Stephanie Gauttier is an Assistant Professor at the Grenoble School of Management (GEM) doing research at the intersection of information systems, human-computer interaction, and ethics. She is the Vice-Chair of the COST Action CA 19117 Researcher Mental Health Observatory and is active in initiatives related to supporting researchers’ mental health. For the Marie Curie Alumni Association, Stephanie co-created a peer-to-peer mental health mentoring network.
Bridging Academic landscapes.
At Access 2 Perspectives, we provide novel insights into the communication and management of Research.
Our goal is to equip researchers with the skills and enthusiasm they need to pursue a successful and joyful career.
This podcast brings to you insights and conversations around the topics of scholarly reading, writing and publishing, career development inside and outside Academia, Research Project Management, Research Integrity, and Open Science.
Learn more about our work at https://access2perspectives.org
Stephanie Gauttier is an Assistant Professor at the Grenoble School of Management (GEM) doing research at the intersection of information systems, human-computer interaction, and ethics. She is the Vice-Chair of the COST Action CA 19117 Researcher Mental Health Observatory and is active in initiatives related to supporting researchers’ mental health. For the Marie Curie Alumni Association, Stephanie co-created a peer-to-peer mental health mentoring network.
Stephanie defended her PhD in management information systems in 2017. She has a Master’s degree in Political Sciences and a Master’s in Communication Sciences, and over five years of experience in the marketing industry. As a result, her research crosses disciplines and was applied to consumers (PhD), learners (EDUWORKS), and more recently to the healthcare domain (Responsible-Industry and GLASNOST). During her Postdoc she focused on Philosophy and Ethics. In 2018, Stephanie was awarded an individual Marie Curie fellowship, was nominated on the list of 400 women in the NL across all industries in the “bright mind” category in 2018, and received the Brenner award for her work in Q-methodology and phenomenology in 2019..
I was awarded an individual Marie Curie fellowship in 2018, was nominated on the list of 400 women in the NL across all industries in the “bright mind” category in 2018, and have received the Brenner award for my work in Q-methodology and phenomenology in 2019.
ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3285-9189
At Access 2 Perspectives, we provide novel insights into the communication and management of Research. Our goal is to equip researchers with the skills and enthusiasm they need to pursue a successful and joyful career.
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Stephanie defended her PhD in management information systems in 2017. She has a Masters in Political Sciences and a Masters in Communication Sciences, and over five years of experience in the marketing industry. As a result, her research crosses disciplines and was applied to consumers (PhD), learners (EDUWORKS), and more recently to the healthcare domain (Responsible-Industry and GLASNOST). During her Postdoc she focused on Philosophy and Ethics.
In 2018, Stephanie was awarded an individual Marie Curie fellowship, was nominated on the list of 400 women in the NL across all industries in the “bright mind” category in 2018, and received the Brenner award for her work in Q-methodology and phenomenology in 2019.
ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3285-9189
Which researcher/s – dead or alive – do you find inspiring? My own PhD supervisor – she was always very supportive and open. Marie Curie! A hypermobile researcher: she moved countries, she changed disciplines, and yet she was super successful! She showed a lot of perseverance.
What is your favorite dish/meal? I love food too much to have ONE favorite dish! 😉
From our conversation
What is your definition/understanding of ‘mental health’? Personally and or professionally.
A state of mind where people can realize their abilities and cope with the normal stresses of life, can be productive and fruitful and are able to make a contribution to the community. That’s close to the WHO definition.
Is there a difference between mental health and mental well-being? These are related concepts: you have good mental health when you are in a state of wellbeing
What are stressors in academia that can cause mental health issues? In people’s minds, usually, it’s the supervisor. Often, the supervisor is just a personification of the system.
Systemic issues: what my peers call the culture of excellence, publication driven; the reward system; the contract system, and lack of opportunities in the job market
Cultural issues: the culture of working long hours in academia, working at weekends, not taking holidays. Difficult to reconcile the fact that it is not a 9 to 5 job and that at the same time it does not mean one has to work 70 hours a week either. The way things are done does not make it easy to find a balance.
Institutional issues: lack of clarity of what is expected from a Ph.D. student, duties and rights, what is necessary for the Ph.D. for an academic career after/for a non-academic career after it
And also sometimes it boils down to how anxious or vulnerable a person is in the first place, and all these academic issues can exacerbate one’s anxiety. Here we need support systems to help individuals find and keep their balance.
What led you to work on mental health? How did you get engaged in the topic? I saw around me and in my network things that I thought should not happen, like some supervisors losing 7 PhD students in a few years but the institution would not investigate, or people pushed away from their doctoral program for lack of progress when they never could benefit from any supervision meetings. I thought this simply should not be the case.
As a supervisor myself, I think it is necessary to be very supportive and challenging at the same time. The space of the supervisory meeting is like a greenhouse for ideas. However, it is hard to always think of the wellbeing of the PhD student: if I ask for something to be done on Monday, am I a bad person for suggesting the student may have to work over the weekend? Isn’t it acceptable sometimes? If the student has personal issues, to what extent do I factor it in?
So we need to do more as a community to learn how to deal with these things, systemically and individually
How can we as researchers maintain mental well-being despite the high-stress level? Or in other words: How can we ease the stress in the academic working environment?
Difficult question. Need to factor personal time in the agenda from the beginning: sports, time with friends, whatever it is you like that allows you to regain a state of calm. Follow a topic you are passionate about, so it is easier to make the necessary sacrifices. Accept that this is a challenging process and that you can make it. Then a lot comes from the communication with the supervisor, and the style of the supervisor. I still believe the supervisor is not all that is wrong in academia, but as it is the person who should help you to navigate the system, if you can’t establish proper communication, then your phd life will be difficult.
