Feelings of isolation and self-doubt can darken the door of even the most confident postgraduate researchers working towards a PhD. It’s a formative experience and one that every academic can relate to, which should make it easier for the current cohort of doctoral students to talk about their feelings.
But walk along any university corridor and you probably will not be too far away from an exasperated PhD student complaining that they feel alone and questioning whether they have it in them to get through the process. So why do these feelings persist and what can universities do about them?
Thinking back to his time as a PhD student, Christopher Long, associate dean for graduate and undergraduate education in the College of the Liberal Arts at Pennsylvania State University, says that even on a “relatively supportive” programme he was “fraught with anxieties”. “All your peers are trying to prove themselves and cover their own insecurities by showing themselves to be very intelligent,” he says.
“Any admission of confusion or lack of knowledge is a sign [to others that] you may not be up to it,” he adds, remarking how strange this is for an educational process.
The future is also one of the anxieties weighing on PhD students’ minds. “The job market is tremendously tight and competitive, so you enter this endeavour first of all wondering if you can do it, and secondly wondering if you do [succeed], what career options you have,” he says.
It is a lot to juggle and Long argues that it does not stop there, as senior staff anxieties “play out in complex ways” on doctoral candidates. Academics are working within a system that measures success by publications and, in some part, by the number of postgraduate students they supervise. This means that their own achievements are “very tightly bound up” with those of their students.
“You have this very complex and fraught power dynamic which leads to an enormous amount of anxiety on the part of the [post]graduate student,” he says. Although some supervisors are attuned to that problem, others may not be.
“There is a culture out there among [academics] that we all went through this,” he says, but using this mindset to discount the need for wider support systems may not be doing junior academics justice, he adds, as many PhD students may not yet be set on an academic career.
Long and lonely road
Regardless of whether doctoral candidates plan to stay in academia or not, much of the work that they need to do to attain a PhD is still done alone, especially in the humanities. Even students in lab-based disciplines have to spend a large chunk of the three- to four-year process reading and writing up their work individually.
Rosemary Deem, vice-principal for education and head of the doctoral school at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that some students have unrealistic expectations about this.
“Some do not grasp that doing a PhD in the social sciences, arts and humanities is going to be a more lonely experience than taking a taught programme. Some of them are complaining about something that is not necessarily pathological,” Deem says.
There will be cases where isolation is a real issue, which in the worst instances can lead to students packing in their project. But for the most part, it is necessary to work alone to get the work done, she adds.
Getting students on the right page to start with could help to reset expectations. Supervisors should be sitting down with new doctoral candidates to find out why they want to pursue a PhD, and to discuss their expectations and the major milestones of each year, she explains.
During the PhD, regular meetings between supervisors and students should help to alleviate feelings of isolation. They can also help students to better understand what is expected of them and to enable the supervisors to check on progress, she adds.
“If a student suddenly starts cancelling meetings and has not done the piece of work they promised, that is usually a sign that things are going wrong,” she says, adding that by this point feelings of isolation have often kicked in.
Deem says that peer support groups can also be helpful in boosting confidence. Setting up departmental reading and writing groups gives students the chance to get to grips with the workload and, in the case of writing groups, to swap concerns about problems such as writer’s block or to share work that they may not feel confident showing their supervisor.
But doctoral candidates can object to groups filled only with peers, she warns, and they prefer study groups to be led by academics.
Academics can also resist attempts to broaden doctoral training beyond research, as Long has found at Penn State. A new scheme – designed to give students a wider perspective of the institution and to stop them “getting sucked into the politics” of their own department – requires students to complete a 20-hour internship in a different team.
The placement could be in the fellowships office or the careers service, and adds marketable skills to students’ CVs, he argues. But some feel pressured not to take part in case they get labelled as taking the administrative career track. “They are explicitly told that by some supervisors,” he says.
In the UK, the move towards doctoral training centres, where cohorts of PhD students go through the process together, has brought a new focus to transferable skills that can help students in careers outside academia. Deem says that the centres give students the chance to be part of a peer network that can provide often much-needed support.
Ruth McGinity, who is completing a PhD in education policy, and several of her peers created their own informal cohort at the University of Manchester. The group of eight students shared an office that offered desk space and printing facilities, as well as an office community for mutual support.
Although she says that feelings of isolation and self-doubt are a “normal” part of the PhD process, she says that she did not feel them markedly. The students used their colleagues to bounce ideas around and to read each other’s work.
McGinity adds: “It helped you gain confidence to share your work because [the PhD] is quite an exposing process.”