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If you have not heard of a term called “career burnout” – you are one of the lucky few. The problem of work overload affects people working in many industries and on every career level. It does not exclude PhD students: according to a report conducted on PhD students in Poland [1] an astonishing 88% of them have confirmed a high or moderate level of exhaustion. More than 2 thousand PhD students have taken part in the study. Along with intense workload, pressing deadlines and high ambitions, doctoral students experience high levels of stress and anxiety:


Figure 1. Distribution of stress symptoms and distribution of increased anxiety symptoms, source [1]

The numbers themselves show a scale of the problem which we, Coopernicus in collaboration with BITECH Think Tank, want to take care of. The existing problems are underlined by quotes from qualitative research conducted in ScienceZen. [2]

I wanted to have a feeling that I’m coming to work, do what is required of me, and leave. For most people this seemed to be some sort of extravagance, because we are not here for the work, nor the money, but we are living for what we do. So in this regard I have also noticed that the atmosphere surrounding me is not the one I feel good in, that it lacks the work hygiene of saying “stop, job done, I am gone”, instead of engaging in work after hours, because there was always something to do, and many people just did a large number of things they were not required to do, but was customary to participate.

Survey respondent, born 1990, [2]

Am I satisfied? (…) I have definitely learned and grown a lot (..) because I was a bit alone I definitely did in the latter, so I am satisfied because my competences are broad for that reason, in some sort of a scientific pool (…) I am definitely content in this regard. Did it have to cost this much? I think not. And I probably did not need to experience these various unpleasant laboratorial and scientific situations in my first workplace, and because of that if I had one more chance to choose, I would not get involved in those scientific projects back then.

Survey respondent, born 1989, [2].

I have nothing against men, but after all the glass ceiling had started appearing already at the level of engineering studies. When I was studying at the Polytechnic there were many situations where male professors would ask us women: “What are we looking for here?” and immediately add “A husband probably”. I believe that in today’s standards this way of communicating would cause a huge uproar. I hope that these uproars are happening.

Survey respondent, born 1985, [2].

Summary of the initiative

As part of the #ZdrowyDoktorat campaign, current PhD students and graduates shared their advice, experiences and thoughts in social media. They often underlined how highly developmental and interesting is “doing a PhD”, i.e. continuing their studies as doctoral students, but reflections about overload, stress and difficulties in keeping balance between work and rest had also appeared.

Ewelina Kamińska, a PhD student at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich and an author of motivelina.com, shared with us her recommendations:

“In line with scientific research on stress and its perception, it is worth investing some time in our tight schedules for intensive physical activity, which adapts our body to handling stressors.” – Ewelina Kamińska, the entirety of the Q&A is available on our saved story on coopernicus.pl Instagram page.

Discussion with doctorants and university authorities

On the 9th of may, we have also organised a discussion with:

  • Ania Kalinowska Balcerzak PhD, a co-founder of BITECH foundation and co-author of the ScienceZen report about PhD students’ mental conditions.
  • Prof. Paweł Pyrzanowski, PhD. Eng., director of the Doctoral School at the Warsaw University of Technology, member of the PAN Mechanics Committee. He has already promoted 8 doctoral students to date.
  • Patrycja Uram – psychology graduate at the University of Wrocław and Master of Business Administration at the SWPS University. PhD student of PAN Institute of Psychology and initiator of the PhD Mental Health campaign.
  • Paweł Słup – doctoral student at the Doctoral School of Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw, Harvard Law School and the Warsaw School of Economics, manager and executor of scientific projects, for example the National Centre of Science.

During the discussion we asked our guests about current problems, various practices and actions that are worth implementing “ASAP”. The recording of the meeting is available on the Coopernicus’s Youtube and Facebook accounts. Based on the meeting, research cited and the interviews with doctoral students, we have compiled the following recommendations.

Recommendations

  1. It is worth seeking support and help at the university – among members of the Doctoral Council or the Doctoral Student Council, then in pro-student, non-governmental organisations related to education and science. Above all it is worth asking other doctoral students about their experiences;
  2. You need to prepare for changes – “doing a PhD” is a process that takes years, during which the main topic might be modified, the data and knowledge available might broaden, your research interests or… your private life.
  3. Research is a full-fledged job, of which a doctoral student should be proud of, not depreciate their contribution and the importance of what they do – or treat it like a hobby rather than an actual profession. In communication with other professions, it is worth underlining the value of the work done.
  4. Doctoral students must be treated seriously by the academic bodies! Formally they are not students anymore, but workers (and de facto they work for the university), very often they do not have a designated workplace, which is why infrastructural and formal regulations should become a priority for doctoral schools.
  5. The mental state of doctoral students, burden of stress and the feeling of uncertainty has a direct impact on the quality and potential of their work, and in effect, the scientific results generated. That is why decent and enabling conditions for research and scientific work should be a priority in the public perception of the role of young scientists.

We encourage you to read the entire reports on the topic and take an active part in a journey to a healthy PhD.

Bibliography:

  • Beck J., Koc P., Uram P., Urbańska B., Preliminary report on the mental health survey of PhD students within the Phd Mental Health project implemented by the National Representation of PhD Students, 2021
  • Kalinowska-Balcerzak A., Balcerzak B., Wałęsa A.: Kuźnicka B., Krasucki J. , SCIENCE ZEN REPORT: SOCIAL DIAGNOSIS OF WELL-BEING AND MENTAL CONDITION OF YOUNG SCIENTISTS IN POLSCE, 2021-2022
Anna Kalinowska-Balcerzak
Joanna Rancew
Bio:
Member of Coopernicus Team and Computer Science and Engineering Master's Student at Politecnico di Milano. Graduate of the Warsaw University of Technology in Biomedical Engineering with a specialization in Biomedical Informatics. You are welcome to read more our articles in Coopernicus Knowledge or on Joanna's Medium: https://medium.com/@jrancew
Written by:

Joanna Rancew, Anna Kalinowska Balcerzak

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