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The studENT - Conversations with studENT friends


(posted on behalf of @Suzana Varga) 

For this month’s studENT blog, I wanted to capture and convey voices of the PhD community (instead of just mine). Hence, I have organized a couple of panel discussions where fellow PhD candidates from different parts of the world and varying institutions shared their views, challenges, and ways of coping with well-being related themes. The brave colleagues who positively responded to my invitation are all ambitious young scholars who are just about to wrap up their PhD trajectories. We had wonderfully refreshing open conversations where we discussed important questions around mental health and ways of coping with the challenges that a PhD can impose on all of us. We hope that these exchanged thoughts will resonate with you, validate your experiences, support you in dealing with the challenges you may be facing, and at the very least make you feel a little bit less alone in all of the whirlwinds of experiences that this line of work may put us through.

When asked to reflect on their PhD journeys so far from a well-being point of view, perhaps, it does not come as a surprise that none of the five panelists (nor myself) have found the PhD journey a straightforward, easy, or smooth process. Instead, there seemed to be an alignment around perceiving it as a difficult, bumpy, and challenging path. So much so, that some highlighted their gratitude for not knowing upfront how difficult it turned out to be: “I didn’t know it would be that hard. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know because if I did, I don’t know if I would have done it (laugh).” (PhD Panelist 1) While others described it as a bundle of highs and lows: “I think for me, it’s more like a roller coaster, that’s what I always feel like.” (PhD Panelist 3); “I would also describe it as bumpy from a well-being point of view.” (PhD Panelist 5)

While we all acknowledged the positive aspects of our journeys, including the intellectual challenges, the colleagues, the continuous learning opportunity, we also readily agreed about the difficulties. The factors that seem to be contributing to such difficulties stem from an interaction between the personal attributes we bring into the job and the external demands and professional norms imposed within this particular line of work. Namely, themes around perfectionism, imposter syndrome, self-criticism, and self-doubt on one hand, and topics around long time horizons, delayed gratification, the strenuousness of the publishing process, power imbalance, overwhelmingly high workload, and frequent rejections on the other hand, were just some of the attributes on both ends that were recognized as having substantial impact on well-being.

One of the panelists highlighted the high work demands that they face and that many of us racing towards the finish lines of our trajectories may recognize as familiar as we try to extend our academic runways with other activities: “I hand in my dissertation in couple of weeks – it is nowhere nearly ready and it’s very stressful because at the same time I am teaching (...) That means I need to teach and coordinate several courses at the same time. (...) my dissertation is my hobby because the only time I get to open it is in the weekends. I have no time to work on it otherwise.” (PhD Panelist 2) Others reflected on the difficulties of having to continuously deliver high quality performance despite the demotivating influence of frequent rejections that one receives throughout daily work engagements: “I don’t have any publication yet. I had three rejections this year. I had a conference acceptance. And I was in the middle of a selective job search. Everything was like this—boom at once. Literally on the day when I was about to give the job talk, that morning I got the rejection from the journal.” (PhD Panelist 3) How personal tendencies may get reinforced within certain settings sharing and/or even rewarding behaviors stemming from such tendencies was very nicely depicted by one of the panelists explaining what they found difficult about their journey: “I was reflecting on what emotions I have been feeling and I was feeling a lot of self-criticisms, feeling worthless, self-doubt, and really like lots of negative emotions. My intuition is that this also has to do with, at least my experience

from the academic world is that you get criticized a lot and individuals also identify themselves with being good at criticizing and finding the problem and kind of doing well is taken for granted. So everyone is expected to be good (...) So there’s just lots of very smart and good people, so just being smart and good doesn’t cut it anymore. That is also a little bit of a new experience, oh like, everyone here is like that, so this is not something that really brings me forward, it’s just something that doesn’t bring me down.” (PhD Panelist 5)

While we are all different people and we found different aspects of the PhD journey most prominently demanding, we all agreed that the challenges are manyfold, often intertwined in complex ways impacting the quality of our lives in general and our well-being in particular. For some the challenge that stands out most is the very limited amount of control that we can have over the outcomes despite the maximized efforts we consistently exert: “One thing work related that was and still is a big challenge is the limited control. Just how dependent you are on others, let it be the supervisors, or reviewers or editors. At least in my PhD, I am expected to publish, and this is just something that you cannot control – if somebody doesn’t like your paper, they just don’t like your paper. And I still have to somehow learn how to deal with it.” (PhD Panelist 5)

