Why we need more exchange platforms for PhD students to share their experiences and how you can join in.

Let’s begin with one of my own PhD experiences that made me start thinking: I had been a PhD student for almost two years. I was sitting at my desk in the lab when a more senior scientist from the lab came to me. He told me that he really admired my decision to leave the lab. He said he had also suffered during his PhD and had seriously thought about quitting several times. But he had decided to continue. “Looking back I regret not leaving. The situation only got worse and unbearable towards the end of my PhD” he said. 

Funnily, once I openly declared that I was quitting my PhD, I suddenly heard a lot of stories of struggling PhD students. But I also heard of the ones that managed to leave and were now much happier and successful. Before that, people tried to keep up the image of the stressed and overworked, yet happy and passionate scientists. My PhD experience left me wondering. Why is it so difficult for scientists to talk about the issues and problems that are so apparent in the academic system? Wouldn’t it help us all if we started to face the problems so we can fix them? 

But let’s start at the beginning.

Table from above with two friends drinking coffee who exchange PhD experiences
The most common way to exchange PhD experiences is over a hot cup of coffee.

Why did you start a PhD?

You are probably passionate about a certain topic or research field and enjoy discovering new things. You are probably working with people that feel the same way. These people can be very fascinating and stimulating. Every day, you will be faced with a new challenge. These are only some of the great things about a PhD adventure. It is an exciting and challenging journey that can be enjoyable and fulfilling.

However, this is only the case if you do your PhD in the right environment. If you find yourself in stressful or harmful surroundings, it can be a rough and rocky road. In the wrong environment, the constant stress can quickly drain your energy, motivation and self-confidence.

There are some pre-existing conditions in the academic system that can create or endorse adverse and harmful research environments.

An example is the need to publish in highly regarded scientific journals because of the high competition for limited long-term positions. According to studies, there is a significant number of PhD students that find themselves in such a negative environment or situation.

What are the main problems PhD students face?

There are more and more studies and surveys being done about PhD students, their levels of satisfaction, and their struggles. Most PhD students are happy with their decision to pursue the degree. They find great pleasure in working on their research project. But even though they enjoy their research, many still face problems. Many PhD students encounter a lot of pressure to deliver results. This is often coupled with the expectation of high commitment to their research. These pressures and expectations often mean PhD students work unpaid overtime as well as on weekends and at night.

Crumbled up yellow paper in a waste basket

The PhD student’s career opportunities usually depend on a single supervisor or PI (principal investigator). This makes them highly dependent upon that one person. A significant amount of PhD students face harassment, discrimination or bullying from these people in power. Especially when faced with such toxic behaviour of a supervisor, PhD students fear to report or address it. They rather choose to suffer the wrongdoing because of fear of personal disadvantages. Of course, supervisors or PIs may not actively be harmful. But lack of time, supervision or compassion can leave PhD students feeling alone with their research project as well.

Because of all of these issues, PhD students are at higher risk to suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. There are several studies (see e.g. this one) that show this trend. Of course, the problems people face are as diverse as the people themselves. But general conditions and systemic problems in academia make these issues and situations more common.

At the same time, knowing about these problems can make us change them and prevent more PhD students from suffering in the future.

Why are unhappy PhD students a problem?

Highly motivated people can quickly turn into deeply dissatisfied, disillusioned or even depressed people. Doing a PhD is something you usually do out of passion, genuine interest, and for the challenge of it. You are driven by your curiosity to discover new things and to walk where nobody has walked before. Your environment (or at least certain people) can take your purpose, your motivation, and your drive away from you. This can make you feel hopeless and unmotivated. When young researchers lose their passion for science they may decide to turn their backs to the science community. This way we lose well-trained and highly qualified researchers. But exactly these young researchers form the foundation of science guarantee the creation of scientific progress and knowledge. By creating more supportive work environments and better working conditions for PhD students, we can keep these talented and driven researchers in academia.

How can supportive research environments help our society in general?

We believe that supportive research environments and good research practice lead to better research results. They also produce more motivated and happier, as well as sane and healthy scientists. Research shows that happy and motivated employees are more productive, while adverse environments lower their output. Also, an environment in which people are able to admit mistakes and where they are not in constant competition, leads to more innovation and reliable research results. A cut-throat mentality can actively harm research by promoting scientific misconduct. For example, researchers might manipulate data in order to publish before a competing research group.

People exchanging PhD experiences over a group video call

What needs to change to achieve better conditions for PhD students?

