Social support and burnout in the doctoral study process

This is a guest post by Solveig Cornér, who is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her research focus involves social support for early career researchers’ in Higher Education Institutions, on wellbeing, and on youth identities. Together with her supervisors, Professor Kirsi Pyhältö and Professor Erika Löfström, she recently published an article on ‘The Relationship Between Doctoral Students perceptions of Supervision and Burnout’.

When PhD challenges become overbearing
MATCHINGIN PROGRESS.pngAchieving a PhD can be a long and tough journey and the doctoral study process is often described as an ‘intensive’ and an ‘intellectually and emotionally challenging’ period of time. Doctoral students’ usually face many kinds of pressures that might pull them away and prevent them from maintaining their focus on achieving the doctorate. For instance, their work with their Dissertation (Thesis) becomes too stressful and overwhelming, or, their funding is ending and hence the researcher faces financial hardship.

Another factor that can affect the study process is that the doctoral student doesn’t receive adequate support from others, for their academic development, or even the support to respond to the inevitable PhD challenges.

The combined result when students experience challenges and their community of practice fails to provide adequate and constructive support for those challenges, can lead to increased ‘ill-being’, and even withdrawal from their doctoral program.

In our recent study, we investigated the interrelation between social support structures and experiences of burnout*. Burnout in the doctoral study process is a symptom of ill-being that is not often talked about in this group. We looked closely into doctoral students’ perceptions of supervision, including the frequency of supervision and overall satisfaction with supervision, and we connected this with their perceptions of burnout.

We used an internationally validated instrument, namely the Doctoral Experience Survey (Pyhältö et al., 2017) to collect data in three universities in Finland. The sample consisted of 248 doctoral students representing Humanities and Theology, Natural Sciences and Engineering, Social Sciences and Law, Behavioral Sciences, Economics and Medicine.

Support comes from a range of players

Firstly, the students’ in our study benefited from having several and varying sources of doctoral supervision beyond their main supervisor. These other sources included peers and individuals from the researcher community, both nationally and internationally.

Secondly, the students’ reported on the frequency of their supervisions, varying from daily meetings to less than once every sixth months. Most typically, students received supervision either once every second month (30%) or every month (26%).

Thirdly, the doctoral students who participated also had varying experiences of the quality of supervisory support. On average, students reported that they received overall constructive supervision e.g. receiving encouragement and positive attention. They also reported that they received support from the researcher community, entailing acceptance, appreciation and collegial support.

What’s more, the students we researched commented on whether or not they were treated as equals in the research community, including: observing justice and fair play among fellow doctoral students.

  • Overall, doctoral students who reported high levels of support from the researcher community, who perceived that they received constructive supervision, and who felt that they were equally treated were more satisfied with supervision than their peers.
  • On the other hand, several factors were associated with experiences of burnout. Lack of satisfaction with their supervision, a low frequency of supervision and poor experiences of equality within the researcher community were related to experiences of burnout.
  • Finally, and importantly, our results showed that experiences of burnout, were connected with the student’s intention to leave their PhD course. It’s worth noting that students who received supervision from several supervisors reported less intention to leave their PhD. Hence, a collective model of supervision is related with reduced risks of students experiencing burnout.
In conclusion, we suggest that by enhancing various sources of social support we can offer a substantial base for future development of enabling practices in researcher education. We call for greater emphasis on group supervision and other collective forms of supervision. If our doctoral students are not provided with sufficient social support to overcome the challenges faced in the study process, it is likely to reduce experiences of wellbeing, and, in the long run, increase the risk of doctoral students abandoning their studies.

* “Burnout is defined as prolonged work-related stress together with symptoms of exhaustion and cynicism and when these symptoms are combined it may lead to burnout. Exhaustion is described by feelings of strain, chronic fatigue and lack of emotional energy. Cynicism, on the other hand, is characterized as depersonalization and an excessively detached response to colleagues and other aspects of the job. Often, both exhaustion and cynicism, has shown to emerge from overload at work, heavy job demands, and, also social conflict.” (Maslach, 2003Maslach & Jackson, 1981).

building and breaking professional trust in doctoral student-supervisor relationships

I am delighted that the Trust Me! research report is now available here on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education web pages!

This report presents findings from a research study looking at perceptions of trust in doctoral supervision relationships. It views academic supervisors in the context of their role as leaders and enablers of trust within their research environments and higher education institutions. It aims to take a broad exploratory view of the specific behaviours that are important in trust building in supervisory relationships.

Supervisory leadership is characterised by tensions and balances. To build trust a supervisor must respond to the student’s individual needs and circumstances and develop a discipline-appropriate professional practice in supervision. This study contributes insight into the nature of that supervisory trust. It deepens our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good quality’ student-supervisor relationship, and signals the presence or absence of trust as a component of quality.