Please tell us about your work at ReMO: At ReMO, we aim at gathering evidence about the prevalence of mental health issues in academia and associated solutions, so as to inform policy-makers, institutions, and individuals about what they could do to increase well-being. To that end we have several activities: the creation of an evidence hub, the launch of a survey, the development of an ambassador program for individuals to become mental health advocates. More about our goals can be found in the manifesto we published on Zenodo. We encourage researchers to develop their own studies and support them with visiting grants.
Anyone can join through the COST system.
Jo: Welcome to Access 2 Perspectives conversations today with Stephanie Gauttier. Welcome, Stephanie. Thanks for being on the show.
Stephanie: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Jo: So today we talk about how to preserve your mental health during a PhD program. Could you perhaps start by sharing with us a little bit about your background, Stephanie, and what got you involved in the work with what ReMO, what ReMO is and why you do what you do nowadays? And also, again, a little bit about your research career so far?
Stephanie: Sure. So it’s a long journey, actually, to come here. So I’ve been a PhD student in France, but I was a part time PhD student in information systems. I was actually living in Russia at the time. So I’ve been doing my PhD, maybe for some people not in the most optimal conditions, but in conditions that were actually suiting me quite a lot because I was away. I had my independence and I had very good communication with my supervisor. So I never suffered from being far away. In the middle of my PhD journey, I actually went to Ireland because in Russia I was having a job in the industry and it was not really compatible with finishing my research. So I got over the research assistant position in Ireland, went there. So a lot of things happened when I was there because it was the first time when I was actually hosted in a lab and I started to, let’s say, grow my network and be it in Ireland or be in other places. I saw a lot of things which I didn’t find necessarily right as to what was happening with PhD students. I saw some professors who had like five, six, seven PhD students dropping out of the program over a couple of years. And nobody in their institutions would actually think they should investigate what was happening. I think that PhD students drop out, supposedly because they didn’t make enough progress, but actually they never really had any form of proper supervision, if I may have that judgment. So I just started to think that some things were actually not so nice in academia. So much so that when I defended my PhD, I was really not sure what I wanted to do. And I was thinking about dropping out of academia. Some people told me that, yeah, but it depends where you are. The culture is not the same in all the countries, in all the labs, in all the disciplines. So I took on a prosector contract for eight months in the Netherlands, which ended up being extended and extended and extended, which was very good for me because there I saw completely different things. And now I’m in a permanent position in France. I’m an assistant professor in production systems, and I’m very happy that I actually stayed in. But still it doesn’t change that when you see the struggle of the PG students, you have yourself the struggle of having short term contracts and having to run after extensions and so on. You realize that even your own mental health is actually sometimes at stake. So I wanted to get involved and do something for other people like me.
Jo: Okay. So maybe before we dive deeper into the hows and whys, let’s maybe start with the definition of mental health. How would you define mental health on a personal and a professional level if there’s a way to differentiate?
Stephanie: Yeah, well, for me, it’s one same definition, and it sticks to the definition that’s given by the World Health Organization. Having, let’s say a good level of mental health is being in a state of mind when you can realize your full potential, when you can flourish, when you can really become who you would like to be and who you can become, being able to cope with the stresses of life. So it’s not about not seeing stress or not feeling stressed. It’s about realizing that there’s always going to be some stress around you, but someone being in a state where you can actually deal with them, to become the better self that you can become.
Jo: Okay. So it’s basically to feel safe, to be willing to learn, to have enough energy, to actually dig into a new topic, what defines us as humans, maybe also to some degree, and then like, how I personally understand when there are issues with mental health is that there are stresses but we’ll get to that; basically what we would maybe consider is a status of normality, possibly, or to be mentally healthy means to be capable of learning, be capable of exploring new topics, studying and researching.
Stephanie: There is also a bit of that type of definition that I think we must always take a bit critically. I think WHO says that you’re in a good space when you’re able to be productive and make a contribution to your community, which I agree with. But then seeing life through the prism of production is already in itself some form of philosophy or ideology how you want to put that. But ideally, if we take it down to the PhD student or the young researcher, it should be to be able to… being mentally healthy, would be being able to do your research, do your contributions deal with the fact that it’s going to be challenging and be in a space where you realize that you are growing as a person while you’re doing it. I think it’s okay, but it’s really about realizing that it’s going to be hard. And I think it’s always that nobody in the community can tell you that doing your PhD is easy. But what people want you to know is that the journey is going to be hard, but it’s going to be amazing and that’s going to help you to flourish. But to be able to do that journey, I don’t know if you have to build resilience. I don’t know if it is about something else, but there needs to be something that helps you to try to accept the challenges and move through with them. And that can take the shape of many different things. You could have a very nice support system, you could have a very nice supervisor, and you could have a wonderful topic that you’re carrying around, whatever it is that helps basically.
Jo: Yes. Maybe it also makes sense to have a list of the security net or the backup system and the people so that they hold your back while you’re exploring your ventures.
Stephanie: Yeah, I think that’s super important, especially because now more and more PhD students have to move around in the same way that I did. And when you’re moving from country to country, you don’t have that support system with you. You have to build it again from scratch because your friends are very far away. So they don’t really, I mean, you can explain them as much as you want, but it’s not the same having friends that you can call on Zoom or having friends with whom you can go and have a drink when you feel like right. We all tell that during the different lockdowns. So I think it puts the mental health of the PhD students under even more strain. And if you start a PhD right now and before going somewhere, you should try to take time to realize what activities you want to do, what type of, I don’t know, meetups or any other form of communities you want to join because you need to start that from the beginning of your PhD. So the day when it gets hard, you already have someone around you that you can turn to. If you don’t, you will realize later down the road that things are getting hard. And I need friends, I need the community, but it will be hard to actually knock at some door. So I think that’s super mega important.
