Compared to other academics, PhD candidates and postdocs find themselves in a vulnerable position. Their appointments are temporary and they are under great pressure to prove themselves. In addition, PhD candidates are often highly dependent on their supervisor, who may not always also take the person behind the research into account.
This comprises the ideal recipe for work pressure and work stress, says Claartje van Sijl, who is involved with the TU Delft pilot as an independent coach.
‘Academic culture is often characterised by excessive and compulsive labour. Many PhD candidates are also intrinsically motivated and therefore find it difficult to stop working. If you throw a perfectionist nature into the mix, you will quickly exceed your boundaries. Nevertheless, many supervisors only notice this when it’s already too late. They are often workaholics themselves, who have fought their way up through hard work. They then pass on this same work ethic.’
Together with TU Delft career coach Monique Draijer, Van Sijl developed a training course called Work smarter, stress less.The training course lasts three months, with a maximum of 15 PhD candidates participating each time. Over the course of this three-month period, a total of five group sessions alternate with peer review sessions in smaller groups. In addition, there is a personal intake interview and a concluding individual coaching session.
The objective of the training course is to come to understand the personal stress factors involved and to ensure better balance, says Van Sijl. ‘Together with each participant, we determine what their stress factors are. We also look at which resources they can tap into in order to deal with stress better.
We also cover time issues. How can you schedule your time in a way that such elusive affairs as creativity and intuition are still able to flourish? And in what ways are you letting time trickle through your fingers, such as by worrying or procrastinating?’
Energy is another theme that is addressed in the training course, Van Sijl continues. ‘How can you recharge your batteries, whether at work or elsewhere? We also teach participants various techniques with which they can bring down their heart rate through breathing exercises. Your heart rate has a major impact on your nervous system, and therefore on your physical and emotional resilience. Finally, we consider the future together. Where do you want your research to take you? And what will come next?’
In addition to this training course for PhD candidates, TU Delft also has an online training course called Design Your Next Career Move. This allows MSc graduates to investigate their career opportunities and gain a better impression of their ideal job.
Van Sijl explains that the relationship with supervisors is also addressed. ‘The dynamics between a PhD candidate and a supervisor have a tremendous impact on the entire PhD process. Supervisors are often strictly focused on content. Some may also be quite demanding and directive, despite the fact that doing a PhD is intended to train someone to become an independently thinking academic. The interpersonal dynamics therefore receive ample attention. How can you take the lead role a bit more as a PhD candidate?’
All of the PhD candidates who participated in the pilot training course were satisfied with the results it yielded, says Van Sijl. ‘The participants indicated that they were able to draw on their own strength more, were better able to set their boundaries and recovered more quickly.
Their personal resilience had improved markedly. The participants also said that they had gained greater insight into their personal energy balance. One of the participants explained, for example, that they would now go for a walk instead of pouring another coffee and working for another two hours. Ultimately, this is much more effective.’
Two participants who had strong doubts about their desire to continue with their PhD decided to persevere after the training course. Van Sijl emphasises that this is a very concrete positive result. ‘TU Delft also realises that it pays off to invest in work stress reduction, and the pilot has since been followed up. Given the current university closures, the training course is now being given entirely online.’
Which recommendations can Van Sijl give to other universities that want to tackle work pressure? ‘In the first place, you need to find out whether you might be eligible for a subsidy. We ourselves were very happy to receive financial support from the SoFoKleS Lab (see box below). This is a good way to develop a pilot with a modest investment. What we also noticed was that a group-based approach worked very well, since it meant that participants could exchange experiences. This proves that support does not necessarily always need to be given one-on-one. Finally, find out how you can structurally embed a training course at the university. TU Delft has now made offering the training course at the Graduate School and in the Doctoral Education Programme standard procedure. That way, you can be certain that you are actually reaching your target group.’
The SoFoKleS Lab was set up to promote innovative projects and studies that contribute to improving the university job market. This could concern ideas that are innovative thanks to their theme, form, approach or type of collaboration. Applying for subsidy is possible in 2020 too, but must be done no later than 1 August. The conditions and an application form can be found on the SoFoKleS website.