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Phd survey: High quality in the PhD programme despite challenges

PhD students at Aarhus University receive good support from their supervisors, experience quality in their degree programme and feel that they have the opportunity to pursue their research ideas. But more and more PhD students are stressed, and the feeling of loneliness has increased since 2017. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has had serious consequences. This is the result of a survey of the PhD programme at Aarhus University.

2021.07.07 | Henriette Stevnhøj

PhD students are committed to their PhD programmes and satisfied with their supervisors. But the workload is heavy. This is the result of a major new survey of PhD programmes at AU. Archive photo from the PhD Day at Health/Lars Kruse.

PhD students at Aarhus University give good ratings to the university's PhD programmes. This is evident from responses from the PhD survey carried out in January 2021.

The quality of the supervisors' work in particular is rated highly by the PhD students. Moreover, there is a high level of satisfaction with the opportunities to develop professionally and academically, and with collaboration in their research environment.

However, satisfaction is lagging behind in several areas. Far too many PhD students (one in five PhD students) experience stress symptoms, and the responses regarding satisfaction reveal PhD students who doubt their own abilities, feel lonely and suffer from heavy workloads. Overall, more PhD students experience this now than in 2017 when AU last surveyed the PhD programme.

Vice-dean and head of the graduate school at the Faculty of Arts Anne Marie Pahuus, who is in charge of the committee consisting of the five heads of graduate school, and who also commissioned the survey, is concerned about the loneliness and the stress symptoms of the PhD students.

She believes that the academic level of the PhD students is high, that they have a lot of work capacity and that they are ready to make a great effort in the relatively short time a PhD programme lasts. However, according to Anne Marie Pahuus, the Covid-19 situation has intensified the feeling of being alone with the workload, in addition to the pressure from all the circumstances surrounding the research project that could be distracting factors.

"PhD students must prove that they are talented aspiring researchers with an international mindset, and on top of this, they must follow courses and communicate topics within their field of study, while they are still PhD students. They have a lot on their plate, and at the same time they need to attend to their studies like any other full-time job. It’s difficult to know when you’re good enough in all the different areas in which you have to excel. This may have a negative effect on your job satisfaction, even though you like what you do,” says Anne Marie Pahuus.

Covid-19 lockdown caused concern

The survey had dedicated a section to questions that only concerned the Covid-19 situation. 

It was hardly an ideal scenario to ask PhD students to assess their degree programme during a pandemic, while the university was more or less shut down, national borders were closed and physical meetings were converted into online meetings.
This is according to Associate Professor Gitte Wichmann-Hansen from AU's Centre for Educational Development (CED) and project manager of the survey.

"When preparing the survey, it was clear that if we did not address the pandemic, the responses would be influenced by the current status of the lockdown, and would not relate to more normal times. Therefore, we’ve tried to identify the responses that specifically concern the pandemic, and that cannot be left uncommented," says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.

The responses show that the Covid-19 pandemic has been an extremely difficult period for the students. For example, 78 per cent say that they are worried that the Covid-situation will affect the quality of their PhD education and their subsequent career opportunities in a negative way.

Anne Marie Pahuus fully understands the concerns of the PhD students after an 18-month pandemic.

"It's clear that the pandemic has complicated the planning that we normally expect and demand of PhD students. Together with their supervisors, they are responsible for the progression and the versatility of their PhD programme. They must follow the right PhD courses, find the right research events, be at the right place at the right time – and suddenly all this was impossible to plan just a few weeks ahead. In the years to come, we will begin to fully understand what the pandemic did to the universities, and especially what it did to those people who cannot simply catch up for their lost work. PhD students deserve to get the most out of their PhD programme, but the pandemic was a huge obstacle, and as a university we all struggled to find appropriate alternatives, e.g. in online formats. Not everything was a success and far from everything happened quickly enough, and this is what we can read from the responses,” says Anne Marie Pahuus.

Among other things, the comments reflect that the graduate schools have not been fully able to meet the students’ requests for support and help.