Jo: There are different terms and definitions that rotate when it comes to mental health, and another one that’s quite commonly used is well being or mental well being in particular. Is there a difference between mental health and mental well being?
Stephanie: In my view, mental health and mental wellbeing are related concepts because you are in a, let’s say, in a good state of mental health when you are in a state of wellbeing, If I may say so. I think the words convey something that’s a little bit different. When you say mental well being, you put it in a positive way. And when you say mental health, people associate it with other forms. So that’s maybe why we have both words in a way going around.
Jo: Yeah. If you look at the words, just what they are like, to have good health is something we all should aim for or preserve. Also mentally, not only physically, but the mental parts are neglected or not or stigmatized, as you just said.
Stephanie: Right. Yeah.
Jo: And that will ensure well being altogether. And as we also probably heard, like physical well being or discomfort leads to mental discomfort and vice versa.
Stephanie: We really should not separate the two. So I’m really not about dualism. Mind body dualism doesn’t work. So we have to take care of our bodies also in order to feel good. So when you’re thinking about, okay, maybe I don’t feel like my best self, what can I do to feel better? One of the first pieces of advice that people are going to give you is go and get some practice done. Go and do some sports. Just try to get yourself back into shape. And I really think that you are connected. It’s important to keep track of that. And it’s also one of the pieces of advice that we give to the people who are starting their PhDs, pay attention to your health just because that’s going to your physical health, because that’s going to help you down the line. So again, if you arrive in a new city or to a new country, find time to actually get to a GP, just find a doctor. Find someone you can go to, try to be mindful of your diets, of your sports, anything. If you have had previous health issues, which a lot of us have, make sure that you can find the medication that you need. Some countries, you know, might change names or it might be more difficult to find, but you have to establish that as a baseline. It’s okay the first month or the first weeks of the PhD to actually take time to really set up properly. You may feel like you are wasting time, but you’re going to be saving time further down the line. Because if you can have regular health checks when you know that you’re feeling okay, you know, also your doctor. So you know that even if at some times you’re feeling more depressed or you’re starting to feel that you’re not really mentally healthy, you already know at which door you can knock and then the city can refer you to whoever they know that is around. That can help you further. So don’t forget that and try to stay as physically healthy as you can, which of course is not always easy. I think it’s important to say people have a lot of advice, but following it all is not easy. And I realize that, as I’m saying, we are advising for this, advising for that. I know it’s really hard to get it.
Jo: Yeah. Okay. So let’s talk about stress again. What I wanted to say was also towards don’t aim too much. You don’t have to run a marathon, but you have to go for a walk once a day. Getting out under the sun is already something because it’s so easy during a PhD program to get stuck in the lab or behind the screen because the deadline is always there and you need to finish this and that.
Stephanie: When I was doing the PhD, in the end, I was living so close to the lab that the only thing I was doing was working from my apartment to the lab back and forth. And I was counting the number of steps. And I mean, it was so close that I was not even walking 1000 steps a day. And the average that is recommended is $10,000. So I’m not advocating for the 10,000, but realizing that you actually need to get out for a walk, is important. So I totally agree with you. I don’t have to run, but at least make sure that I’m keeping okay.
Jo: So let’s talk about the stressors in academia and what stressors PhD students are likely to encounter, and probably 100% just to brace ourselves. And also for those of us who have been there and those of us who are currently in a PhD program, what are stressors that by themselves are just part of the program. But by identifying them as stressors, we can also find a counterpart on how to mitigate the stress that it brings about. In your experience, what are situations or factors in a PhD program that can stress people to exhaustion?
Stephanie: So there are different types of stressors. There are stressors that are described even in the literature as more individual. That would be something that’s related to what people have as a sense of self worth, as their identity, but also about their personal situation. So the literature doesn’t describe for the moment the effect of international mobility, but it describes the effect of having to care for someone. So if you have, I don’t know, like a child or a spouse or a parent, that you are actually caring for any form of informal care plus PhD and family life increases the risk that you have to develop some form of mental health issues during the time of the PhD. So these are things that I don’t feel qualified to discuss in the sense that it’s perfectly normal that everybody has their life and they need to keep moving on with it. So maybe here people need to be thinking about their support system and how much they’re taking on. But what I really want to say is that it’s not only about the individual and their own situation. There are also a lot more stressors that are sometimes very often less described by the literature that have nothing to do with what the individual is, but they have everything to do with what the academic system is about. So among those stressors, you would find something that could be systemic, and they are about the way in which academia is built. We are built in a way that we have to encourage excellence, and excellence will take the faith of many papers, all published in top tier journals, because otherwise, of course, they are worth nothing. That’s what the system is telling us. But this is putting a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the PhD students because they’re just here to learn to do the research. So trying to tell them that they need to aim super high with their publication needs to come at least with some form of scaffolding. So of course, I want everybody to be able to aim for what they believe is the best that they should be aiming for. But once they have that aim, the system should be helping in order to realize when that goal can be achieved. So how realistic is it for you to want to do it during the time of your PhD or a couple of years after and provide with the help that is required in order to reach that. Then systematically we also have issues with the job market because we have, I’m sorry to say, too many PhD students for the number of positions that exist in academia. And the academic system tells you that if you end up in industry in a way because you have failed to succeed in finding a job in academia, which I don’t think should be the message that we are sending. Actually, developing a lot of PhD students is a good way to invest for the perspective in terms of innovation and research in different countries. But it’s also perfectly okay to realize that all that research and innovation is not going to be done in academia. Some people really want to go into industry. Don’t make them feel like they have failed, because it’s really hard to get out of that four or five years journey with that on your shoulders. But because we think about the whole publication, excellence and you have to fight hard to be in academia, it leads to a toxic culture where people think they have to stay in the lab forever, they have to be there, they have to be part of the walls. They should not go on