For others, it is about the pressure points, such as the job market experience – where extra energy is required to regulate our own heightened stress levels, navigate the increased work demands, and manage others’ expectations, all under surging evaluational scrutiny: “The most difficult part for me, to be honest, is being on the job market and I was not fully on the market. (...) I applied to only ten jobs and told myself I will take it easy. But the problem is that you cannot take it easy. It was so stressful being on the job market. (...) I had one under review which got rejected in the middle, so I was like: I have nothing. Why anyone will hire me? Based on my field work? What is the reason why people will hire me? My currency is zero.” (PhD Panelist 3)

Another important challenge that often gets dismissed is accounting for and dealing with all the requirements that pursuing a PhD creates for our lives more holistically. To illustrate with only one out of the many aspects of our personhood that are way too often neglected by the systems in which we work – Immigrating into foreign countries means leaving behind the familiar and starting (most of the times) from scratch in a new environment; for many it means being fully dependent on work permits; it means shifting cultural scenes and leaving personal support nets behind; it means feeling the added pressure to demonstrate we deserved to be here; it means fearing that making an unintentional mistake may retract our right to stay here and force us to leave, ... While academia is loud and proud about its international diversity, we very rarely allow the space where we could openly account for the impact that such subjective experiences may have on the well-being of our newly joined colleagues or ourselves. The thing is, for many the fear of failing at our PhDs carries a heavier burden than just losing a job and having to find another one – it means losing the promise for a better or at least decent life that we’ve just created for ourselves. Fellow immigrants around the world – I feel your fear, your loneliness, your homesickness, and your grief. As such, I am grateful for one of our panelists voicing their own experience regarding this: “I come from another country. I’m not just a PhD student I am an immigrant as well. Failing in the PhD meant having to go back to my country. And one of the reasons why I decided to start a PhD was because I had to leave my country. So the fear of failing, the stress of failing was really high.” (PhD Panelist 4)

The bright side of having to deal with all the listed challenges throughout the PhD is that it builds tremendous amounts of wisdom – yes, that’s right, you have it, too! It’s easy to lose track of it in the noise of all the demands, external expectations, and negative feedback we face, but we all do have it. It was such a gratifying experience to listen to my peers sharing their wisdom about how they went about conquering their challenges. Again, good to remind ourselves that everyone and everyone’s journey is unique, so coping mechanisms that worked for some may not work for others. The advantage and intention of having a panel of PhDs sharing their experiences is partly to develop a portfolio of diverse possible responses to challenging aspects of pursuing a PhD. Hope everyone finds something that resonates with and works for them.

When asked about what helps to deal with frequent stressors in their journey, several themes were reiterated. The importance of being invested in other areas of life came across in different ways. As one of our panelists explained, they find comfort in their devotion to their family and children: “The fact that I came here and started this for my family really kept me centered. That really helped me in the stressful moments. Anytime when I get a rejection or something happens that I didn’t expect, I always keep thinking this is not about me, it is about my kids. (...) I also made a community here and that helped me – this [PhD] is not my whole life, it is important, I cannot quit, I don’t have the luxury of failing because of my kids, but I also know that this doesn’t define me – that also helps, just knowing that this is not my whole life.” (PhD Panelist 4) Others highlighted their investment in other professional roles as a source of positive energy and self-regard: “Having something else outside of the PhD that keeps you going and gives you sense of self-esteem. I did some stress management training for teachers. I do that rarely but whenever I do it, it really gives me confidence, I am in my comfort zone, I am having fun and then I go back to my other job [PhD].” (PhD Panelist 5)

Many of the panelists explained the important role of restorative activities, such as regular workouts that keep their stress levels in check, as well as the importance of taking time off from work. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that holidays hinder our productivity as they represent valuable time away from instead of spent on work. I have been a victim of my own thoughts in this sense until I’ve started realizing how much power regular rest has. It took me more or less my entire PhD journey (and I am in my 6th year, mind you), to realize that rest is an important ingredient in the quality of my work, and actually, a necessary investment in my long-term productivity.

Some of our panelists highlighted the importance of taking rest seriously and engaging in regular physical activity for their well-being: “Also, break. Here people really take vacation. In august, I’ve always taken three weeks. And sometimes I have to force myself, but I really try to take that seriously. That and workouts. I am not a sportsperson, my family is not a sports family, we hate it with all our beings but I really had to be very serious about that and I did that after my burnout episode.” (PhD Panelist 1); Another panelist highlighted the importance of taking advantage of sports not just to regulate stress levels, but to also build consistency into daily activities and develop routines: “Another thing, I have not stopped working out since 2022, I work out three times a week every week unless I am in a conference. You see that there is a tennis racket – that I started last summer, and I am doing this every week also once. I don’t play well, and I don’t have the big biceps, but it’s just the way of being regular and I think I try to develop a routine – workout in the morning, take a coffee, then come back and start writing, take a small break and do like that...” (PhD Panelist 3)

