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 (9) training, training everywhere… how to survive (and prosper) in the new doctoral landscape

‘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 Glyn Williams is a Reader in international development and a former member of the ESRC White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership’s management team.

For PhD supervisors new to UK academia, or for any who finished their own theses more than a decade ago, the contemporary doctoral training landscape can be a confusing place. There is a sea of acronyms, (CDTs, DTCs, DTPs…) linked to a bewildering array of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional partnerships. All seem to be vying loudly for your students’ attention with claims to develop their research and professional skills to previously unknown heights.

My own PhD experience – and I’m not that ancient – was vastly different. One-to-one PhD supervision was pretty much the sum total of my doctoral training, supplemented by the very occasional workshop. Because for some of my fellow supervisors these differences are as unwelcome as they are incomprehensible, I want to offer a few words of comfort, but also in defence of the new doctoral landscape.

Understand the ethos – The point of the new development landscape is to enable broad-based, critically-reflective professional researchers, not just to equip students with the tools to complete their own PhD topics. So, yes, this will involve them learning about methodological techniques they won’t immediately use, or sitting in workshops reflecting on things – such as how to manage their relationships with their supervisors – we might think of as a distraction from their ‘real’ work as researchers. Clearly, we need to be wary of producing an ever-growing training industry, but equally we must recognise the dangers of leaving things where they were. Less than one in ten UK PhD students will go on to a permanent academic post, and those that do will increasingly work in interdisciplinary teams, not narrow disciplinary silos. Providing space to talk about the PhD process makes it understandable across cultural and other boundaries, not simply the arcane practice of a cult of insiders. Doing this collectively addresses the isolation of doctoral study, and is therefore vital in supporting student well-being.

Recognise the supervisor’s changing role (see also this post, and this post)– The easiest way to describe the change here is from guru to guide. Rather than being the perfect role model, or the font of all knowledge, we can all contribute to doctoral students’ development simply by knowing what development activities are out there. Keeping our ears to the ground, finding out from colleagues and our Departments’ students what workshops and events they’ve found most valuable, and which are best avoided, are therefore tasks of considerable value. Likewise, your training review meetings don’t have to be bureaucratic exercises in box-ticking: they can create meaningful and achievable plans that integrate our students’ broader development with the progress of their theses.

Engage and participate – Finally, remember that one of the things most valued by doctoral students is hearing good researchers explaining and reflecting on core elements of their craft. This could be about the use of a research technique, how to survive fieldwork, or how to deal with journal reviewers’ comments. Many of us are not comfortable putting ourselves forwards as ‘experts’, but the fact remains that we’ve all got something useful to share that will invariably have a potential audience that’s far wider than our PhD students. Facilitating that process of sharing should be one of the core tasks of your local DTP/DTC/CDT – so don’t be afraid to get involved!

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spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice

Every so often someone opens their mouth in a meeting and out tumbles “but we mustn’t ‘spoon-feed’ our PhD students – they have to be independent.”Recently, I’ve been wondering in some detail what’s behind this reaction, and how, in my role, I can interpret what this means for researcher and supervisor development. Continue reading “spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice”

supervisors: a willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity

This is a part 2 of 2, looking at what uncertainty and vulnerability might look like from a supervisor perspective. Part 1, the student angle is here. In this post I am again considering how trust may be a marker of a ‘good quality’ supervision relationship.

Continue reading “supervisors: a willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity”

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?”