Being a psychologist for doctoral students – what’s it all about?

As I start my new job as psychologist for doctoral student at Aalto University, I am not only building this position from scratch at Aalto, I am shaping a totally new field in psychology and doctoral student wellbeing in Finland. Because this is new and ground-breaking, I want to tell you what it’s all about.

Speaking from both my own and my professional experience, I know that the academic work environment is unique and challenging in so many different ways than other work environments. Not only do academics abide to different rules than employees in other occupations regarding work hours, job content, and funding, they also struggle with a completely different feedback system, complicated career choices and paths, and elusive forms of leadership. But these issues are rarely dealt with or are shrugged off as ‘part of the academic culture’ – which implies that, if you can’t handle it, leave.

The academic work environment is different from other work environments. And if you can’t handle it, the message is often that you should leave.

But I want to change this. The academic staff deserves better. And I want to start from the people who are taking their first steps into academia.

Doctoral students face so many challenges during their PhD journey, for which they might not be prepared or get the support they need. Trust me, I know. Doctoral students are practicing to become researchers, teachers and supervisors. If we treat them poorly, it will affect their successes in research, their ability to teach, and their supervisory skills. Not to mention what this implies for the success and funding of the university. This is why focusing on increasing wellbeing of early career researchers, such as doctoral students, is especially important.

The many faces of doctoral student challenges

So, what are some of the challenges doctoral students face? Although I already had an idea of my own of the most common challenges I’ve seen during my academic career, I also asked this question on Twitter and the answers confirmed my thoughts. In addition, based on the students that have already been to my office, I was spot on. Here is a list of the worries doctoral students might have during their PhD journey, and these will become topics in my blog (where I open up the reasons for these challenges and suggest how we could support doctoral students more):

  • Time-management and self-management; skills you have not necessarily learned during your undergraduate studies or skills that become more important during a doctoral degree. There has been a pronounced need for support in these skills during the corona crisis isolation.
  • Social support and peer support; getting advice and support from others and understanding that others are in the same situation is vital for wellbeing of doctoral students. But, at the same time, everyone is competing for the same money and the same positions, so asking for help might not always feel possible. The effects of lack of social support is especially pronounced during the corona crisis.
  • Supervisor issues; not receiving enough feedback and support, or not getting along with your supervisor.
  • Stress (overall theme that is connected to several of the other themes)
  • Uncertainty of the future and applying for funding; worries about being able to finish the thesis on time and getting funding. In some disciplines there is little or no support regarding where funding is available and how to write the application.
  • Dealing with criticism and rejection; part of the everyday job as a researcher but some days are worse than others. Learning how to cope with and live with rejection and criticism requires time.
  • Academic writing; writing in academia is different than other forms of writing. It can be debated whether academic writing is a useful skill to have, but the fact of the matter is that, you can be a great researcher but not get published because of poor academic writing.
  • Publishing and dealing with journals; publishing in academia is a fool’s game. You have to deal with arbitrary journal requirements, non-user-friendly submission systems, nasty reviewers, endless waiting for decisions, frequent rejections, you name it, we have it. Not losing your mind in the publishing jungle is a feat of its own. And not to mention subscription restrictions, which means that you might not even have access to your own work.
  • Career plans after the doctoral degree; industry or academia? What possibilities are there in academia? What if I don’t want to become a professor? These are questions doctoral students want answers to.
  • Impostor syndrome; the final thing on my list is every academic’s companion. Thoughts like ‘all the success has just been due to good luck’ and that ‘soon everyone will figure out how bad I actually am’, are something doctoral students deal with on a regular basis.

This is an exhausting list, don’t you think?

It’s not all bad though. Doing your PhD and becoming a researcher can also be rewarding and engaging. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to validate and support doctoral students. And that is why I need to bring these issues into the light.

Don’t panic, we can do it

I’m not imagining possessing superpowers. I know, I’m not going to be able to magically fix everything. But we can still try to alleviate most of these issues.

It will not require superpowers to improve the situation. The most important thing is that we try

Aalto University already offers a lot of support for doctoral students. For example, there are writing courses to help with academic writing and of course advice on how to apply for funding. There is social support in the form of the doctoral student association and the student union. Doctoral students can also get career advice from the career services. For the employed doctoral students there are HR courses and occupational health services. And the study psychologists offer courses and self-study material on matters that I mentioned in my list.

What is my role?

So why do they need me? What will I do to support and guide them?

First, I will offer individual counseling, where the doctoral student can discuss anything and everything with me. We can discuss time-management issues and techniques, we can talk about the ups and downs of doing a PhD or we can talk about life in general. No topic is too small or too big to discuss at my office. And if I’m not able to provide help, I can refer the doctoral student to the proper place.

Second, I will teach and train doctoral students, academic staff, and service staff in topics related to these issues. For example, I might offer a course on how to improve your supervision skills for supervisors or a workshop on self-management for doctoral students. The topics will evolve once I get familiar with my role and with the need.

Third, I will spread information and tips on how to deal with these challenges through lectures and through this blog. I hope this blog will feel like peer support for the doctoral students and that they will use it as a library of best practices on how to cope with the PhD journey.

Fourth, I will work together with the doctoral education services, occupational health services, and other instances, that offer support for doctoral students, to develop the working environment at Aalto University. These preventive measures include lectures and workshops, support for the staff, and development of services provided to the doctoral students.

Developing wellbeing by not only treating the symptoms but also the cause, we are shaping a sustainable future for all of Aalto’s students and staff. Increasing wellbeing for all is a competitive edge that will have a significant impact on society.

Focusing on wellbeing is a strategic move that will have a long-lasting impact on the flourishing of individuals and society.

I hope you agree with me that this position is vital and that other universities should follow Aalto’s lead.


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