Measuring Stress in Doctoral Research [draft]

Russell                   Bert                 Rachel

Project Team
Russell Butson Higher Education Development Centre, University of Otago
Bert Arnrich, Department of Computer Engineering, Bogazici University
Rachel Spronken-Smith, Graduate Research School, University of Otago

The aim of this study was to explore physiological responses associated with stress through the use of devices that afforded the capture of continuous naturally occurring data.

Stress levels in doctoral students have long been of concern (Hill & Smith, 2009; Offstein, Larson, McNeill, & Mjoni Mwale, 2004). Not only do they affect doctoral completion rates and retention (Kearns, Gardiner, & Marshall, 2008), they have been found to have a detrimental impact on students overall wellbeing (Haynes et al., 2012; Ross, Bathurst, & Jarden, 2012). There are signs that a growing number of students are experiencing levels of stress that appear to be higher than any time in history (The Faculty Advisory Council of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, 2007). A recent study by Ickes, Brown, Reeves and Zephyr (2015) of 1,139 college students revealed 80% of graduate and undergraduate students reported they struggle with stress. The U.S Associated Press survey on stress and mental health of college students (Associated Press & mtvU, 2009) found 85% of students surveyed experienced stress on a daily basis. Of these six in 10 reported having felt so stressed that it interfered with their academic work.

It is interesting to note that many of these studies are focusing not on the psychopathology of the individual but on the influence of the academic environment. For instance, the 2013 National U.S. College Health Assessment, where the average age of those surveyed was 21 years, reported that almost half (46.3%) of all undergraduate students surveyed felt traumatised or overwhelmed in regard to their academic responsibilities. Similarly, a study by Waghachavare, Dhumale, Kadam and Gore (2013) of 1,224 students undertaking professional courses found 24% regularly experienced prolonged negative stress as a result of academic factors. These studies emphasis the need to move away from the traditional beliefs of student stress and burnout as indicators associated with the individuals and instead emphasise the inconsistency in the relationship between the individual and the environment (Bélanger et al., 2015; Meriläinen & Kuittinen, 2014).

Traditionally, studies of student stress in higher education settings have been based on student self-reports of stress through various punctuated collection methods (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983; Gross & Seebaß, 2016). As a result, measures of stress are typically guided by post-event recollections as opposed to measures situated at the time of the stressful event. Recent developments in wearable biometric devices offer opportunities to extend our measures and therefore our understanding of stress by allowing data to be captured continuously across psychological, physiological and environmental dimensions.