vacation. They actually dedicate absolutely all of their time to the PhD. I don’t think it actually works. And it’s not only I don’t think so, some studies already show that I think the Maximum Foundation and the End Square Network. They have figured that people who don’t take holidays, are actually feeling strong anxiety much more often than PhD students who find time to take some holidays. Holidays help you to get resources and find new ideas, and then you have institutional issues. In some institutions, it may not always be very clear what is expected from a PhD student to succeed. I mean, what is sufficient for you to go and submit your thesis because you will hear a lot about, again, those goals of excellence where you have to have I don’t know how many publications and things that may not always be reachable, but perhaps the requirements for you to finish your PhD program are not that high. Most of the time they actually are not. But we need to be clear as to what needs to be achieved or not. If you’re not clear on that, you’re going to put yourself under a lot of pressure, usually much more pressure than what is needed. And also you will not be able to in a way manage your supervisor because the supervisor also may want you to publish with him or her, and sometimes they push you a little bit further than what you might need. So it’s up to you to be able to know when you could say no or when you realize that you actually want to follow them. So I think that’s important. Institutionally sometimes problems with Supervisors and their roles. So what is the role of a supervisor and what are the duties and the rights of the PhD students? So if your PhD program has set up some form of booklets explaining to you what you may require from your supervisor, what you actually should expect from them, and vice versa. I think it makes the rest of the communication with the supervisor much easier. So it’s a lot of issues, and I think it’s important to realize it in that way because if you talk and when I was a PhD student, it was the same. When you talk to PhD students, most of the time they believe the problem is the supervisor, and sometimes it is true, but sometimes we also feel that way because the supervisor is the only thing between us and the system. But I don’t think you’re going to go very far if you’re just fighting with your supervisor. So let’s try to have a broader view of all those different elements. But also the supervisor may suffer from and typically the supervisor has not been trained in order to supervise PhD students. The supervisor is there because the supervisor managed to write tons of papers before. So they may need help as well. So if we take that approach and we try to figure out why it is difficult for them, why is it difficult for us? We can actually have something to talk about and make a plan with the supervisor as to how we want to communicate, what our objectives are, what we consider a normal workload or not, and so on.
Jo: So you are now also a Supervisor yourself, right?
Jo: Since when? How long have you been in the career stage of yours and how many people are you guiding?
Stephanie: I have one PhD student and I have three DBA students. So the DBA students are making some form of professional PhD, if you want. And of course, I’ve supervised many master students over the years, but I’m still kind of early, let’s say, to that stage myself.
Jo: What I experienced also as a PhD student myself, I saw that my supervisor was always busy at his desk trying to secure funding. There’s lots of paperwork to process in academia. So could you share some of the stresses that exist at your career level, as a supervisor or lab leader?
Stephanie: The stresses are that we are also under pressure to publish. Still, it doesn’t go away sometimes, yes, there is the pressure of the funding. I don’t have that in my institution, so at least I’m protected from that. But also, when we are early in our career, we have to learn to juggle between the teaching and then the research, supervising, and also the services we need to do to the institution. And a lot of it comes as brand new experiences, again, because the system makes us doctors based on our potential for research and initial publication, which we have to continue to prove. When you’re a postdoc, most of the time you’re not actually teaching. So finally, when you get your permanent position, if you’re lucky enough to have that or tenure track position, for those who have to go through this, you have to learn to do both the pedagogy and the research at the same time. So that can put a lot of strain.
Jo: Do you actually still have time to do research yourself?
Stephanie: Yeah. I have found a good position that actually enables me to have a lot of hours for research. And I also decided to put my teaching in over one semester. So I just teach a lot for three months, and then the rest of the time I can be dedicated fully to all of the other projects that I have. But that’s because I’ve been in a space where I could organize myself like that where I’ve been before. In other countries, I could see people who actually had 80% of their time dedicated to teaching and 20% to their research. So then that’s, of course, a completely different situation.
Jo: Yeah. How do you try and maintain a good relationship with the people in your lab that you’re supervising? And can you sense when they are in danger of getting into trouble for their own well being? And how can you help them to avoid that or to basically stay inside the ground? Stephanie: So what I do when I feel something is not going okay, usually the signal for that is when you don’t see your students so much more. They are somewhat not so responsive. They’re not explaining to you what they are doing. You don’t see them around. Then for me, that’s the sign. So then I just say, hey, I haven’t seen you in a while. Do you want to come over to have a coffee and chat? And then I just try to get to the bottom of things. Luckily enough, the PhD student I supervise is also someone that I have known as a master student. So there is already, let’s say, some history that I think we can trust one another and I try to be very direct. So at some point if I feel something is not okay, I won’t just ask what type of support do you need? So I don’t know. For instance, I could really say for the moment we have let you be very independent with your tasks. But is that something that helps you or is it something that gives you too much pressure? Because if they want me to actually structure their work more, I will do it if it can only help them. So that’s my way. But I think it’s also because I’m very early in the process. So I’m also looking for my own, I would say super business. So I’m much more flexible perhaps than some people that have been doing that for many years and they think that they have found maybe a system that works because sometimes it’s what happens. The supervisor has their own way of supervising and they’re not changing it so easily for the needs of individual students. So that may be it. But that being said, I still have a lot of things that I’m struggling with, so I’m still struggling with the idea of how to explain to a PhD student that they don’t have to be working 80 hours a week, but at the same time, this is not a nine to five job. So they will probably have to put in more work than this, but I want them to also feel good. So there is a tension between these things. Or if I ask my PhD student to send me something on a Monday, he probably understands that he needs to be working over the weekend, which is not necessarily what I’m expecting from him. I’m just asking him to send it to me on Monday because I will not read it maybe over the weekend. So just send it to me whenever I’m going to be back to the office. So I think this is hard to try to figure out the balance and to help the students understand what is the balance between working too hard and not putting enough into the PhD. Because anyway, doing a PhD is hard and you have to put in a lot of work in order to do it. There’s no secret recipe there.
