Well-being and health during the PhD
A matter of concern for the FIRE doctoral school
23 09 2021
Well-being and health during the PhD

For the first time in 2020-2021, the FIRE doctoral school organized a Workshop dedicated to “Well-being and health during the PhD”. Two essential aspects in a young researcher’s life which are often not discussed enough within academia*. Here we offer you a highlight on what happened, and how it will evolve and extend for the next academic years.

This 2-days Workshop was built onto several interventions, followed by the same group of a dozen PhD students at different stages of their thesis. Free discussions, benevolent listening and mutual gentleness between participants were keys for fruitful interactions.

From imposter syndrome to communication, a large variety of covered topics

Amongst the most significant moments, Jeanne Boisselier, on behalf of the Doctopus association, deeply discussed the imposter syndrome with the participants. Being aware of it, for oneself and the others, is the first essential step to overcome it. Indeed, this self-perception of being less competent than what other people think of you, feeling like a fraudster despite objective evidence of success, is widely spread amongst PhD students.

As stated by a participant, seeing “how people I look upto faced the same challenges as me was very encouraging”. This was clearly shown by Wendy Ingram, from the DragonFly Mental Health international NGO, through an impactful video where accomplished scientists expressed the doubts and even mental health issues they had to fight against. Breaking the stigma was one of the most important take-home messages.

Wendy’s intervention also focussed on active listening as an introduction to tackle tough discussions. This communication part, which is crucial to maintain high-quality interpersonal relations (with a PhD supervisor, a collaborator, a lab colleague…) was covered as well by Pascale Haag. PhD in psychology, her thesis was precisely studying the doctoral journey, through the lens of stress, health and supervision relationships. She gave concrete examples of assertive communication, a way to express your point of view or idea in an understandable and direct manner, while respecting your interlocutor.

On our way to a new edition

This first session was unanimously appreciated and seen as very useful. Participants encouraged the PhD pedagogical team to “advise this course for the 1st year of PhD” so they’ll get prepared from the beginning.

Based on the participants' feedback and suggestions coming from people who didn’t participate yet, many ideas are now raised on how to expand this cycle of interventions! Finding a better work-life balance, identifying the point where seeking professional help is needed and who to reach out to, adding consideration about physical health in parallel to mental health, knowing how to react when confronted with a bad or toxic work environment… Many topics to explore, some of them with the support of the CRI’s club PsyChic.

PhD is an exciting, stimulating and enriching scientific and human experience, which can also sometimes become emotionally challenging. We’re convinced that it’s part of our role to support PhD students the best we can, for them to achieve a positive journey through their thesis.

*despite strongly concerning figures: around one third of PhD students are experiencing anxiety and depression associated symptoms. Source: Nature 575, 403-406 (2019)

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