Guilt-Free PhD. Is It Possible?

Stress, guilt and depression run rampant among PhD students. It is now being described as a regular health crisis (source). A Nature editorial (source) describes how such problems stem from short-term PhD contracts, overwork and problematic relationships with supervisors:

Short-term PhD and postdoc contracts can allow employers and supervisors to look the other way when it comes to a duty of care. Academia often glorifies and rewards overwork and long hours. And the power balance between early-career researchers and their supervisors is problematic. Senior scientists are expected to be both a robust support system and a stern, independent assessor of progress — a contradiction that discourages students from sharing potential mental-health issues for fear of damaging their professional progress.

I have myself experienced stress and depression during my PhD program, and I can honestly not point to any PhD student who hasn’t.

Bad Advice and Okay Advice for Coping

While I can understand the sentiment behind well-meaning advice like “Just do the work!” and “Enjoy!” (source), I think such ideas actually perpetuate the health crisis among PhD students. Why? Because the advice adds to the mental discrepancy: ‘Why can’t I just do the work?’ and ‘I am so fortunate, why can’t I just enjoy being a PhD?’. It overlooks the actual problem of PhD work, that is the working conditions.

Instead, it might be better advice to build yourself an external support structure by systematising your work. I have found four ways of doing this and hereby retaining your sanity:

  1. Score and assess your own work before your supervisor does. In this way, your supervisors assessment is only secondary. It can help to construct a scoring document that you print out for you and your supervisor to both score your progress - thereby you can compare your own idea about your progress with your supervisors. The idea is to not let your supervisor have the only say in judging your PhD process.
  2. Draw a map of how your actions connect to your values and goals - and change your actions if they do not correspond with your purpose, if possible. This might allievate the sense that your work is not good enough, because it shows how your actions are actually rightful.
  3. Document your process in other ways. When you have charts, figures and notes documenting your process, these can be used as evidence of work towards your supervisor or boss. This takes the burden off your supervisor of making sure you are doing the right thing. Blogging can also be a way of documenting progress 🤓
  4. Put your mental health on the agenda with your supervisor. This is really important if you feel stressed or depressed.

This advice draw on ideas of personal productity. I am a big follower of Getting Things Done myself. The method allows for capturing and organising all the commitments in my life. It is suited for dealing with massive input overload from the sciences, the internet, the supervisor, etc. On this blog, I have described web ressources for dealing with the overload (here), software that can help you (here), and even how an Apple Watch can support workflows (here).

HOWEVER! Systematising your work and setting up a personal productivity system does not solve the fundamental problem of PhD working conditions. It only curbs the personal effects by building personal resilience.

Collective Action Will be the Real Solution

In a The New Yorker article, Cal Newport explains that Getting Things Done at a personal level is only symptom treatment of a larger problem of how knowledge work is structured (source):

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

In the end, productivity is not personal. It is connected to others. In his article, Newport acknowledges this fact and suggests that work should therefore should become more externalised - it should recognise the interdependence between people. He posits that we can use smart “virtual task boards, where every task is represented by a card that specifies who is doing the work”. With this type of solution, Newport assumes that what we need is “smarter processes”, using Canban methods from tech industry. This smart-discourse is critized by thinkers like Michael Sandel (I described his book here) because it undermines collective action by relegating action to “smart” people, technocrats. The methods used by the Tech industry may be smart, but they do not solve the problem of working conditions. The Google workers walkout and new union have highlighted this point (source). Like any other industry, tech workers also needs to organize in the face of bad working conditions.

Collective, union action must be the primary way towards better working conditions for PhD’s and other precarious university workers. Until then, personal productivity systems can alleviate some of the pressures.

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi