What is PhD success and does it imply a deliberate risk for your mental and social health? (2)

dr. Els van Rooi

dr. Els van Rooij

Dr. Els van Rooij investigates PhD trajectories for the Graduate School at Groningen University. In particular, she focusses on success factors in PhD research projects. Key topics are working pressure and mental wellbeing of PhD candidates, as well as social aspects of the academic working environment and the supervisory relationship.

This is PART 2 of an interview with Dr. Els van Rooij (postdoctoral researcher at Groningen University) by Dr. Claartje van Sijl (independent career coach for academics) conducted via email in May 2018. In part 1 we focussed on PhD success. This second part examines the working pressure that young researchers experience and its effect on their PhD success, work/life balance and mental wellbeing.

Claartje: what factors have you found that contribute most significantly to the working pressure of young researchers and put a strain on their mental wellbeing?

Els: In our data, more than half of the PhD students describe their workload as high or even too high. Those students who indicated a (too) high workload were asked what factors contributed to this. The reason that was mentioned – by far – the most often was the complexity, amount and/or pace of work. 70% of all PhD students who thought their workload was (too) high gave this as a reason. Next, 48% mentioned deadlines and 45% mentioned publication pressure. 35% mentioned other required activities such as teaching. All other possible reasons for a high workload were mentioned by less than 20%. 

I expect that all these reasons also put a strain on PhD students’ mental health, as they may disrupt their work-life balance (work-life balance being one of the main predictors of mental health, according to occupational health research). We have currently set out a wellbeing survey that goes more deeply into mental health, work-life balance and related topics such as burnout and mental health support. When these data are analyzed we will know more about PhD students’ wellbeing and which aspects of doing a PhD put a strain on them.

Claartje: I can imagine that the pace of research work can be a cause for stress, especially with the contrast of deadlines looming and equipment not cooperating or technical tools not being available on time. Likewise, estimating the amount of work something takes is very difficult, even for experienced, senior researchers. A research project nearly always takes way more time than you had anticipated, even if you calculate that in from the beginning. The ‘complexity of the work’ intrigues me. What do you mean by complexity? What should PhD candidates and PI’s take into account when designing a project?

Els: Complexity of work in a PhD project can refer to a variety of things. Examples are when a PhD student is working on a new topic and there is not much prior literature to draw upon. In that case it can already be extremely complex to come up with a well thought-out research plan. Moreover, you cannot predict what will happen. You may have designed studies 3 and 4 to build on the results you had hoped would appear in your previous studies, but if they show different results, your other studies may have to be redesigned completely. 

Another example is when a concept or a whole study is just literally complex, difficult. Imagine you have findings but you just cannot explain them, you just cannot manage to grasp it. Third, the complexity may not always be in the work itself, but in the context of the project. Your project may be embedded in a consortium, maybe even an international one, and you have to work together with other PhD students and researchers on a distance. 

I think complexity is inherent to doing a PhD. I think one of the things you learn as a PhD student is how to deal with complexity. This is an asset, and a reason why people higher PhD holders. What PI’s and PhD students can take into account when designing a project, is (1) to demarcate the project, so to make sure it is not too big and (2) to not pinpoint everything already but leave room for changes. Fortunately, initial project designs and plans are not set in stone. I think many PhD students will laugh at themselves when they are submitting their thesis and then think back at their original plan when they just started. 

Claartje: Recently, Judith de Haan argued that PhD students should not wait for senior staff to do something about publication pressure. Can and should young researchers, despite their vulnerable career positions, take a stand against current publication pressure and its ensuing questionable and inefficient research practices? What is your view on changing the academic system in that respect?

Els: That is an interesting question! I definitely think the academic system should change. I love these initiatives like the ‘CVs of failure’ and am also very much an enthusiast of publishing negative results. I do think, however, that PhD students are in a very difficult position to make changes about this – because of their vulnerable position. In addition, actively fighting for a change will take up a lot of your time, time you don’t have as a PhD student. 

It should be a joint effort of both PhD students and their supervisors. If you have a supervisor who is in favour of making a change you could, for example, together make an effort to try to get your negative results published. If you want to do this, but your supervisor is against it, because you will likely not get negative results published in a high impact journal, you are in a very difficult position. 

