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The impact of supervision approaches on the emotional well-being of PhD students

In recent years, academic staff and research policy, have emphasized concerns about mental health problems of postgraduate students (e.g., PhD students) in Universities. Several studies reported an impact of the research conditions, such as the high workload, intensification, and the pace of change on student mental health (Hay, 2017, Levecque et al., 2017, Schillebeeckx et al., 2013). All the aforementioned conditions affected students negatively since higher rate of depression and anxiety incidence have been recorded among PhD students (Kinman, 2001).

The mental health of PhD students should have significant attention due to their effect on the scientific knowledge base, as they are considered a source of scientific advancement. For example, the publication of thesis results is one of the contributors to the academic output (Millar, 2013). PhD student with mental health issues simulates costs to the research institutions and sometimes to the specific research group (Lee et al., 2015).

Occupational health researchers found that social support for PhD students has an extensive role in their mental health conditions. Social support is defined as the support received by colleagues, supervisors, or both. Low support at work, highly affects anxiety levels and emotional exhaustion and can be a significant source of occupational stress. PhD students work context is affected mainly by the supervision leadership style.

A study highlighted evidence that PhD students who are advised by a professor with inspirational leadership (supportive) show better mental health and higher productivity (Levecque et al., 2017). Inspirational leadership is defined as a supervisor's ability to influence the group positively and motivate them toward success. On the other hand, PhD students who were exposed to a laissez-faire leadership style show a high risk of psychological distress; an increase in the laissez-faire scale score, the odds of experiencing psychological distress increased by 8% (Levecque et al., 2017). The explanation of the high risk of psychological distress is related to the core of laissez-faire leadership that places all over the focus on the student, making the student feel confused, and the supervisor loses their accountability (Online Learning College, 2022). The power of inspirational leadership in supporting the student and work environment relies on the special skills and behaviours of supervisors, including communication, innovation and resilience.


The excellent communication skills of the supervisor can enhance the process of explaining the goals of tasks and clarifying the problems that need to be solved. The leader should be familiar with different forms of communication and use them depending on the situation, including one-on-one, departmental, and full-staff conversations and communication via email, on-line media or social media. Continuous communication with good collaboration between colleagues can ensure that the work is going smoothly and all conditions are clear for the leader and employees.


Innovative supervisors always uses untraditional ways of thinking about resolving problems or overcoming a challenge. Also, lead their students with questions, not answers, especially provocative questions; asking questions can open up new ideas, provide more solutions for problems, and expose possibilities. The innovative leaders are always prioritizing learning about everything new and from real life, not only from research. Learning can improve the students’ performance and way of thinking and make them more innovative; even when students make mistakes or any failure happen, can learn from mistakes, like everyone.


Resilience is one of the important skills that a supervisor can have, that challenges are always possible in any PhD project. Resilience is the human ability to meet difficulties, setbacks, and trauma and then fully recover to normal life. It's a skill for high-performance leaders because have the responsibilities to maintain the power and productivity of themselves and their teams.

In conclusion, the facilitation of leadership toward work-family balance, reduced workload, and helping the PhD supervisors adopt leadership styles that lead to satisfactory and constructive work relations will achieve benefits in terms of PhD students` mental health.


  • HAY, I. 2017. References: Establishing and Sustaining a Successful Career in the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. How to be an Academic Superhero. Edward Elgar Publishing.

  • KINMAN, G. 2001. Pressure points: A review of research on stressors and strains in UK academics. Educational psychology, 21, 473-492.

  • LEE, Y.-N., WALSH, J. P. & WANG, J. 2015. Creativity in scientific teams: Unpacking novelty and impact. Research policy, 44, 684-697.

  • LEVECQUE, K., ANSEEL, F., DE BEUCKELAER, A., VAN DER HEYDEN, J. & GISLE, L. 2017. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46, 868-879.

  • MILLAR, M. M. 2013. Interdisciplinary research and the early career: The effect of interdisciplinary dissertation research on career placement and publication productivity of doctoral graduates in the sciences. Research Policy, 42, 1152-1164.

  • SCHILLEBEECKX, M., MARICQUE, B. & LEWIS, C. 2013. The missing piece to changing the university culture. Nature biotechnology, 31, 938-941.

  • Online Learning College. (2022). What is Laissez-Faire Leadership?. Available at: [Accessed 28.05.2023]

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