Jo: I also have a small team that I supervise or mentor in a way. And I also have one young lady who said she would want to send a report on Monday and I asked her to send it on Friday so that she can switch up her mind from work over the weekend. But then she said that would stress her even more and she felt like, oh, but I need the time during the weekend to get a good report done. And then I told her it doesn’t have to be like Visa style. I just need some bullet points of what happened, where you are, where you need support, really nothing complicated. But like you said, it took a lot of expectation management and my expectation was really low. I just wanted to have some conversation flow going to protect people, my team, from exhausting themselves. And that put more pressure on them because they thought, oh no, I have to report and that will then be evaluated. No, it’s not for evaluation. It’s just to give you a support system and a structure where we can get to know each other and something that you will be able to have the weekend for yourself.
Stephanie: Yeah, no, what I tell them is that it’s something that they send that’s the purpose for conversation. And actually what I really don’t like doing is not seeing them. So I’d rather that they send something to me and then they drop by and we can have a conversation rather than me having to put comments in a Word document because the comments when they read them, depending on their own mental stage, they may interpret it or worse than what it is or better than what it is. But when you are talking with your students, then the student gets the chance of clarifying his or her position. The student gets a chance to question what it is that you meant. And so you actually, I think, go much faster. And then in a way it’s like working together. So I don’t want to be violating you all the time. I want to be working with you to make sure that you are actually doing the PhD project that you wanted to do and that you do it in the best possible way. But it takes time because if the student is a bit anxious already, usually the student wants to avoid seeing the supervisor because the student gets afraid of being judged. And so you need a lot of work to create the climate of trust. That really means that we’re in it together. And it’s my job to make sure you have all the tools to go and succeed. And success can take many forms. So it’s also up to the students to know what it is that they want out of that.
Jo: Most of what I remember from my own experience, I never felt that I was well equipped to face my supervisor, even though it was really approachable, really nice, and always caring and interested. But I always felt like, oh, I don’t know, if this experiment didn’t go so well, how can I go to his office and share? I think we are as humans or especially in the academic system, we are our own worst judges.
I think it’s also on the leadership position or the people on the leadership position to create a space, a safe space where people can be vulnerable, except that they don’t create results that are publishable in Nature or Science right away.
Stephanie: But I think it’s much harder in our profession because in a way it’s a formulation that’s a bit too extreme. But in a way, you are your research in the sense that the thinking philosophy epistemology that you are taking, it actually transpires in a lot of ways in the way you express yourself in the way you actually are in this world. I think a lot of us feel that the difference between our professional identities and our personal identities is actually not that big. And so when you’re making yourself vulnerable professionally, you’re making all of yourself vulnerable. It’s like very deep thoughts that you are having about what is the truth and what is this world and so on. And I think that makes it hard to actually accept and go somewhere and say, this is what I’ve been thinking and I know you’re going to challenge it, but I have to actually accept that. So there is no secret recipe. I usually say, we’re in a greenhouse. So it’s like you’re coming to me in my greenhouse and you’re bringing some form of burgeoning crop of something. And whether it can fit or it doesn’t fit that climate. And if it fits, then we are going to discuss what we do to make sure that that line is actually blue. But sometimes you’re going to bring me stuff that it’s probably very nice, but it’s not for here. So every time I ask a question, I just try to make sure that we grow the idea as much as we can, because I think it’s also a matter of perception. Sometimes the students believe that you’re asking questions in order to handle the idea, which should not be, I think at least, as a supervisor my position is just to make sure that you figure everything that you need to figure out in order to grow the idea as much as you can.
Jo: Yeah. And also to assess if it’s actually feasible to implement. My supervisor used to tell me I had so many ideas on what experiments I could do. And almost every other day with questions like, how about this experiment? How about cellular analysis of that? He was like, somebody told me, it’s really nice with all your ideas, but somebody has to implement them at some point. And I was more of an exploratory. And I think there’s also something that a supervisor can and should do is to help the PhD student and figure out which of these ideas actually make sense in this context for us as a research group and with the equipment that we have. And then we can nurture that plan together.
Stephanie: Yeah. And then it’s also about an understanding. How do you present your idea? So how do you make sure that the rest of the people around understand is going to be a good idea? So sometimes part of the struggle that I’ve had is because I have been going through different departments. So every time I had to figure out a way to position my research to try to make them understand what I was doing. It’s also most of the time the struggle of my students because they come from different disciplines and different backgrounds in industry as well. And I think that’s the role of the supervisor. So sometimes we may be throwing at you some new concepts or related things or whatever, but it’s just because you need to make clear how you relate to other things in the field so that people around you really see how you are making a contribution. So it’s not to say it’s already been done or it’s not to say you’re not using the right door. Sometimes it’s actually really to say, that’s cool. But how do you make sure that people see that this is really cool?
Jo: Yeah. And do you think this will be possible to implement? Also to have a cool idea, can also be a little bit of a breach sometimes, which again, also makes sense. There’s nothing against us. As researchers we are always at the brink of knowledge, which is really exciting in itself. And it’s also challenging at the same time. That might also be cause for frustration, which again, causes stress eventually for many of us.
