Abstract: Social Work Doctoral Student Well-Being and the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

231P Social Work Doctoral Student Well-Being and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kylie Evans, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH
Megan Holmes, PhD, Associate Professor, Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University
Dana Prince, PhD, Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH
Victor Groza, PhD, Grace F. Brody Professor of Parent-Child Studies, Case Western Reserve University

Doctoral students report a variety of stressors that affect their well-being, including workload, financial constraints, and difficulties balancing work-family responsibilities. The COVID-19 pandemic added to these challenges, as social isolation measures changed the way students engage in traditional methods of learning and relational coping. The experiences of those who face additional barriers to degree completion are of particular concern as doctoral programs seek to support student success, retention, and well-being. This includes doctoral student parents, women, persons of color, and sexual minorities, all of whom have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Theoretically grounded by the stress-buffering hypothesis, this exploratory study examines well-being among a national sample of social work doctoral students during months 8 – 9 of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Social work doctoral students were recruited for an online survey study on doctoral student well-being during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants were recruited through the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE’s) 89 member institutions. Baseline data is used for this analysis. The sample (N = 297) is comprised of 80.1% women, 35% persons of color and/or individuals identifying as non-Hispanic White race, 32% parents of children under 18 years of age, and 30% identifying as a sexual minority (SM). Measures of well-being included work-related burnout, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and emotional connection to loved ones. Descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations were calculated for key outcome variables, including burnout, depression, anxiety, and emotional connection. T-tests and one-way ANOVAs were used to examine differences in well-being indicators by gender, race, sexual orientation, and parent status.


Respondents reported moderately high levels of work-related burnout (M = 55.01, SD = 21.11). Depressive symptoms were also moderately high in this sample, with 21% - 39% of respondents reporting feeling blue, lonely, loss of interest in activities, and feelings of hopelessness. Anxiety symptoms were moderate to mild in this sample (M = 13.14, SD = 5.19). All study variables were significantly related to emotional connection (p < .001), with lower levels of emotional connection associated with higher levels of burnout, depressive symptoms, and anxiety symptoms. Significant differences in emotional connection, depressive and anxiety symptoms were observed by race, sexual orientation, and parent/caregiver status; no gender differences were observed.

Conclusions & Implications:

Findings highlight the relationship between emotional connection and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic for social work doctoral students, as well as the increased challenges faced by vulnerable groups. Programmatic and policy recommendations based on these findings are offered for doctoral programs, including: 1) Having a purposive communication strategy; 2) Creating frequent opportunities for virtual and/or safe in-person connection; 3) Modeling self-care and boundaries; 4) Promoting supportive resources for students; and, 5) Flexible responses to student needs. Concrete examples are provided to illustrate implementation of each recommendation in a doctoral program. Future research is planned to include longitudinal examination of well-being in this sample over time, which will also offer a more nuanced exploration of predictive relationships between variables.