book or software reviewer for Chemistry in Australia, please contact Damien Blackwell at