Amplifying the Voices of PhD Students

Earning a PhD is often a necessary and exciting career move for many individuals. However, it is also a process that comes with a unique set of challenges, from loneliness and funding issues to suffering and dealing with impostor syndrome. PhD Voice is an organization committed to helping doctoral candidates and students overcome these challenges through a variety of initiatives.

With an active presence on social media, Voice of PhD amplifies the voices of PhD students, helps encourage communication and even provides support for Viva’s setup. It is also home to the Journal Rater database, a platform that provides researchers with an opportunity to rate their experience with specific journals; The appropriate tag line for the database is: Life is too short for references 2.


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I spoke with the PhD Voice to discuss why earning a PhD can be so difficult, the use of Twitter by the PhD community, and tips and future changes you’d like to see in academia.

Molly Campbell (MC): Why did you decide to launch #PhDVoice and what is the point of the platform?

PhD Voice (PV):
We started #PhDVoice as a way to support PhD students, candidates, researchers (etc) and give them a way to connect and talk about their PhD. It focuses on anything and everything related to the Ph.D., from the Ph.D. itself, to Master’s students going on to Ph.D., Ph.D. and beyond.

One of the most surprising things for most people is when they encounter a certain problem, or feel a certain way, and then realize that there are a lot of other people in the same situation. This realization provides a massive emotional boost because they feel more supported, and others may have tips to help them through what they’re going through.

MC: What are some of the most common challenges you hear about from PhD students?

PV:
One of the biggest: feeling like a fish out of water. You enter your PhD program and are expected to conduct research that will impress researchers who have already done research decades ago. It can be a daunting task. This dynamic can be seen in many ways, from presenting at conferences to submitting papers to journals, defending PhDs, and even just in everyday conversations.

Another common challenge is the lack of funds, not just for their work, but in the form of a salary. Some universities treat their students as employees and pay them somewhat similar to the industry, but others do not. This financial stress can manifest itself in many ways. The most obvious and direct is the constant struggle to make ends meet. However, there are many other effects, some of which negatively affect universities as well. For example, worrying about your bills is a distraction at work – instead of being able to focus solely on your project, you have financial worries that take up mental space. This negatively affects how productive you are, not to mention psychologically damaging to you.

The enormous challenge that many face, but few even discuss, is loneliness. From what we surveyed, just over 50% of PhD students move to a new city (and in many cases to a new country) to earn their PhD. This means that they leave behind a support network. In their new cities, they have no friends and they have to do their best to make new ones. In many cases, they struggle because they don’t have the time or social situations to do so. Making new friends can be awkward as an adult – I mean, what can you do sometimes? Go up to someone in the supermarket while juicing mangoes and ask them if they want to be friends? Since friendship networks are such a personal topic, many do not feel comfortable discussing this issue with their colleagues which is why you do not hear about it as often as you should.

MC: What do you think about the use of Twitter by the PhD community?

PV:
In general, it is wonderful. Being able to easily connect with people in a similar situation is a huge advantage. As mentioned, being able to talk about problems with others is very helpful. Furthermore, being a PhD student in your first or second year, you can then consider these challenges you faced in later years and prepare now.

Another big benefit of Twitter is that it has made academia less rigid and formal. Academics have always had this very serious personality, but Twitter is doing a lot to break that down. You even see some universities and magazines tweeting silly memes because they understand that Twitter is all about personal interactions. Twitter is not like some other platforms where it is all about professional self-promotion; It is more about the person behind the work and the more goofy you are, the better it is for you.

MC: What is a file Rater magazine database, and what purpose does it serve?

PV:
The Journal Rater database is a platform where researchers from all over the world can go and rate their experiences with journals and research those experiences before submitting their papers to see what to expect. The tag line is, “Cause Life is too short for references 2– That sums up her soul.

We created this platform in early 2020. About 30,000 magazines have been entered and about 10,000 of them have at least one rating. Some of them have a lot – I think one of them has about 25 reviews currently.

You can rate magazines on three criteria from one to five stars; Quality of reviewers’ comments, speed of posting, and ease of comments. In addition, you can write a review and provide more detailed information.

The reason we chose these criteria is primarily to feed information back into the Ph.D. process. Many PhD students are required to publish at least one paper before they are allowed to graduate. If a paper gets stuck in a journal, or you receive challenging comments from a reviewer, it will negatively affect your Ph.D. Furthermore, you want to get good feedback from the reviewers – comments that will improve your research paper. Therefore, these criteria are a good combination, and a detailed review is a plus for additional information. It is clear that the information presented here is useful to researchers in general as well.

MC: What changes would you like to see in academia to support PhD students?

PV:
One of the most important changes will be to reduce uncertainty in PhD programmes. For example, the fact that some doctoral programs require you to publish a research before you are allowed to finish – well, a large part of the publishing process is out of the doctoral student’s control. For publication, you obviously need to have a good paper, but you also need to get reviewers who have the time to properly review your paper. You need reviewers who want to help your paper as well. You need magazines that care more about the contents of the paper than the names on it. By reducing uncertainty, you can create a more stable environment where students can focus on learning and not worry about making mistakes.

Another important change is the payment of remuneration to doctoral students commensurate with a position in the industry. This will relieve many stressors and lead to happier students, but also better research, because they will not have to worry about financial problems. Some argue that PhD students shouldn’t get paid big because they’re still learning, but no matter what job you get, you have to learn to do it. Some jobs take a few years to really settle, so it makes no difference.

As for doctoral students to make friends in new cities, this is a more difficult task, the reason being that the inertia of academia often makes social events less effective. Everyone is confused about whether you are supposed to be serious, or whether you can just be yourself. These social events are useful, but there are alternative options. One of our proudest moments was when we sent out a tweet asking PhD students (and researchers in general) to respond to the city they are in, then dig into the responses to find and connect with others in their city.

We weren’t sure how successful it would be since there are many cities with universities around the world, but there were hundreds of responses and thousands of others reaching out to these people. Lots of people have literally made new friends with people in their city. It may not seem like a big deal, but it has made a positive impact in many people’s lives, and that’s something we’re really proud of. We look forward to expanding and doing even better in the future.

MC: What are your three best tips for PhD students?

PV:
One, remember that you are the student. You are not supposed to get everything right. You are not supposed to know everything. If you don’t know something, or you’re not sure, ask your supervisor. This is what they are there for.

Second, treat your Ph.D. like a job. It’s 40 hours a week, that’s it. When you leave for the day, unplug and enjoy your life. A comfortable 40-hour week schedule does a better job than a grueling 80-hour work-at-a-time anyway.

Third, find out and follow the rules that govern your Ph.D. Always. This is especially important if you don’t get along with your supervisor. Learn these rules by heart so you know exactly what you need to do to get your Ph.D., and what to do if things don’t go well.

PhDVoice spoke with Molly Campbell, science writer for Technology Networks.

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