Feelings of stress, self-doubt and isolation can affect even the brightest and most assured PhD student.
So are universities doing enough to support students on the long slog towards a doctorate? And do new PhD students get the same level of help as the 500,000 or so first-year undergraduates arriving on campus each autumn?
Those questions were recently asked by staff at the University of Nottingham, leading to a review of how the institution helps its doctoral students, particularly those in the early stages of their research.
Parmjit Dhugga, head of researcher development at the university’s graduate school, said that a renewed national focus on stress suffered by graduate students prompted Nottingham to assess the relevancy of its own pastoral support.
While just 15 per cent of 760 doctoral students who responded to Nottingham’s survey reported any significant difficulty making the transition into graduate study, the problems raised were often very different from those usually cited by undergraduates and required different interventions, said Mr Dhugga.
“Some spoke of a lack of progress in their research topic, awkward relationships with their supervisor and a sense of isolation, even when they were based in a research group,” he added.
Some PhD students also mentioned stress caused by long hours of study as aspiring scholars sought to outdo their older academic peers, Mr Dhugga said.
“They saw their colleagues working very hard and think they need to equal these long hours as that’s just part of academic life,” he explained.
Indeed, many doctoral students felt their problems were closer to those experienced by academic staff, rather than undergraduates or even taught postgraduates, said Mr Dhugga, who will explain how Nottingham is changing its doctoral support set-up in a talk at the UK Council for Graduate Education’s annual conference, which takes place in Liverpool from 4 to 5 July.
“Doctoral students often don’t see themselves as students, so they are not sure whether to turn to staff or student support,” he said.
Nottingham’s investigation, which used a survey developed by Loughborough University's graduate school, is part of a wider push by the sector to develop new structures and services to support doctoral students, of whom about a quarter will not finish their studies, latest figures suggest.
Several institutions have established doctoral colleges in recent years to create a more supportive research environment for PhD students, while graduate student-only areas within libraries have also helped young researchers to establish their own social groups.
Meanwhile, research councils are now funding centres for doctoral training or doctoral training partnerships, which bring together cohorts of students, often from a group of institutions, for transferable skills training – which, in turn, can also reduce students’ sense of isolation.
In terms of Nottingham’s support for PhD students, Mr Dhugga concluded that it was “too fragmented across the university”, and is initiating reforms so that students can access services from a single website.
“There are 13 different units that are responsible for some aspect of doctoral support, so you have to be quite determined to find exactly what you are looking for,” he explained.
For instance, some areas, such as counselling or careers services, were well signposted to graduate students within the university and via its website, but others were less known, he said.
“We have a dedicated disability office, English language support services and a chaplaincy that graduate students might access, but these were less well known to respondents,” Mr Dhugga said.
“When students had engaged with these services, it worked very well for them, so it is a question of making these areas known,” he added.
Nottingham’s review of doctoral support presented some more easy wins, such as ensuring that all the induction handbooks offered by different departments contained the same key information.
“The information tended to vary from school to school depending on who put these packs together, so we are bringing all of them up to date across the whole university,” said Mr Dhugga.