“The present review paper aims to offer deep insight into the issues affecting doctoral students by reviewing and critically analyzing recent literature on the doctoral experience. An extensive review of recent literature uncovered factors that can be readily categorized as external and internal to the doctoral student; external factors include supervision, personal/social lives, the department and socialization, and financial support opportunities, while internal factors motivation, writing skills, self-regulatory strategies, and academic identity.” Sverdlik et al. https://doi.org/10.28945/4113
I came across this review paper recently on my favourite social media platform, Twitter. It’s published in a journal I wasn’t aware of, so thank you to @AcademicsSay for sharing! The research effort associated with this literature review is extensive and intense with the lead author sifting through and selecting huge numbers of empirical research publications associated with the PhD experience. It is openly available for those wishing to read it in full.
For the purposes of this blog and in my role as a career practitioner, I’ve selected key factors from the paper associated with communication and socialisation, which influence the satisfaction, psychological well-being and motivation (or not) of PhD students. This is then followed by suggestions to enhance or counter them (I’m sure you can think of many other ideas too):
- “Departmental structures play a major role in facilitating student agency; this is mainly through student socialization and the opportunities that departments make available.”
Suggestion: If there are no social areas or gatherings in your department, why not set up your own with the help of fellow students and postdocs. It could be a career seminar series, journal club, or even a more structured association with a budget (negotiated with your head of department). Many departments support PhD students and postdocs in this way and there’s even an international organisation, iCORSA.
- “Open, supportive, and frequent communication with supervisor was found to be essential for student success and satisfaction.”
Suggestion: This is more tricky, depending on your supervisor’s management style, personality and a variety of other issues. Ideally, agree expectations with your supervisor at the start of your PhD. Otherwise aim to formalise your interactions by agreeing a convenient time to meet, emailing a short agenda of what you want to discuss and including a precis of your data or ideas to get his/her attention and interest. Try to influence lab meetings to be more engaging and interactive with scope for balanced discussion. One academic told me recently he has factored in an occasional ‘appreciation session’, in which only positive comments are given air time to help lift and maintain morale. Depending on your relationship, suggest social get-togethers such as a weekly lunch, coffee break or an after-work drink along with other members of the research group. [I realise the latter two suggestions may seem quite radical!].
- “Collaborative writing is associated with more optimal self-regulation, higher motivation, more positive emotions, better writing quality, and higher completion rates.”
Suggestion: Some people find writing easier than others but, even so, it’s still useful to spend time writing or giving feedback with your peers on aspects such as structure and flow of an argument, even if you don’t understand the exact content. Writing is a lonely business and can be exhausting, so factoring in these kinds of regular get-togethers will keep you motivated (and if you include coffee and cake, can be even more compelling!).
- “Academic identity develops through engagement in academic activities (e.g., writing, conferences, research, etc.). Informal activities (e.g., peer interaction) were found to contribute more to identity formation than formal ones.”
Suggestion: You could combine these two types of activities (formal and informal) during conferences, by setting yourself the goal of connecting with at least one or two delegates who have similar interests to you. Side-programmes aimed at PhD students and early career researchers are usually more conducive to networking and can help to increase your circle of peers. Joining one or two learned societies will open up new networks associated with your discipline, with opportunities to meet new peers and even to apply for funding and awards. Asking a question on Researchgate can also increase your interaction with international peers.
- “Work/life imbalance was found to be the strongest predictor of psychological distress in PhD students.”
Suggestion: “If you work too hard you’ll keep going in the same direction. When you take off the pressure, you start to imagine new things”: These are the words of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and head of the Crick Institute. To ensure you follow his advice, write social and personal activities into your diary or calendar and treat them as an appointment with yourself and your well-being (make sure to honour the arrangement!). You could attend a time management course (universities put on many of these types of courses, which are open to staff and students) and ithinkwell provides some great planning aids for you to use.
For more accounts of the PhD and postdoc experience, see NatureCareers which covers a variety of topics on the subject.