The Psychological Well-being
of PhD Students in Hong Kong:
A Territory- Wide Study and an International Comparison

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Principal Investigator
Dr. Chen Junjun
APCLC Research Fellow
The Education University of Hong Kong
Professor Christine Halse
The Education University of Hong Kong
Professor Nathan Hall
McGill University
Dr Ronnel Bornasal King
University of Macau
Dr Zeng Min Lily
University of Hong Kong

Project Duration
2020 to 2021
Funding Source
General Research Fund


Recent research has found that PhD students are suffering from psychological well-being problems at much higher rates than the general population. The alarming extent of these problems lead to much individual suffering and impose hefty economic, social, and intellectual costs. Despite increasing attention on doctoral well-being, there is a lack of a comprehensive understanding of the factors that underpin it. Most studies have been limited by focusing on one institution or disciplinary area. Moreover, almost all published studies have focused on PhD students in Western societies and there has been no large-scale systematic attempt to map out the psychological well-being of PhD students in Hong Kong, or elsewhere in Asia for that matter.

To address these limitations, the proposed study will involve an empirical, mixed methods study of PhD students across all disciplines and across all public universities in Hong Kong. More specifically, this study aims to: (1) document the psychological well-being of PhD students in Hong Kong; (2) examine how the postgraduate research environment predicts PhD student psychological well-being; (3) compare the well-being of PhD students in Hong Kong with international comparison groups; and (4) provide feedback to the University Grants Committee and the Graduate Schools to improve policy and practice.

The study has three phases. In Phase 1, a large-scale territory-wide survey will be administered to saturation to the more than 7,000 PhD students in Hong Kong’s eight publicly-funded universities. In Phase 2, the well-being data from Phase 1 will be compared with a key international dataset to help put the Hong Kong findings in context. Phase 3 will focus on providing feedback to the government and universities, with the goal of helping them formulate beneficial policies and practices, thereby maximizing impact.

The project moves the literature forward by examining the role of the postgraduate research environment in enabling or inhibiting well-being. The focus on environmental factors is theoretically rooted in a solid body of psychological research and is also solution-focused, because they are more malleable and amenable to policy and intervention efforts. By identifying the critical environmental factors most pertinent for well-being, it also yields actionable knowledge that can be used to craft effective policies and practices for optimizing doctoral well-being. oration.


The project aims to:
  1. Document the psychological well-being of PhD students in Hong Kong;
  2. Examine how the postgraduate research environment predicts PhD students' psychological well-being;
  3. Compare the psychological well-being of PhD students in Hong Kong with a key international dataset;
  4. Provide feedback to government and universities to improve policy and practice.


Theorectical Significance
In the project, we will systematically examine the role of the postgraduate research environment in predicting PhD student well-being in relation to other key personal background factors. Our study will cover all institutions and different disciplinary areas in Hong Kong which will help build the essential knowledge base about the factors that underpin PhD student well-being.

Practical Significance
The project can provide comprehensive baseline data for universities to track PhD student well-being over time. The international triangulation will provide a cross-national perspective on the Hong Kong data. In a competitive, global higher education system, our study will provide critical information and enable Hong Kong’s higher education institutions to purposively target policies, programs, and strategies for supporting and cultivating the well-being of their PhD students.

Hong Kong Significance
The project is important for HK’s international reputation as a higher education hub and as a knowledge city. It can help HK establish an international reputation and leadership in providing quality well-being care for PhD students, thereby increasing its capacity to attract high caliber students who will contribute to building the city’s social, intellectual, and economic capital. As the first, large-scale study of this topic, the study’s findings will have a high potential to directly impact doctoral policy and practice and to benefit future students in the growing PhD market of Hong Kong.