Recommendations are offered that draw on the presented evidence and make suggestions for how supervisors could be supported to establish and sustain trusting supervision relationships. The practical recommendations avoid the language of supervision ‘skills’, preferring instead to describe contextual and demonstrable trust-building behaviours within the social worlds of research environments and relationships.

There is an online open access and free workshop with learning resources for supervisors here, that I have created from the research findings.

The primary aim of this report is to assist higher education institutions to enhance supervisory practice, specifically through focusing on relationship tensions. I am sure that supervisors themselves will also find it very interesting.

This report is available to LFHE member institutions. Downloading the publication requires you to have, or make, an account using your university email address. If you have any problems gaining access, please let @AdvanceHE know.

 

disrupting the passive approach to learning doctoral writing

Re-blog, from my writing over at the Think Ahead blog, see the original post hereThis post is for PhD supervisors wondering how to get their students to write their thesis. It addresses some of the ‘in theory’ points that outline the supervisor’s role in developing doctoral writing. Part 2 (here) covers some ‘in practice’ ideas.

Community Acuity (10): ‘Question Club’ – postgraduate workshops

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students.

Dr Ann Rowan is a Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield.

Our department runs weekly research seminars given by invited external speakers, as well as presentations throughout the year by staff and students. After these presentations there is time for questions from the audience. The same small, and senior, section of the audience provides the majority of these questions each week. These are insightful questions, often with a lengthy preamble that demonstrates knowledge of the topic and comprehension of the material presented.

Few questions are asked by PhD students even if they do put their hand up, as the senior staff often don’t wait to be called on to ask their question. Does this sound familiar?

Why don’t students ask more questions at public talks?

An informal survey of our PhD students resulted in comments along the lines of “we don’t get a chance to ask questions”, “I’m worried about asking a stupid question which would be embarrassing” and “I don’t want to waste the speaker’s time with my question”. However, these students are the members of the department that do research all day every day and are likely the most up-to-date with the current literature. Only one student felt confident that the value of having her question answered outweighed the perils of asking, but the majority felt nervous and invisible in the audience.

To actively encourage PhD students to confidently ask questions, and following a suggestion from Kay Guccione, I ran two ‘Question Club’ workshops this semester. The outcome was great; the students had so many questions that I had to stop them asking follow up questions.

How to encourage students to ask questions?

The Question Club session follows this format in a 50-minute session:

  1. Start with a short (not more than 10 minutes) research presentation either by an early career researcher or a postgraduate student. The focus of the session is on asking questions, not on the talk itself.
  2. During the presentation, each member of the audience writes down all the questions that occur to them. The important point to emphasise is that there is no question too basic and it’s not a problem if the speaker later answers these questions. Let the students know at the start that they won’t be asked to read out their questions and so don’t have to screen them or be worried about ‘stupid’ questions.
  3. Then the students split into small groups (4–6 people) to pool their questions for 15 minutes and put together two or three questions that they want to collectively ask. I talk to each group about the sort of question they want to ask: Is it constructive? Does it encourage the speaker to make an expansive answer (not just a yes/no)? Does the question ask about the research undertaken rather than just how the study could be expanded?
  4. The groups then ask the speaker their questions for 15 minutes.
  5. The speaker and session organiser lead a discussion of the questions asked for the last 10 minutes of the session. The speaker comments in general on what they thought; have they been asked similar questions before? Was the question easy or difficult to answer?

Tips for running Question Club:

The focus is on being supportive and constructive.

  • The presentation is not the important part; keep this as short as possible. It is useful to have someone who is approachable and good at communicating his or her ideas.
  • This session can double as practice for PhD students to present their work, and answer questions.
  • Senior academic staff (lecturer-level and above) are excluded as students can feel less confident speaking in front of senior staff.
  • One audience member, maybe an early career researcher, could be responsible for thinking of particularly difficult questions to ask, as long as this is not done in a confrontational manner. It makes for a good discussion in the final part of the session.
  • Although the students hopefully have lots of questions that they are keen to ask, make them aware if needed of the limited time available for asking these and encourage them to thank the speaker after their question has been answered rather than asking a lot of follow-up questions. The reason for this is to avoid the sort of behavior that stops them asking questions in the first place. There is always the conference coffee break…

encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?

This is a guest post from Dr Steve Hutchinson, a freelance consultant and author on doctoral development and supervision.

Let’s start with two quotes taken from a book called Enhancing the Doctoral Experience. Both quotes are from research students and they highlight a common ingredient in the challenge of growing as a researcher. Continue reading “encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?”

what is predoctorbility?

This site is based in the data collected from a project investigating the vulnerabilities and tensions in the relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors. It asked about the quality of that relationship: what constitutes ‘quality’, what does quality mean for learning, and how do you get a quality relationship, and how would you recognise if and when you have it?

Continue reading “what is predoctorbility?”