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We need to make the PhD system more student-centric

PhD advisors have considerable influence over their students’ mental health and careers — this isn’t necessarily a good thing

Photo credit: Photo by Tiago Bandeira on Unsplash

Not everyone aspires to getting a PhD. But for those who do, pursuing one should be the pinnacle of their educational experience. Yet for many graduate students, studying for their doctoral degree turns into nightmare that continues to haunt them long after they’ve left university. And the reason is surprisingly simple. As a PhD student, your progress, your degree, and your future career, depend almost entirely on the whim of one person: Your faculty advisor.

The PhD student-advisor relationship is unlike any other professional relationship I can think of. Beyond the obvious requirements that advisors don’t break the law or contravene institutional policies, there are remarkably few constraints or guidelines on how they should behave, and equally few penalties if they act in ways that lead to the abuse or misuse of their advisee. And as a result, PhD students can find themselves in relationship where their advisor has all the power, and they have none.

Many — probably most — PhD advisors recognize this, and work hard to prevent this power-differential from adversely affecting their students. But without clear or enforceable guidelines on acceptable and unacceptable practices, even well-meaning advisors can get things horribly wrong. And while they may see this as all part of their own personal learning curve, the effects on their students can be devastating, and in some cases, lifelong.

I was sharply reminded of this recently by two things. The first was the publication of a new report from National Academies of Sciences that tackles some of the issues embedded in PhD programs head-on. The second was a deeply disturbing account of a student who became a victim of a messed-up PhD system.

On May 29, Veronica Varela wrote a heartbreaking entry on her blog with the title Why I Walked Away from my PhD. In it, she describes how an increasingly challenging relationship with her advisor (in her words, her mentor/Principle Investigator, but in this context, the same thing) led to her putting her mental and physical well-being before her degree, and quitting.

If you’re not in a PhD program, or don’t have a PhD, the enormity of this decision probably needs some context. When you embark on studying for a PhD, you typically commit between 4–6 years of your life to it. It’s a major life-decision that can have devastating consequences if it goes wrong.

Over that time, you scramble to cover your financial needs through everything from working on grants and acting as a teaching assistant, to taking on part-time work. And when your advisor says jump, you jump.

You do this for three reasons. The first is that your advisor often has a say in whether you get funding support, including how much, and what strings are attached. If your relationship becomes strained, so too can your funding. The second is that, having made the decision to study for this degree, you need it in order to continue down the career path you’ve committed to. And the third is that, if you want to continue in the field you’re in, you’ll probably need the patronage of your advisor. Your future employer will be guided by what your advisor says about you. Your advisor will have the power to help line up your next position, or to block it. And if they’re well known, what they say about you to others — often without your knowledge — could be a career-breaker.

It’s these sometimes-subtle and not-always-tangible threads of power connecting an advisor to a PhD student that make this such an unusual and potentially divisive relationship. And while there are many conscientious and well-meaning advisors, things can still go very badly wrong. And when they do, it’s almost always the student who suffers.

Very sadly, Veronica’s story is not unusual. I’ve seen first-hand how increasingly dysfunctional advisor-student relationships can cause anxiety, stress, mental illness, and a loss of hope. And it’s often with advisors who are trying to do their best, but who, without clear guidance and expectations from their institution, are floundering.

The trouble is, there’s a tendency to treat PhDs more like a personal relationship than a professional one, and when the relationship stops working, it’s the student who invariably bears the brunt.

The recent National Academies report goes some way to addressing this lack of professionalism in PhD programs, and while it doesn’t go far enough to correct for the deep power imbalance between students and advisors, it is an important step in the right direction.

The report, titled “Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century” (although many of the recommendations are relevant to any PhD program) was a response to growing concerns that current STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) PhDs “do not adequately prepare students to translate their knowledge into impact in multiple careers.”

In addressing these concerns, it became clear to the report’s authors that a cultural shift was needed in how PhD programs are run, leading to a system where the student is at the center of the process, and where far greater value is placed on best practices in mentorship and advising.

This emphasis on students and best practices is highlighted repeatedly in the report’s many recommendations. They are all worth reading, whether you are an advisor, academic administrator, student, prospective student, or friend or family of someone who’s currently studying for a PhD. I wanted to pull out a few though, just to emphasize the cultural shift needed if institutions are to making pursuing a PhD about the student, not the advisor:

From recommendation 3.2:

  • Institutions should require faculty and postdoctoral researchers who have extensive contact with graduate students to learn and demonstrate evidence-based and inclusive teaching and mentoring practices.
  • Graduate programs should facilitate mentor relationships between the graduate student and the primary research advisors, as well as opportunities for students to develop additional mentor or advisor relationships, including with professionals in industry, government laboratories, and technical societies.

From recommendation 3.5:

  • Faculty should cultivate their individual professional development skills to advance their abilities to improve educational culture and environments on behalf of students.

From recommendation 3.7:

  • Institutions should provide resources to help students manage the stresses and pressures of graduate education and maximize their success. Institutions of higher education should work with their faculty to recognize and ameliorate behaviors that exacerbate existing power differentials and create unnecessary stress for graduate students.
  • Institutions should administer periodic climate surveys of graduate students at the departmental level to assess their well-being in the aggregate and make adjustments when problems are identified.
  • Institutions should take extra steps to provide and advertise accessible mental health services, such as those already available to veterans and most undergraduate students, at no cost to graduate students.
  • Institutions should develop clear policies and reporting procedures for instances of sexual harassment and bullying.
  • Graduate programs should fully incorporate awareness of mental health issues into the training experience for both students and faculty and should assess services to ensure that they are meeting the needs of graduate students.
  • Faculty should be regularly informed on how to support and engage with students requiring or seeking mental health services.
  • Graduate programs should encourage students to engage as a group in activities and experiences outside of traditional academic settings as a means of increasing feelings of inclusion and normalizing feelings associated with negative phenomena, such as imposter syndrome, that can reduce productivity and success in the training experience and extend time to degree.
  • Graduate programs should allow students to have an active and collaborative voice to proactively engage in practices that support holistic research training and diverse career outcomes and that allow students to provide feedback on their experiences.

These are a great starting point. But they do fall short of requiring institutions and advisors to be accountable for how they work and behave with PhD students, and what they need to do to reduce the current one-sided power imbalance between student and advisor. And while their emphasis on mental health is laudable, I would far rather see actions that avoid situations that unnecessarily trigger or exacerbate health issues amongst students — mental or otherwise — rather than manage the consequences of them. There is no excuse for allowing the conditions under which PhD students work and study to become so stressful and miserable that it causes them harm.

If I was to add to these recommendations, I would like to see a commitment by institutions to establish policies and processes that hold faculty advisors accountable for how they work with their students, and mechanisms that provide students with substantive recourse and agency if and when things do go awry. I’d also like to see non-retaliation policies that limit the ability of advisors to interfere with a student’s progress or career options, should the relationship between them become strained.

These are not difficult things to do. But they will require a cultural change around how institutions run their PhD programs. And perhaps more challenging, they will need faculty advisors to give up some of their power in order to serve their students.

But one way or another, if we value our PhD students, change is needed.

Update: Some of the issues here, and the broader issues in ensuring PhDs are better-alined with students values, are covered in Elizabeth Garbee’s dissertation, ‘The value of a STEM PhD” (April 2018), available from the ASU Digital Repository.

Minor editorial and stylistic updates made April 11 2019

Originally published at 2020science.org on June 3, 2018.



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