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1 year after I started my PhD and while I was losing my original enthusiasm for research, I attended my first soft skills workshop from my doctoral program and which was entitled: managing professional relationships during the doctoral process.

This was a 2-day workshop and I can’t even express how great these 2 days felt. The workshop was highly interactive and provided by a professional coach who has a PhD in Work and Organizational Psychology. Importantly, the workshop was highly adapted to the current needs of the other students and myself.

We started with drawing ourselves a sociogram. This simply means writing down the name initials of yourself and of all the people you work with, and drawing lines to represent the professional relationships between yourself and these people, and also among all those people. For me, that resulted in quite a messy but highly visual representation of my work environment.

I did not even have to draw all my supervisor’s professional connections to realize that I was just one other tiny line for him. Was that depressing? Maybe a little.

Next, we listed all the things we thought our supervisors expected from us, and all the things we expected from them. And we could obviously see some contradiction there. But if there was something we really needed and that we felt like we could not get, we had our freshly drawn sociogram to help us figure out from whom we could try getting that.

I think that because 1) we were in such a positive and supportive environment at this workshop, and 2) because I considered that there was no reason for me to ask for more attention from my supervisor than any other of his lines, I positively accepted being just another line. And it felt like a big relief from my shoulders. I better understood what was expected from me, what was fair to ask for and what was not. I better understood how busy my supervisor was and I better valued all the supervision I was already getting.

In these two days we heard so many things that may sound simple but which meant so much at that time, like:

  • to think less about a problem and more about potential solutions
  • to consider that a healthy relationship is a give-and-take relationship
  • to remember that there are always 2 people in a relationship, so if the relationship is not working, responsibility is shared.

Sometimes, drawing or writing things down, and stating the “simple” or “obvious” stuffs, do actually make a big difference.

For all these reasons and all the ones I gave in another blog post about the doctoral program which offered me the possibility to attend this class, from the first day of this workshop I realized that just with a little bit of appropriate guidance, I could think better about my own situation, I could feel better and it had an immediate positive impact on my capacity to successfully finish my PhD.

If you’re a student going through your PhD right now and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you can try to analyze your work environment like I did, but I’m not sure if doing this on your own will be as effective. I would actually recommend you to look for soft skills workshops within your university, or for any other kind of support it might offer. Sometimes we need to get out of the lab and meet new people that bring new perspectives. What I share in this post is just a glimpse of everything this workshop brought me and of what attending such type of soft skills workshops can bring you.

To repeat myself I want to state again that doctoral programs, or “career development” programs, do make a huge difference in PhD students’ mental state and that it is critical today to develop these programs in order to address the mental health crisis within academia (Evans et al., 2018).

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