Stephanie: Yeah. It’s stressful because you’re always judged. I mean, you feel like your supervisor is, in a way, evaluating everything, and then you have to go through whatever forms of evaluation you have in your PhD program, and then you’re going to submit your papers and you will again be screened by the reviewers. So I think you also need in the relationship with the supervisor to find tools, find ways to cope with that, so your supervisor can train you and that can also put things into perspective. But ultimately, academia is built in such a way that you will always have peers having a look at what it is that you’re doing, evaluating whether it satisfies the criteria of science. If you want to make sure that things are going to go through and it’s really hard, as you were saying earlier, to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. But if you don’t find a way to Cook with that, then I think the journey in academia is going to be really hard. So we need to see it as training. Every time you go to a supervisor, you’re saying something, you’re receiving feedback, you’re learning how to actually implement that feedback, deal with it, and how you have to deal with yourself after a good meeting or maybe sometimes not such a good meeting with the supervisor in order to be able to develop those coping mechanisms that actually are required to keep mentally healthy. But we have to acknowledge that we’re always learning through the process and you are learning as much as your supervisor is learning when you’re doing that.
Jo: Yeah. And I think that’s also some of the difficulties that most PhD students experience, speaking from my own experience, and also the people that were in the same program, like me, that we’ve come this far, and then we expected to work towards the title, like the Doctor of Physics. And the title comes first, which will be part of our name. And it’s meant to be, besides the professorship, like the highest academic rates you can ever earn in societies. So there’s a lot of pressure and again, self pressure at the same time, like you said, you’re still a student, you have the right to learn and you have the right to guidance and to supervision, to ask questions is part of research. I mean, we’re not expected to know everything. Quite the opposite. And yet the pressure is real.
Stephanie: For me it’s easy since there is no Nobel pricing in the information system. So I usually say you’re not going to end up with the Nobel prize. So just stop putting that pressure on yourself. You’re really here to show that you have learned how to do research. It’s just the entry ticket. And I think if you accept that, that it’s a learning experience and of course you’re going to contribute to knowledge to a certain extent and so on, but you’re here to learn and to show that you have learned how to do that. It can take off a bit of questions.
Jo: So you’re also working with ReMO, which is the research on mental health organization. Can you share a few words around the work that you’re doing there?
Stephanie: Yeah. So ReMO is a cost action which is funded by the European Commission. It’s a project that lasts for four years where we are working on establishing the evidence of the prevalence of the mental health problems in academia, but also trying to identify the solutions associated with it. And our goal is to, based on that evidence, be able to challenge and inform policymakers, institutions and individuals about what they could do to increase well-being. So we have a couple of activities to do. We have created Evidence Hub where we are gathering any form of publication with some data about problems of PhD students, postdocs, valetary researchers in general in academia. We are preparing a survey to be launched also across Europe to get a sense of what is going on. And we are training people to become mental health ambassadors in their own countries. So figuring out who are the stakeholders, what is so specific about their system. So maybe there are some requirements by law to the institutions, to the PhD programs, to the type of contracts that can be done. So to try to map things out in order to be able to have a better conversation with all these people who may change something about the system. We have published a mental health manifesto that’s on the model. So if you’re interested in different goals, you can go and read about them . And if you’re interested in joining us, you can find the ReMO cost action on the ecosystem and just join or send drop an email to me or anyone you can find the contact of, and then we can just let you in. So it’s really a big community. We’re trying to have as many countries in Europe represented as possible because we believe that the power of change is in our own end. So we cannot expect the system to be changed overnight. We cannot expect one law or one decision from policymakers to change everything. But if each and every one of us at our own level, we start to take some steps to be in a better culture, have better supervision practices, have clearer requirements, and so on, then we can actually help in changing the game a little bit. So we want to be able to have a community of such people.
Jo: Okay. So anybody who’s listening can really also join, non Europeans, or is it exclusively targeted at European Union members?
Stephanie: It’s targeted to European people first and foremost, but people who are interested from elsewhere may also, I think, join as representatives of associated countries, or at least if you cannot formally be enrolled, you can still keep in touch with what is going on and enjoy any of our events.
Jo: Yeah. So there’s regular events, some of which are also participatory. And it’s really exciting conversations and speakers that are lined up. And there’s a lot of resources already available that are both on the blog, there was also podcast and the materials that you collect with the program.
Stephanie: Yeah. We also have a conference at the end of August in Budapest. And so anyone who wants to present a paper, whatever is associated with mental health and research or wellbeing, is, of course, welcome to submit an abstract. It’s really a conference that’s meant for people to be able to network with one another with us, to share the state of what it is that we’ve seen around us. It’s not only for researchers, anyone with, I don’t know, a career consultant in a University or anything like that. People who are really practitioners, if you want, who are also helping the PhD students are welcome to describe what are the challenges that the PhD students come with when they go to see the counselor at University. What does actually counseling mean in that sense? So we are really open to any form of practice and evidence that’s related to the numbers.
Jo: Okay, great. So towards the conclusion of this episode, let’s maybe summarize some of the best practices, how to maintain mental health, and how to ensure mental well being during a PhD program. We already mentioned quite a few measures during those conversations in the beginning. Let’s maybe collect a few points now again. So for once, it’s also to have a structure to have a good connection with your supervisor. What else?
