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Working environment and well-being

Completing a PhD can be difficult. Repeated Danish and international studies show that high work pressure and an individualised method of working with many hours spent alone in front of the computer or in the laboratory can cause feelings of loneliness, uncertainty and stress amongst younger researchers.

Together with Gitte Wichmann, who is associate professor at the University of Aarhus and researches the working life of PhD students, we have prepared the following for the purposes of giving PhD students an insight into the typical causes of dissatisfaction while completing a PhD programme.

Research provides no clear answers to the question of why certain PhD students experience stress while others do not. By way of example, although it seems obvious that PhD students feel more stressed in the final phase of writing their thesis, this cannot actually be demonstrated. A basic explanation for stress among PhD students can be found in the requirements to deliver to which many PhD student are subject. These include requirements for publishing articles, participating in ECTS-earning PhD courses, participating in conferences, teaching and supervision as well as preparing applications for funding for later projects. Another explanation is the uncertainty that many younger researchers perceive as being associated with a career in academia.

To ensure that the many different activities do not cause dissatisfaction, it is necessary for PhD students to be able to plan and structure their work, make agreements with supervisors and deliver what is necessary to prevent them from falling behind schedule.

The student-supervisor relationship is important

In many cases, the uncertainty of PhD students can be countered by clarifying the requirements of a PhD programme and helping students understand early on what is expected of them and how they can use the resources available. Therefore, the student-supervisor relationship is a central relationship with a decisive effect on the quality of a PhD programme. The supervisor can help the PhD student clarify expectations and deal with demands, work pressure as well as the uncertainty inherently associated with producing new knowledge.

A strong relationship is built partly on the experience of having a positive relationship with the supervisor, but also on the availability of the supervisor and supervision being provided regularly and at reasonable intervals. Uncertainty relating to the expectations between the supervisor and the PhD student is a well-known source of stress. Therefore, it is imperative that students learn to clarify expectations with their supervisors, to make detailed agreements and to learn how to communicate openly and honestly about what they experience as difficult and demanding.

It would be advantageous to base the clarification of expectations with your PhD supervisor on the PhD plan which is mandatory for all PhD students. According to Section 9, subsection 2, of the Executive Order on PhD, the PhD plan must contain the following:

  • Timetable
  • Agreement on the form of supervision
  • Plan for the PhD project
  • Plan for PhD courses, etc.
  • Plan for participation in active research communities
  • Plan for teaching activities or other knowledge communication activities
  • Any agreements relating to intellectual property rights
  • A funding plan (budget)

If the collaboration with your principal supervisor or other supervisors go horribly awry so as to make it unreasonable for the collaboration to continue, the Executive Order on PhD makes allowance for the replacement of the principal supervisor or other supervisors. This may be done on the application of the PhD student or by decision of the university.

However, before it comes to that, it is a good idea to talk about the challenges that the collaboration may present and how to best address these. Who would be the appropriate individual to contact depends on the specific situation, but resource personnel may be anyone from the supervisor him- or herself, colleagues, HR, the head of department, the PhD programme manager, the union representative or the PhD student's professional organisation.

The collegiate community

The social and professional communities at the university are crucial for the job satisfaction and well-being of PhD students. The feeling of being integrated into the day-to-day activities of the research community helps prevent feelings of loneliness and gives the student a feeling that he or she is being taken seriously by more senior colleagues.

By way of example, good integration into the research community may be ensured by inviting PhD students to and ensure their participation in both academic and social events at the institute or research group. One quality of a research community from a PhD student's perspective is, therefore, regular professional group meetings or research seminars. This provides the young researcher with an opportunity to regularly make presentations and continuously test the quality of the research carried out. In addition, regular participation in writing and project groups at institute or university level may be advantageous, with the opportunity of thus providing and receiving peer feedback.

If you are a PhD student or if you are considering applying for a PhD, you can contact DM to learn more about what you need to pay special attention to in terms of well-being and good work habits, as well as to discuss your future career opportunities.

How can you, as a PhD student, invest in your own well-being?

  • Make agreements with yourself and your supervisor – and keep them
  • Communicate openly and honestly with your supervisor – even on topics you find difficult
  • Clarify expectations with your supervisor – how often are you going to meet, what do you need to delivery and what happens if you fall behind schedule?
  • Familiarise yourself with the resources available at the university – PhD events, writing courses, writing stays, coaching, staff counsellor.
  • Participate in the professional community.
  • Use your fellow students as resources – form writing groups or host professional events where you are able to share experiences
  • Start reflecting on your future career