Is it possible to navigate a PhD without perishing? The perspective of a PhD student.

Go to the profile of Dominic Guitard
Oct 10, 2019
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A recent analysis of the Canadian cognitive psychology job market (Pennycook & Thompson, 2018) has underlined an apparent inevitable fate for most PhD students seeking tenured position in Canadian universities: (1) both the number of graduate students in Canada (Edge & Munro, 2015) and (2) the number of publications required for a position in academia have drastically increased in the past years, with a current average of 18.1 publications at the time of hiring as assistant professors. This apparent inevitable fate is observed across disciplines (Edge & Munro, 2015). In effect, every year in Canada, thousands of students enroll in a PhD program with a similar objective, an academic position. Unfortunately, according to Edge and Munro (2015), less than 20% will reach their ultimate goal. Indeed, the majority of PhD students will obtain non-academic position in a variety of sectors (e.g., non-profit organization, government, technology companies). This phenomenon is widely spread beyond the frontiers of Canada (see e.g., Sinche et al. 2017). Despite the fact that a majority of PhD students will not be able to pursue an academic position, the majority of universities continue to subscribe to a traditional academic training (Fuhrmann, Halme, O’Sullivan & Lindstaedt, 2011; Sinche et al., 2017). In consequence, the transition to non-academic jobs can be challenging for many PhD students (Edge & Munro, 2015). Facing the highly competitive market in academia and inadequately trained for non-academic positions, PhD students are often overworked and overstressed. It is therefore unsurprising to read that PhD students are at high risk of suffering from mental health problems (Levecque, Anseel, Beuckelaer, Heyden, & Gisle, 2017).

As a PhD student in a highly competitive market, I am far from being a stranger to these concerns. Being a PhD student is time consuming, requires sacrifices and often leads to an unbalance lifestyle (see e.g., Levecque, Anseel, Beuckelaer, Heyden, & Gisle, 2017). However, I would argue that it is extremely rewarding to be able to learn new skills, exceed our potential and make valuable scientific contributions. In this post, I discuss the impact associated with the pressure to publish and briefly overview the challenge to develop valuable skills to non-academic sectors. Finally, I suggest recommendations to improve the quality of our scientific contribution during our graduate years, the importance of colleagues, and highlight key elements for an ideal PhD.

Over the past 10 years in Canada, the number of publications of newly hired assistant professors has increased from 10 to 18.1 (Pennycook & Thompson, 2018). These new requirements increased the pressure to publish, to rush the execution of projects and to publish minor contributions. Recently, both scientific outcomes (Open Science Collaboration, 2015) and the way we report them has been widely criticized (Amrhein, Greenland, & McShane, 2019). As PhD students, we are facing a dilemma: Rushing the work and hoping for the best outcome or using the optimal techniques, which are often time consuming, and making fewer but more influential contributions. The temptation of rushing the work is hard to resist. More particularly, the urge to publish is hard to fight when you see the number of publications of your colleagues rapidly growing while your number is not growing at the same pace. However, after being tempted for a long time to produce as many papers as possible to manage my anxiety, with proper guidance from my supervisors, I became able to embrace the view that we can play a key role in improving the quality of the scientific outcome and it would be a shame to miss it. Furthermore, while taking more time to conduct research can result in fewer publications, it will most certainly lead to the development of valuable transferable skills (e.g., programming ability, optimal statistical analysis, writing skills).  

While the pressure to publish can feel overwhelming, as PhD students we also need to develop additional skills to meet the demand for non-academic positions (Fuhrmann, Halme, O’Sullivan & Lindstaedt, 2011; Sinche et al., 2017). In effect, most PhD students will work outside of academia (see e.g., Edge & Munro, 2015). It is hard to suggest a general toolbox of skills as requirements can vary substantially across work environments. However, numerous skills are valuables across domains, such as written and oral communication, data analysis, programming, staff management, and budgeting. A critical step in learning those skills is understanding your limitations and finding the support to surpass them (e.g., online resources, workshops, and colleagues).

It is important to acknowledge your limitations and even more important to recognize the skills of your colleagues. Colleagues can often feel like your closest competitor but most likely, your desired future path can largely diverge (e.g., academics vs. non-academic position). Even if it were the case that you share a common goal, there is no merit in interfering with the development of valuable skills. During the graduate years, PhD students should contribute to the development of their own as well as their colleagues’ skills. In effect, colleagues often have different backgrounds and skill sets. Those skills can be complementary and certainly valuable to improve your toolbox.

To improve the quality of our scientific contribution during our graduate years, PhD students should resist the urging temptation of rushing research projects and spend time on learning optimal tools and techniques (e.g., Open Science Framework, R, Bayesian analysis) to conduct and make the most valuable contribution. University departments should recognize and encourage good research practices and not only shallow quantity during the formation of PhD students.

There is not a single ideal PhD training path as most students’ ambition and strengths vary widely. However, an ideal PhD training should include the following key elements: (1) support the development of both valuable academic and non-academic skills, (2) encourage good research practices (e.g., registered report, Open Science Framework) (3) support collaboration and skills transfer among colleagues, and (4) provide an adequate workload to prevent an unbalanced lifestyle.

In sum, it does not need to be publish or perish for PhD students. In effect, while many PhD students will not obtain an academic position, if they have acquired valuable transferable skills, they will flourish without a doubt in a non-academic position. Finally, as PhD students, regardless of our fate, let us maximize the quality of our scientific contributions while we can.   


 

References

Amrhein, V., Trafimow, D., & Greenland, S. (2019). Inferential statistics as descriptive statistics: There is no replication crisis if we don’t expect replication. The American Statistician, 73, 262-270, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00031305.2018.1543137

Edge, J., & Munro, D. (2015). Inside and outside the academy: Valuing and preparing PhDs for careers. Retrieved from https://www.conferenceboard.ca/e-library/abstract.aspx?did=7564

Fuhrmann, C. N., Halme, D. G., O’Sullivan, P. S., Lindstaedt, B. (2011). Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of   doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 10, 239–249. pmid:21885820

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., Beuckelaer, A. D., Heyden, J. V., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46, 868-879. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008

Pennycook, G., & Thompson, V. A. (2018). An analysis of the Canadian cognitive psychology job market (2006–2016). Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology72, 71–80. https://doi.org/10.1037/cep0000149

Open Science Collaboration (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aac4716

Sinche, M., Layton, R. L., Brandt, P. D., O’Connell, A. B., Hall, J. D., Freeman, A. M., ... Brennwald, P. J. (2017). An evidence-based evaluation of transferrable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs. PLoS ONE, 12, e0185023. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185023 

Go to the profile of Dominic Guitard

Dominic Guitard

PhD student, Université de Moncton

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