Stephanie: So I think when you’re starting or even before you’re starting, figure out the health system, your rights as a PhD student, or your rights in terms of salary, vacations, and so on. Think about building your friend system, especially if you’re going somewhere else. You have to identify the responsibilities between you and the supervisor. So maybe something is given by the doctoral school. If not, then it’s a good thing to actually maybe sometimes have discussions about that. There are some materials online that can help you with this. You have to set up some routines for meetings, updates to the supervisor, anything that helps to actually build that lead communication that we were talking about earlier, and that makes sure that you’re not going to, in a way, drop out. I would even say that beyond the formal routine, trying to establish maybe a moment when your conversation with the supervisor is around the coffee and just break the ice and try to discuss all those things. You have to be thinking about practicing sports and all of those things that help you in a way your body is healthy because that’s related. As we set some vacations to be realistic about the amount of vacations that you can take at a given time, like in any other job, but actually take the vacation, trying to assess how many hours a week you are working. And if it’s too much, you also have to have a conversation. Maybe in terms of planning with the supervisor. I think that’s something that you have to consider. If you already stuck with all of those things you’re supposed to be, I would say more or less in a good position. And if something goes wrong, you have to accept that at any time of the process you can reset. So if something goes wrong with the supervisor, there are ways to have a conversation. In order to kill the problem, maybe you need some external counseling, usually universities providing some you can find a mentor. There are more and more mentoring systems that are actually getting organized and set up. So you’re never alone. So if at some point it feels like it’s too much, reach out, reach out and take the chance of trying to make your journey better for yourself. I think it’s really important.
Jo: Yeah. The first step should always be to seek the conversation if you feel that something’s wrong with your supervisor, trying to address that with her directly. And that’s probably, I think in most of our experiences it’s just a matter of miscommunication. Somebody said something that was meant differently than it was perceived by one or the other, and that can probably easily be clarified. And then there’s also a few people that I’ve mentioned who actually changed the PhD topic even two years into there’s probably something that you can already publish here and then start new or take your project with you to another lab. That’s also possible. It should maybe be the first step to take, but that’s also an option so you don’t have to give up on the PhD. You can also switch the lab to find a more fulfilling position and working environment to live in or to work in.
Stephanie: Do visit somewhere if you can have some form of funding. So sometimes just going to another University, even if it’s a short one for a week or two, seeing another lab and how it functions. It also enables you to put things back into perspective because otherwise the only thing you know when you see as a PhD student and I think putting things into perspective is always needed for you to figure out what is really a problem but also what could be the solution. Jo: Yeah. And also to learn how other labs and teams operate and what you can learn from their best practices and introduce not to expect that the supervisor should come with all the solutions, but we can as PhD students, we can also make suggestions on what we need as a support system. I heard that many PhD students don’t have regular meetings with their team over their supervisor. And I feel that it’s essential to at least meet once a week to have some sort of conversation and reflection on our own work. And if that’s not the case, then you can ask for it and like, hey, I need a reflection point. I need somebody to bounce ideas with, I need somebody to share my experiences with. And that can sometimes be another PhD student and another topic just to learn that everybody has the same struggles and that already can ease my stress.
Stephanie: Sorry. The End Square Max Plan Foundation survey shows that I think if you are meeting every two weeks with your supervisor, you already have less risk of feeling high levels of anxiety because you have established that regular rapport if you want. But I think it’s important to mention to the people who are listening that there are also stages in the PhD program. So I would expect you to be more able to find solutions after two years of your PhD when you are starting, it’s actually normal that you rely more on the institution and the supervisor and so on. So we are not asking you to actually be able to take full charge of the process in the beginning, because in the beginning you don’t know what the process is going to be like and what it’s going to be about. So it’s also about understanding what level of responsibility you can take about your own doctoral journey, knowing that that level of responsibility is going to just be increasing until you’ve finished. And that’s also a sign that you’re finished when you’re actually able to take the full responsibility of your program and your research and all of that. So in the beginning, don’t feel overwhelmed.
Jo: Yeah. I know you’re right, like we said earlier, PhD students have the right to holidays, PhD students have the right recreational times, over the weekend, like not too long working hours. And then if the experiments are asking for, you have to be in the lab until 10:00 P.m., because that’s when your mice, I don’t know, whatever. Sometimes the experimental set up just asks for crazy work hours, but that also comes with compensation time. Then you can compensate and come in later. And as long as you talk to your colleagues and make sure that the workflow is still running for everyone, then there’s always like we don’t have to exhaust ourselves too crazy, as demanding as the environment is in academia. But there are also ways to mitigate the stress factors. Much of what we’ve covered here.
Stephanie: I think you have to realize it’s work. So in industry, sometimes you also have crazy hours. I don’t know, maybe you could be in accounting and have a crazy end of the month, or you could be in consulting and have crazy deadlines and so on. So there’s always a moment where you have to work a little bit more. But once you have done that little bit of a stretch, maybe to finalize your experiment or something, then you take time to actually restore your energy in some way. I think that’s what’s important. Not to make academia look like the worst place in the world because we are actually very lucky. We can have ideas that we can pursue without anyone or without many people telling us what to do. We have our own patience. Frankly, coming from industry, I really enjoy my freedom in what I do and I will not trade that for anything in the world. Despite the drawbacks. It’s also something that sometimes we forget. We forget the nice situation that we are in and we just see the disadvantages. And why do we do that? Because we’re just getting too tired of the stuff. So sometimes we work a lot and then we rest so that we’re able to actually work again. The mistake is not resting.
Jo: Yeah, I like that. You also highlight that academia is actually a wonderful working environment and it helps also think we expressed this earlier, like to find purpose in the work that we do. To see meaning in getting out of bed every morning also helps us pull through the difficult times, which certainly will come. And then also sometimes life gets in between. But as long as we see and realize why we do what we do, that there is meaning to our work also makes it much easier.