Claartje: It will be interesting to hear about your very relevant study on mental wellbeing! I am curious to learn whether your findings confirm the anecdotal evidence from my coaching practice that academics have such a strong drive for perseverance, persistence and perfectionism that this endangers their balance, causing too much stress (see also my blog article Top 3 Reasons Why Successful PhD Students Risk Dropping Out).

In my experience, beginning PhD candidates feel stressed when they lack a clear framework and clear expectations from a closely involved (co)supervisor — i.e. too much freedom—, while towards the end of the PhD project candidates are expected to have become more or less independent, autonomous researchers and too close directions of a supervisor are a cause of stress and dissatisfaction. How do you see freedom and autonomy in relation to working pressure and mental wellbeing of early career researchers?

Els: What you mention about too much freedom in the beginning which may be bad and too little freedom in the end of the project which may also be bad, is interesting. We did see in our data, as mentioned above, that freedom is positively related to progress and satisfaction. (In our survey, freedom was operationalized by 6 items that concerned PhD students’ freedom in making their own choices and decisions.) So in general, it is a positive thing. However, we also saw in our data that working on a stand-alone project is related to delay, and that working on a project that is closely related to the supervisor’s research is related to satisfaction. So freedom is positive, but if freedom means that you are basically left by yourself and your supervisor is not really knowledgeable about your topic, it is bad.

In general, I think the thing about freedom and autonomy is that it can differ per PhD student. Some PhD students already have some years of job experience before they start the PhD, so they are likely more autonomous because, for example, they already have some experience in project and time management. They will not need much help there, not even in the beginning of their project. On the other hand, you may have senior PhD students (i.e., third or fourth year) who still have problems in this area and who just cannot handle a lot of freedom and autonomy. They will thrive if they get clear instructions, even this far along in their project. It also depends a lot on personality how much freedom someone wants or even needs. 

So I think the most important is that the supervisor can see what the PhD student needs and can accommodate his supervision to these specific needs. Supervision is not a one-size-fits-all thing because all PhD students are different. Here I also refer back to our finding that the relationship with the supervisor is important. If the relationship is good, it is likely that the supervisor and PhD student also openly discuss these kinds of things and communicate their expectations of each other and what works best for them. 

NB. An interesting note here is that although we found that freedom matters, we found that autonomy support by the supervisor, which we also measured, did not have any impact on PhD students’ progress, considering to quit, and satisfaction. 

Claartje: Yes I can confirm your point about freedom and autonomy and that the needs differ per PhD student. I give a course to beginning PhD students, “How to Survive your PhD”, which attracts candidates with widely differing starting positions (from freshly minted Master’s to well-seasoned non-academic professionals). Having some years of job experience greatly improves their autonomy and makes them less liable to the risks of having a very hands-off supervisor. 

As to the amount of autonomy towards the end of the PhD project, I often see this as a dance between the candidate and the supervisor. If all is well, the candidate has become an independent specialist on her topic, but at the same time she depends on her supervisor’s approval to be able to defend her PhD and obtain the degree. A good relationship makes for an elegant dance to navigate this final PhD phase, but a bad relationship can turn the dance into a fight that the PhD candidate can only loose. 

I am not sure what you mean by “autonomy support by the supervisor”: what does it entail? Can I draw “autonomy support” into my dance metaphor as “teaching how to dance”? Apparently, then, this teaching by the supervisor has little impact on the PhD students’ progress and satisfaction. Remarkable, indeed. Could that be because the supervisor is often not competent or well-equipped to offer quality autonomy support? If so, should this type of PhD guidance be delegated to specialized PhD support staff rather than be subsumed under the responsibility of already overloaded supervisors? In my opinion, this would be an example of a policy intended to lessen the workload of academic staff while at the same time supporting performance (cf. the advice of the Rathenau Institute to Parliament to lower pressure and improve impact in science and higher education).

Els: By autonomy support we mean that the supervisor explicitly gives the PhD student room to make his/her own choices. Questions that we asked PhD students in order to measure autonomy support were for example “My supervisor provides me with choices and options” and “My supervisor listens to how I would like to do things”. I think supervisors will be competent enough to give this kind of support but maybe it is hard in some situations because it entails a bit of letting go, especially if the PhD student has some ‘wild’ ideas that the supervisor isn’t sure about. 

