This is a guest post by Manuela Schmidt, currently working at Jönköping University and Linneaus University and Erika Hansson, of Kristianstad University.
Manuela and Erika met during their respective doctoral programs. Manuela in health science and Erika in psychology. After reaching ‘the other side’, both with PhD’s after their names, they decided to ignore the Swedish idiom never to ‘dig where you stand’ and continue with research regarding doctoral researcher well-being (and ill-being). Their research has so far resulted in a literature review (Schmidt & Hansson, 2018), and a book chapter (in press) as well as a research article about doctoral researchers’ experiences concerning changes in supervisory arrangements (Schmidt & Hansson, 2021). Yet another article about being a ‘(student)-pawn in a big game’ is pending review.
The well-being of doctoral researchers is important. Doctoral programs around the globe take several years to finish and following this many graduates step into academia, their doctoral well-being (or ill-being) potentially affecting their health, career productivity and efficiency at work for many years to come.
In our literature review of doctoral well-being we performed a SWOT-analysis on the data we collected (Schmidt & Hansson, 2018), and proposed a student-centered approach to try to clarify the individual needs of doctoral researchers and bring about the enhancement of their well-being during their studies.
We found that their needs, such as emotional stability and the feeling of being capable of authoring a thesis, can be impeded in several ways, for example by supervisory changes. These can occur for several different reasons, but the single most frequent trigger is a poor relationship between the doctoral researcher and their supervisor(s).
To change supervisors is, on paper, a formal and rather simplistic process. Swedish law states that the researcher is free to change supervisor(s) if they find it necessary. However, the process is seldom easy. During our interviews, we found that many researchers waited and waited to make the change, in the hope things would get better. The process of changing a supervisor was seen as stressful and exhausting, causing a lack of the sense of well-being. However, once the process was completed, many felt renewed, energized, and had a new zest for continuing their studies.
Most studies regarding doctoral wellbeing unfortunately have to do with the lack of it and foci therefore ends up on how to lessen the burden. It might be rewarding not to focus on the elimination of stressors, and instead focus on positive experiences and the creation of healthy workplaces for doctoral researchers, as well as for everyone else in academia. It is also important to provide supportive leadership and mentoring and there is a need for an uplifting and positive environment (Al Makhamreh & Stockley, 2019).
What can supervisors, and universities, do to increase well-being?
The university culture needs to recognise that all coworkers in research, from students assisting with data to professors with multiple publications in Nature, are valued in academia. This could facilitate a sense of community and belonging (Yusuf et al., 2020). In 2017, Universities UK proposed a ‘whole university approach’ via the StepChange programme in the UK. The goal of the program is to create universities with mentally healthy personnel, stressing the need to tackle mental health problems holistically. The ill-being of doctoral students is not only the doctoral students’ problem to tackle.
To achieve this, there is a need to normalize the discussion of general mental health and well-being in academia as well as everywhere else in life. Many people who are open with their diagnoses still become exposed to gossip and stigma. This is not a problem only for academia to solve but considering the collective brainpower in our academic halls, universities should take the lead to as an example to society as a whole.
It is important also, to acknowledge the somewhat new era where doctoral researchers aren’t ‘just’ doctoral researchers. Many of them are parents, all of them have (or have had) parents, some are part-time doctoral students with busy lives to balance. Some even work additionally in clinical or industrial contexts while being completing their doctorate. The student who was available 24/7 is not anymore, and everyone deserves good work-life balance.
Supervisors, please be more transparent about what you gain from supervising. Many researchers complain that their supervisors focus on pursuing their own interests and this is not necessarily a problem, but why be secretive about it? Perhaps practice being open, and compromise and negotiate together? Try to make room for criticism in the partnership – to critique is to offer ‘careful analysis’ (Halpern & Butler, 2019) and we are all in need of that from time to time.
There is a need for more awareness considering doctoral researchers’ experiences of their relationships with their supervisors, and this is true for everyone involved. An open-minded environment would be of great service in enabling researchers to feel able to come forth with their thoughts about ill-matched supervisors, or non-existent supervision. Some degree of humility is needed on the part of the supervisor. Even if we are the expert in a specific research field, we are not the expert on everything. Recognise when it might be time to step out of the way, a new supervisor with a different approach or specialism, my make all the difference.
The process of changing supervisors is lonely, and therefore it is of importance to recruit individuals well-fitted for the position as Study Directors (synonyms: PGR Convenors, Tutors, Heads of Graduate Studies) of the doctoral program. Not only should they have the skills and be willing to guide the student though uncomfortable discussions, often involving their own colleagues, but also have proven to be successful practicing supervisors themselves.
In summary, to finish a doctoral dissertation is not an easy job. For anyone involved. Few have had a smooth ride during their years as a doctoral researcher. But supervisors don’t need to do it all. Support your doctoral researchers to engage with a network of supportive peers, as well as people not in academia. This will help them keep a bigger perspective get to know more people, and stay in contact with life, and interests, relationships and things they enjoy– you know, outside of academia.