First of all, we need a more open discussion about the problems. This starts with more exchange between PhD students about their experiences. We believe that simply addressing the different situations PhD students find themselves in, may start the road towards overall better conditions and environments for young scientists. Optimally, people would be aware of the issues they might face during a PhD before they start. This way, they would be more prepared for difficult situations. At least they would be able to identify these situations and get help. It is important to talk openly about your struggles. It is also important that others are open about the issues they are facing.

By sharing problems, we can all feel less alone and can also share and discuss possible solutions to bad situations. We can encourage and inspire each other to keep going and to push through bad times with a good support system.

How can open discussion lead to improved research environments and conditions?

A sustainable change can only be achieved through changing the culture of academia by affecting a change in people’s minds. This is the only way we can permanently undo most of the problems PhD students face. As long as more established researchers don’t see the need to change, they will not enforce more supportive environments for their future scientists. Therefore, there will always be some PhD students suffering. If more PhD students share and exchange their experiences, the science community can become more aware of the problems. More awareness for PhD struggles may lead to more researchers questioning their behaviour towards their PhD students. Researchers may become more thoughtful about the work environment they are directly or indirectly creating for young scientists.

Of course, a mentality change does not happen overnight and usually needs policies for support.

In academia, most of the current problems are based on the low availability and high demand for permanent research positions and funding. Positions and funding are given out based on scientific merit, which is usually measured in the numbers of publications and citations. How would the system change if we added other criteria to the equation? If supervision quality, teaching success, employee satisfaction and management were considered in the competition for positions and funding, more researchers would invest more time and energy in being a good supervisor, teacher, and boss. After all, a big part of being a professor should be the training of future scientists.

Two people sitting at a river bank talking
Talking to a good friend about your problems can lift the weight off your shoulders.

What is our contribution?

Our goal is to spread awareness for the situation of PhD students and the many different struggles they may be facing. We have had very positive experiences with supportive supervisors and encouraging working environments. But we have also experienced highly stressful and harmful environments. We know how much this can impact your productivity as well as your well-being and happiness.

The best way to start changing the conditions, is by more openly talking about the issues. That is why we created an online exchange platform for PhD experiences: Tales of PhDs. We have collected and keep collecting good and bad experiences of PhDs anonymously. We publish them on our website and on social media. In our blog posts, we share some insights into PhD life and academia. This way, we want to contribute to open discussion and more awareness for problems.

What can you do?

You are currently or were recently a PhD student yourself? You have some good or bad experiences you want to share? Then consider writing them down and sending them to exchange platforms for PhD experiences like The PhD Lab, Tales of PhDs or others. This is a great way to support PhD students and spread more awareness for their situations. If you don’t want to share your own experiences, have an open mind and listen to other people’s stories. Try to be kind and compassionate to people talking openly about their experiences. This is not easy for them and they do not need external judgment or doubt, so listen with an open heart.

Person writing down notes in a note book
Write down your PhD experience.

Especially if you are in a position where you can actively create more supportive environments, take that responsibility seriously and act wherever you can. But also, as a Postdoc or even a PhD student, try treating your students well. Don’t reinforce the same harmful environment academia or your supervisor/PI might be creating for you.

Would my colleague, the senior scientist, have tried to address his issues during his PhD studies if he had known of other PhD students struggling? Would he have felt better about his situation and the option of quitting? We cannot know this for sure. But opening up about issues costs a lot of strength. Especially in environments where people are actively denying them. That is why we believe that together, by talking openly about the issues, by sharing our experiences and our love for science, we can change the parts of the academic system that are currently causing too many PhD students to be disillusioned and unnecessarily struggling in academia.

About the Author(s)

Fiona and her co-founder of Tales of PhDs are two young scientists from Germany. They have worked in different research institutions and universities during their academic career. They have experienced both sides of the academic world: fantastic and supportive working groups, but unfortunately also highly competitive, stressful, and harmful research environments. It is clear to them that only good working environments produce good research results. More importantly, good working groups promote the sanity, health, and happiness of scientists. That is why they decided to work on improving academic structures by stimulating an open debate, to spread public awareness, and by establishing an exchange and assistance platform for those affected. Check out what they are up to on their website Tales of PhDs, Twitter, or Instagram pages.

What do you think? Is more exchange about PhD experiences necessary? What challenges have you experienced? We’re curious to read your insights – in the comments or in a message through the contact form.

Images by Mika Baumeister, Joshua Ness, Steve Johnson, Chris Montgomery, Priscilla Du Preez, NeONBRAND.