Choosing places where there is a collective sense of support as well as building one’s own community are things that have been re-iterated several times. One of our panelists emphasized the importance that creating a collective identity and sharing the responsibility to deal with emergent challenges have in supporting their journey: “The nice thing about how the department approaches things is that it’s us against the system, us against the institution. We are all in the same boat, so if there is success, we all celebrate it, and when things fail, we are like OK, we need to work this out, we need to find another way. (...) So that takes a lot of the pressure off from me, thinking that oh if I fail, it’s OK, we didn’t find the right angle, we can improve this. It’s always about us.” (PhD Panelist 4) Others highlighted the importance of advocating for creating such collective sense of conquering and finding purpose in initiating

changes that can support our well-being and effectiveness as a group, an important instance of this being starting open conversations about our feelings that regard our struggles: “Something that sounds very simple, but was very hard for me, is talking about it [negative emotions] actually helps me a lot. I often thought that I am too sensitive for this job, I am just not cut out for it, I need to be a strong man. (...) And so, I often thought this is just not who I am – I have to become like the others to succeed. And then I realized that doesn’t really work for me and then I’ve started talking about my fears, my concerns, where I don’t feel comfortable, my self- doubts. And I think in the beginning for my team, it was also quite awkward because no one has done it before. It wasn’t really part of our team culture, but for me, it was liberating at least and it also kind of gave me a sense of purpose. In the sense of like, OK that is maybe my strength that I am able to connect with these emotions and talk about it. And now we have a bit of a different team and it’s really part of it. So we really are concerned about how we are doing about things and it’s less about what is your research about, but how do you actually feel about it.” (PhD Panelist 5)

Themes around the scope of our control also emerged in our conversations. Many of the panelists highlighted the importance of understanding that there is only as much as we can do and that there is plenty of things (probably more than we would wish for) that is outside of the scope of our control when pursuing a PhD: “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that as a PhD student, so little depends on me. No matter how hard I tried, how many weekends I dedicated to it, how many breaks I skipped, most of the things went totally different direction because there are so many other elements in the equation that are totally out of my control. And then learning to be able to relax and chill, not doubt yourself because of that is also an important learning within the PhD student path.” (PhD Panelist 2) At any point in time, the only thing that we have control over is doing the best we can, given the circumstances we are in. At the end of the day, as one of our panelists highlighted: “What is perfect to you is not perfect to others. [So, no point in exhausting yourself]” (PhD Panelist 3) And when the number of things that we can do becomes overwhelmingly expanded, one of our panelists reflected on their coping strategy with endless amounts of tasks that keep piling up: “Do you remember the Disney movie Cinderella? Do you remember the scene where the little mouse needs to carry the large key all the way up the spiraling stairs? And he looks up at the stairs and he is fainting because he thinks: I can’t do this! (...) I have this image in my mind several times a week and I just think one day at a time. That’s helping me a lot. Today I am doing the work, and the effort will build up and eventually one gets through it. But I forbid myself to actually project too far into the future.” (PhD Panelist 1)

As we closed the conversations, we also reflected back to our first-year selves and thought about what piece of advice would have our freshman selves most needed at the time. We hope that some of it sticks with you as you find comfort in these exchanged thoughts. 

  • Don’t compare yourself to others. If you cannot help it, take context into account – everyone’s starting point and circumstances are unique.
  • Work smarter, not harder – prioritize your time and energy. 
  • Understand that all research has its limitations – there is no such thing as a perfect paper (although many have tried to convince us otherwise).
  • Play on your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses – we are all different people bringing different qualities to the table, make sure that you take advantage of your own strengths.
  • Whatever feedback that you receive, process it carefully and make it your own – feeling comfortable to stand by your decisions is important, at the end of the day, no one else, but you have to work through and live your journey.
  • Don’t accept phrases like “This is how it has always been...” – Conditions can change, but they can only change if you ask for change. 
  • Believe that everything is going to be alright and practice patience. 
  • Be kinder to yourself, you are doing the best that you can. 
  • Trust yourself more – you have everything that you need in yourself to figure it out. 
  • Stay true to yourself – If it happens to be that who you truly are is for whatever reason not going to do it in this line of work, do you really want to spend a lifetime playing a role?!

As a concluding thought and disclaimer, although the intention was to help the wider PhD community in dealing with stress and well-being related difficulties, we have to admit that the conversations we had helped us as well. We benefited from the mutually open, warm, accepting, non-judgmental, and safe space we created with and for each other. Don’t underestimate the (healing) power of such spaces and whenever you have the opportunity, please contribute to the creation and maintenance of more of such safe environments. And at the very least, when you witness behaviors that are endangering the existence of such spaces dare to openly flag those behaviors and ask for kindness instead.