This type of autonomy support is thus closely related to the project and a type of support that is embedded in the supervisory relationship. It is thus not something that could be handed over to specialized support staff. I do think, however, that specialized support staff could help PhD students to become more autonomous in the sense of becoming more assertive, i.e. being clear about what you want yourself and learning to say ‘no’, even to someone higher in the academic hierarchy. This may be useful for example for international PhD students who have a Dutch supervisor and are not used to ‘Dutch directness’ and the usually quite informal nature of the supervisory relationship. 

Claartje: what is the influence of uncertainty on the working pressure and mental wellbeing of PhD students? I mean both the uncertainty that is inherent in scientific work (“Do your findings validate your hypotheses?”, “Does an experiment work?”) and the contingent uncertainty of the academic job market and the long lasting haphazard career perspectives that young researchers have to face.

Els: I cannot say anything data-based about the relationship between freedom and autonomy and working pressure and mental health, except that we saw that freedom is related to satisfaction. In addition, in our data I have not seen any indications that freedom and autonomy are bad. For example, it is not mentioned as a reason for a heavy workload. So I would say freedom and autonomy are positive, also for mental health. This also makes sense in line with the self-determination theory by Deci and Ryan, which posits autonomy, next to competence and relatedness, as one of the three basic human needs. 

Work pressure is mainly caused by people having too many tasks. I think people more often need to realize that they – even as a PhD student – also have the autonomy, the freedom to say ‘no’ to certain tasks. But this is more easily said than done, because PhD students often feel it is necessary, and maybe it even is – especially if they want that academic career – to develop themselves in every possible way. So they say yes to all the teaching tasks, to the international collaboration, to an extra chapter in their thesis, to organizing a conference, to do three side-projects, etc. etc. Basically, but I think I said this earlier as well, the thing about freedom and autonomy is that you need to be able to handle it. If you can, then I think it positively affects your working pressure and mental health. If you function better with clear external expectations, guidelines, deadlines, etc., then freedom and autonomy will likely have a negative effect.

In the survey that is currently open, the wellbeing survey, we explicitly ask PhD students about their uncertainty/worrying about their future career, so that we can see if and how it is related to mental health. I cannot say anything about it yet. My hypothesis is that career worries and uncertainty will have a negative effect on someone’s mental health, especially for PhD students who are in the last phase of their project or PhD students who have difficulty deciding if they want to continue in academia or go outside of academia. 

Regarding the uncertainty of academic work, I really don’t know. I think it’s something you have to learn to deal with. I do know, however, that in some cases, PhD students are delayed simply because of practical setbacks, e.g. experiments that do not work, equipment that is not available, etc. These are also the uncertainties in scientific work. 

Claartje: You mention that even as a PhD student you have the freedom to say ‘no’ to certain tasks. Because of the power differences between PhD students and their supervisors this is not an easy thing to do, but I can confirm that it is something you can learn. What have you said ‘no’ to in your work / career so far and what has this made possible for you?

From what you have seen in your data or from what you have learned through personal experience, what further advice do you have on how to handle the freedom and uncertainty of academic work?

Els: At some point in my PhD trajectory – I think it was in my last year – I said no to more teaching tasks. This was mainly difficult because I love to teach, not so much because I felt bad to refuse the tasks. What made it possible and easier for me is that I knew I had already taken up more teaching tasks than an average PhD student – so I felt like I had already more than fulfilled my teaching duties. In addition, I also made an estimation of the time it would take and the time I had left to finish my PhD, and it was just obvious that it would not be possible.

From my data I cannot say anything about how PhD students handle freedom and uncertainty. When talking about job uncertainty, it sucks, but I think it helps to see uncertainty as something fun, something exciting. Imagine you are in the end of your twenties and you already know exactly what you kind of work you will do your whole life. That would be utterly boring. Also, uncertainty can mean that there are so many options. You can decrease the uncertainty by exploring these options and making a list of kind of careers you definitely do not want and those that seem interesting. At our university we have a Career Course for PhD students and postdocs, which is very helpful in making career decisions. 

And regarding the temporary contracts that also imply uncertainty: Everybody hopefully knows that unemployment is extremely low among PhD holders, so you don’t have to be scared that you will not have a job at all.

Thank you very much, Els van Rooij, for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview and share your findings and thouhts with us! I wish you lots of luck in your career and inspiration in your research.

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