Over 6,000 PhD students were surveyed worldwide. Here’s what they said.

Nature has recently released the results of its biggest ever survey of PhD students. More than 6,000 respondents from all over the world* answered questions about their job satisfaction, their experiences in the PhD programme, and their career prospects. In an article ominously entitled ‘PhDs: The Tortuous Truth,Nature published the results and considered what they mean for the PhD.

The survey results suggest that individual experiences in PhD programmes vary hugely. Since entering their postgrad programmes, respondents’ satisfaction was split: 45% reported worsened satisfaction, while 42% reported increased satisfaction. That implies that, in roughly equal numbers, PhD students found their paths through the PhD mainly pleasing or problematic.

So is undertaking a PhD truly a hit-or-miss experience? Not quite. While the road of satisfaction seemed to fork for the respondents, a full 74% were still either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their decision to pursue a PhD. This means that for many whose satisfaction had worsened since they entered the programme, they were still satisfied with their choice to enrol.

Perhaps this is a matter of sacrifice in anticipation of a future reward. Respondents reported tough times while pursuing their PhDs: 76% worked over 40 hours per week on their PhD, 74% were anxious about finishing on time, and 68% were worried about funding their research. More than a third of respondents had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their study (36%).

A number of respondents also had special circumstances adding to their stress. 19% had to juggle their PhD studies with paid work; 13% were caring for a child or children; and 11% were caring for another adult (such as an elderly parent).

But the sacrifices made to earn a PhD seem to be balanced by an expectation of payoff in the future. 67% of respondents believed their PhD would substantially or dramatically improve their career prospects, with 61% anticipating that they would find a permanent (non-trainee) role within 3 years.

Respondents also reported a number of factors which made the experience of earning a PhD satisfying. 76% enjoyed the degree of independence afforded to them in their programmes; 67% valued their ability to attend meetings and conferences; and 67% were satisfied with their relationship with their supervisor/PI.**

However, while two-thirds of respondents were satisfied with their supervisor/PI relationship, this relationship had the potential to sour the whole PhD experience. 53% of those who were dissatisfied with their PhD programme overall also reported dissatisfaction with their supervisor/PI relationship. And of the 21% of respondents who felt they had been bullied in their programme, supervisors/PIs were the most common perpetrators of the bullying (48% of cases). As one respondent put it, the supervisor/PI “can either make you happy during your PhD journey or destroy your life/career.”

So is the PhD just a giant gamble? Ultimately, only 8% of respondents said that, if they could start over, they wouldn’t pursue a PhD. (Though 24% said they would change their supervisor/PI.) That means that a whopping 92% of respondents would stick with their choice to start a PhD, despite the hardships and challenges they reported.

The write-up of the survey results in Nature says that they tell “a story of personal reward and resilience against a backdrop of stress, uncertainty and struggles with depression and anxiety.” But it’s a story, evidently, that most respondents still want to inhabit.

Note: You can view the full dataset from the survey here.

*Because Nature is a scientific publication, the results of this survey may disproportionately represent the experiences of PhD students in the sciences. They also represent a global experience rather than a New Zealand experience, with only 0.3% of responses coming from NZ.

**This survey used the terminology “supervisor/PI” in recognition of different models of PhD study and research around the world. PI means the Principal Investigator on a funded research project. Where a PI supervises a PhD student, the PI/student relationship is roughly comparable to the supervisor/student relationship in New Zealand PhD programmes.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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