Perhaps more online presence after the pandemic

Even though it can be difficult to ignore a reality affected by a pandemic, the survey shows that the PhD students are generally satisfied with their research opportunities within their project, and that they feel that they are part of the research environment. As many as 81 per cent replied that they are satisfied with the quality of their supervision, and 82 per cent can warmly recommend their main supervisor. For questions regarding whether the PhD students feel that their supervisor is available, figures have improved since the first surveys – from 86 per cent to 89 per cent.
This increase is so small that it is difficult to say anything about it, says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen. But she notes that the figures are still very high, which is "positive and slightly surprising in the light of the pandemic", as she puts it:

"When everything shuts down, we must expect this to have a negative impact on contact and relationships with other people. However, this does not seem to be the case in connection with the supervision relationship. Even though there is not much good to say about the pandemic, the extensive use of online meetings has probably meant that PhD students have experienced a more accessible and present supervisor. Supervision is only a click away when everything is online. So perhaps this is a positive side effect, as research shows that a good and close relationship can be crucial for a successful PhD process," she says.

The downside of PhD life

The survey, which was answered by 1,585 respondents out of 2,130 PhD students across the five faculties, shows that PhD life is intense with good supervision and meaningful activities in terms of research stays, courses and dissertation work, but it is also characterised by pressure that many students find to be too heavy and too diffuse.

One in five PhD students nearly always or often experiences symptoms of stress. No less than 37 per cent think that the workload affects their private life. The PhD students were also asked whether they feel lonely, both socially and professionally.

Gitte Wichmann-Hansen notes that social loneliness has risen significantly since 2017 (from 14 per cent to 23 per cent), while professional loneliness is almost stable at 18 per cent.

"We interpret this increase in the light of the pandemic. The question regarding social loneliness in the survey covers the feeling of not having a network and daily social interaction with other PhD students and co-researchers. It is therefore not surprising that PhD students report about significantly more social loneliness during a lockdown. Therefore, this figure should ideally have fallen again when the survey is repeated in four years," says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.

However, she does not think that Covid-19 is the cause of all the dissatisfaction in the survey.

"The figures indicate that PhD students are under a lot of pressure. We see this in the responses regarding insecurity. The majority report that they are in control of their project, and that they think that their project is exciting. Nevertheless, far more than half (66 per cent) say that they feel insecure that what they do is good enough and they wonder if they are good enough to be a PhD
student. As senior researchers, we are also familiar with insecurity, but there are indications that this is more pronounced in PhD students. They have a complex dual role. They must conduct a good research project and have a satisfactory level of publications, but at the same time they must learn to become good researchers. In addition, we are seeing a growing culture of perfection in society, also among our Bachelor’s and Master’s degree students. Perhaps there is a spillover from these students to students at PhD level. Overall, this is a dangerous cocktail," says Gitte Wichmann-Hansen.

Stronger networks

The graduate schools have been working on initiatives to counteract stress and to improve satisfaction since the first surveys were published in 2013 and 2017. Anne Marie Pahuus will now intensify work on these initiatives. Among other things, we need to communicate more with the current PhD students.

"We have a very good dialogue with the PhD association and with the elected PhD students in the PhD committees on how we can better welcome new PhD students and provide knowledge about life after a PhD degree, e.g. about the almost non-existent unemployment among people with a PhD degree from AU," says Anne Marie Pahuus.

She emphasises that it is positive that the PhD students are committed and seek influence. And finally, it is all about establishing networks, which are very important for the satisfaction and work capacity of PhD students.

"Good relationships can overcome many challenges, these are relationships with the people they teach, relationships with colleagues, supervisors and management, but certainly also relationships with an extensive professional community in Denmark and abroad. For example, those of us who come from older generations of researchers must learn to share our own network with researchers at the earliest stages of their careers. The big threat to satisfaction is the increasing loneliness. It has a negative impact on quality," says Anne Marie Pahuus.


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