Why thriving is a better criterion for PhD success than excellence (part2)

For her PhD project Katharina Lemmens-Krug (MSc UTwente) is studying challenges of present-day universities regarding their governance – more specifically concerning steering capacity of university leadership and the relation with centres for excellence in teaching and learning. In this interview dr. Claartje van Sijl talks with her about ways to understand excellence from the individual researcher’s perspective. This is part 2, in which we discuss how taking the perspective of thriving contributes to improving PhD well-being.

Claartje: Anecdotal evidence from my coaching practice shows that academics have a strong drive to persevere, persist and perfect. This endangers their work / life balance and leads to stress and working pressure (see e.g. here). To what extent do you think the continuing drive for excellence in academia contributes to workstress and mental health risks for researchers, especially early in their careers?

Katharina: I think that the culture in academia is to strongly self-regulate own behavior based on the underlying assumptions that individuals are rational and isolated entities focusing on goal setting, self-observation, self-reward, and self-punishment. Individuals with a strong drive to persevere, persist and perfect in this culture can be quite a toxic mix. Therefore, I think it would be healthier if we change how we view research excellence by looking also at thriving. We could overcome this toxic mix if we give room to the idea “that individuals can also self-regulate based on how they feel” (Spreitzer, Sutcliffe et al., 2005, p. 537). Probably, learning to self-regulate based on what you feel could be an answer to ‘burned out’ academics.

C: What other factors have you noticed that positively or negatively impact research excellence and stress for researchers and PhD candidates in particular? E.g. how about the relationship between PhD candidates and their supervisors (cf. here)?

K: Supervisor relations are indeed crucial, because for PhD candidates the supervisors are a point of reference, someone to discuss your ideas with and get feedback from on your work. Supervisor relations which give room to PhD candidates in terms of self-regulation based on feelings might positively affect the PhD candidates in particular. I think a good start for a conversation about the work the PhD candidate has done is to talk about how the person feels about it. Was is difficult to arrive at the result or was it easy? I think the skills to tune in to the feelings of PhD candidates about their work are very valuable, because the PhD candidates get a feeling of relatedness and a sense of togetherness, which could counter-balance the feeling of ‘loneliness’ so many PhDs experience.

C: What is the best advice you were given in your own PhD career on thriving despite the drive for excellence and precarious work / life balance?

K: To be aware of your own boundaries and communicate those to your supervisors and even to more people around you: colleagues, friends, family. This helps you to reflect on your boundaries and needs. It makes you more aware of them and also how you feel about things that happen around you.

C: How do you experience the disbalance in power between PhD candidates and their supervisors? How does this impact your mental wellbeing and how you thrive in your PhD?

K: I think the perspective of power disbalance between PhD candidates and supervisors can be linked to the ‘deficit model of doctoral education’ which treats the individual as incomplete when they start their PhD project and which focus on correcting the deficiencies based on a particular norm (Brabazon, 2018). And the norm is full of implicit assumptions, which makes people who are deviating from the norm feel ‘worthless’. So I think that interventions are needed to change this system and its implicit assumptions according to one norm, so that the diversity of the current PhD population is taken care of.   

C: What should university leaders do to steer toward a better teaching and learning environment for PhD candidates at universities?

K: Bring together the people in your institution that are involved in PhD supervision. Create a safe space where they can discuss implicit assumptions. Tara Brabazon for example offers good advice in her paper on  The Deficit Doctorate’ (2018). One of her answers to the problems that many PhD candidates face is ‘multimodality’ which means to recognize “that there are many realities, truths and normalities”.

C: Thank you very much for this interview, Katharina. Keep being mindful of your needs and expectations so you can thrive in your final PhD phase and beyond!

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