Stephanie: Now, I totally agree with you. That’s why the choice of the PhD topic is really important, as much as the choice of the supervisor. So sometimes I see people asking questions like, oh, I’ve been accepted to this program and that program. Which one do you think is more prestigious and where should I go? And for me, the answer is never about the prestige of the position. It’s about where the PhD is, the topic that you really want to pursue, the group that you think is going to help you move or the supervisor in whom you have a priority, more trust. And then if you actually choose the right place you have a better sense of purpose. So probably your experience will be better and if your experience is better you will shine the prestige of the University or not. That’s just my take. I know that some people go for the name of a specific University. I’ve never done that. I don’t see that working in them.
Jo: Yeah. For me the most important was the research topic and then for me to understand why it was important to me, why did I want to study this? Which is not always clear from the beginning, but I think it starts with us being fascinated with something we observe and then wanting to dig deeper and then refine purpose along the way and that’s also an Undiscovery journey.
Stephanie: …and you have the supervisor to thank for that.
Stephanie: So I remember that when I started my PhD I was given the topic of augmented reality and in the beginning I was frustrated actually because it didn’t make sense to me. What does it mean to augment reality? Reality is what it is. You don’t augment it. But my supervisor was actually open so that I ended up doing something about augmenting humans with augmented reality and that’s a topic I did not actually drop since. And it’s been like ten years since I started my PhD. So it’s thanks to our openness to my own willingness to try to be curious and figure out something that I found fascinating in my public and the way in which she actually received my fiance. So it’s not always easy but that’s why again you need good communication. So I think we’re always going in circles.
Jo: Yeah. That is also what makes us human, to interact with each other, to learn from each other, to grow together. It’s really exciting.
Stephanie: Rsearch is not done in isolation.
Jo: People find themselves isolated, but that’s when the issues start.
Stephanie: You do research in a group, you are motivated by discussion, even if there is nothing like that, even a reading group or some form of community. I remember when I was writing I was feeling quite alone, but when I was joining, I don’t remember the name of that. But there is an initiative that’s like to sit down and write and I think every Tuesday they were having people join on Twitter and say oh I’m going to be writing now and people would be encouraging each other and I never see the face of these people. But in a way knowing that I was not alone, that really helped me.
Jo: Yeah. I’m also in such a group for implementation where you are with 20, sometimes 50 other people in a Zoom room and you don’t talk to each other, but they can also be exchanged and breakout sessions and that’s also what I plan for the community we’re building with access to perspectives to have such implementation sessions set up for researchers at any career stage or primary PhD students to have this room where what you would normally work by yourself on, you don’t have to be alone.
Is that something we’ve also learned from the Pandemic and the Mitigation Effect with Zoom and other software platforms for collaboration remotely. Is there something you could point towards that the Pandemic has taught us that can help us with maintaining mental well being in a academia?
Stephanie: I’m not sure, because all the service shows that Covid just made things worse. So really not so sure. But I think maybe we can put it on the bloggers. There is a website that’s called Ithink.com I think, but there are plenty of resources for you to do self assessment or even assessments with your supervisor again, about who should do what and what do I need now and planning. I think that can be helpful in some regards.
Jo: Yeah. And also what I think is also a big stress factor is the funding security because PhD programs are often time limited to two, three, five years until funding ends. And then what? And I know many, including myself, have to write after the thesis when they’re already out of contract. And then again here. Also, structure helps to give ourselves deadlines to plan ahead and to have options. What if I need more time than the program provides? Is there an option for extension like to extend the program? Are there funding opportunities for another year or six months? So there’s many things that we can actually coordinate and not let it just let it happen, but to take control and plan ahead. And for that also, supervisors can be of support.
Stephanie: Exactly. You have to discuss it earlier with the supervisor. And then I think what I’m going to say is not necessarily a very popular thought, but I will say it anyway. You also have to realize that you are lucky enough to have three or four years of funding, so you have to try to plan the PhD within that time. And I think that as we know, it’s complicated to get extra funding and we know there is a risk that you might run over time. In a way, it’s also the duty of the PhD student to be a bit organized for this. So I’m coming from a place where I didn’t have any funding for my own PhD, so I faced the issue from the beginning. Doing research without funding is really not fun. But we also need to acknowledge the luck that we have different when we are and the responsibility that comes with it to try as best as possible to be organized to stay within that frame. And when we arrive at the first year and we see, I think that in order to finish, I will need another six months or another year. Then we go and we talk to the supervisor but we also don’t take the supervisor by surprise at the moment when the funding is really running out. It’s a conversation that you have earlier on because as the supervisor has a lot of things to do including finding funding but he or she also has to know what type of funding to go after and if they will need to cover for you or not. So it’s about taking responsibility I think also.
Jo: Yeah, good. So there’s quite a few factors that we could point out and towards many resources that will also be added to the show notes so you can just scroll down, find them there, feel free to reach out write us an email if you have more questions to Stephanie I can forward them or Stephanie if you want you can share your contact details and yeah, the topic is of highest importance. Luckily there’s also more and more conversation around mental well being, mental health and academia and PhD programs. There are many resources online that we can all dig into and also again ReMO is a great project initiative and also hub for sources and information to maintain mental health during the PhD program. Thank you so much Stephanie. Is there anything else you would like to mention towards the end of this episode?
Stephanie: Thank you Jo. I hope that’s helpful for people who are listening to advance in their own reflection, maybe about what it is to do the PhD or to supervise it and yes, feel free just to reach out if there is anything. We have all opinions, we have a bit of literature but we’re still all together trying to figure out the solution so any idea is welcome.
Jo: Thank you so much. Okay, until next time see you soon and all the best in your career and hope to stay in touch.
Stephanie: Thank you.
References (related research articles)