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Maybe you heard about recent papers like Evans et al., 2018 “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education,” and Levecque et al., 2017 “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students.”

Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.” Evans et al., 2018

Interestingly these papers are also a call for action suggesting “more adequate career development offices” in research institutes (Evans et al., 2018). I’ve obtained my PhD in biology about 10 months ago, in September 2017. Today, I would like to tell you how much one doctoral program helped me to get through that PhD.

When I started my PhD there was no doctoral program in my institute. However, our supervisor recommended us an inter-university program, mainly for us to attend the research seminars he was organizing for this program. Then I discovered that the program was offering very interesting soft skills workshops.

About 1 year after I started, I was seriously considering quitting. Despite my passion for research and for my project, frustrations from non-working experiments and from the academic system itself were pulling me down…

It is at this time that I attended my first soft skills workshop of this inter-university program: it was about managing professional relationships and what this specific workshop brought me is the subject of another post on this blog.

After that key first workshop, I attended quite a few other ones (see below). Every time, about 10-15 PhD students were coming not only from different universities but also from various fields: biology, politics, physics, international law, literature, mathematics, theology, or any other fields; and we were at different stages of our PhD studies.

Meeting students from different fields was absolutely refreshing in terms of science, but it also made me realize that we were all going through similar feelings: feeling lost, feeling overwhelmed, wanted to quit, feeling unguided, sometimes even feeling misguided as one girl was trapped between two supervisors hating each other and telling her to go left and right…

Every time these workshops acted like group therapy where everyone felt so relieved by sharing personal experiences with people who truly understood and in a safe environment which guided us to positively reflect on all that.

Moreover, these workshops were highly interactive to make sure we would all take part in the discussion. At the start of the class, everyone quickly introduced oneself and said a few things to break the ice. Then throughout the workshop we would be actively asked to perform exercises, to draw stuff, to read and discuss stuff, to give each other feedback, or to brainstorm in even smaller groups of 2-3 people.

With such settings, these workshops are highly adapted to the needs of the students and I know the program’s organization board is closely listening to feedback making sure all workshops are always current and improving. For me, one more reason for the success of these workshops was that the teachers all had been through PhD studies and just hearing their own stories was already inspiring.

Here are other workshops I had the chance to attend:

I’m telling you more about some of these workshops in other posts (see the links in the list above), but for today’s post what I want to say is that:

Each time after these workshops I was coming back to my lab energized, inspired and ready to go on with the PhD. These workshops did not make any of my experiments work better, and I still had many ups and downs on the way. But it helped me keeping my motivation up and I made it through :)

Many people think that soft skills workshops are only meant to PhD students seeking non-academic jobs. I went to these workshops to help me in my PhD and it’s exactly what it did. It provided me with moral support, crucial work organization skills, and essential scientist skills like writing or giving presentation.

Finally, agreeing with Evans et al., 2018 and with others calling for action: yes, doctoral programs, or “career development” programs, do make a huge difference in PhD students’ mental state.

Thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment and take part in the discussion :)


To give more context about this post:

  • I completed my PhD at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. 
🇨🇭
  • The inter-university program regroup the universities of Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel, Bern and Fribourg; and is named the CUSO (Conférence Universitaire de Suisse Occidentale). 

  • Despite some ups and downs on the way, I am proud of what I accomplished in my PhD, I am grateful to my supervisor Prof. Simon Sprecher, and to the CUSO program.

If you are also in Fribourg, checkout this blog post about the UniFr coaching program for PhD students offered by the Centre Did@cTIC.

If you are in Switzerland, checkout this resource of Graduate Centers, Career Centers and Soft Skills Programs for PhD students and Postdocs in Swiss Universities! 🇨🇭🎓


For further reading about the recent Evans et al., 2018 paper:

 

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