‘PhD’s can’t be autonomous right away’

Paula Meesters, the psychologist of the Graduate School, is starting a PhD herself. She wants to learn about the development of autonomy in PhD candidates.

"It is amazing to see that within academia people think that PhDs are autonomous people, while in fact they still need to develop autonomy and need guidance during that process. That is only normal." (Photo's: Sam Rentmeester)

“It is amazing to see that within academia people think that PhDs are autonomous people, while in fact they still need to develop autonomy and need guidance during that process.”

You have been a psychologist at the Graduate School since it was founded in 2011. What problems do Phds run into?

“Mostly they come to me the moment the work is full of pressure and stress. There is a go-no go coming up, they have difficulties with their supervisors or they feel totally burned out. Sometimes there is a quick fix, such as when people feel down only because of a particular situation they are in. They can find their own solution and just need to talk to an objective person outside of their research group. Others have underlying problems, like an anxiety disorder, depression, personality issues, addiction or trauma.”

It probably doesn’t help that doing a PhD is a lonely job.

“It depends on the research group. If the atmosphere is highly competitive, people in the group won’t share data or social support. That mostly goes together. We hope that because of the Graduate School and the Doctoral Education Programme people get to know more people.”

How can you help PhDs?

“My specialisation is treating personal problems in combination with work in academia. In general psychologists don’t focus on academia and pressure within academia. I’m specialised in short-term psychotherapy: three to ten sessions. These sessions are one on one and strictly confidential. I need to stress that. PhDs must know I never report back to the Graduate School. If short term support isn’t enough I refer people elsewhere. Indirectly I also support PhDs by training their supervisory teams on request: the promotors, the co-promotors, the daily supervisors and post-docs. I teach them communication, how to indicate problems, how to refer to specialists, group dynamics, coaching strategies and dealing with go-no go related stress.”

I often hear that PhDs from non-Western cultures are reluctant to visit a psychologist. Is that still true?

“That not only depends on culture, but also on whether the daily supervisors support our counselling services. But it is true that in some cultures even going to a mentor can be a failure, let alone visiting a psychologist. In these cultures you don’t want to connect yourself with failure, because it is shameful. Going to a psychologist means you’re crazy. So you can see that PhDs from these cultures need to overcome a huge barrier before they can take the first step. It helps that they all get to know me from my doctoral education courses on self-awareness and autonomy, communication and coping, self-management and motivation.”

Can you measure the effectiveness of your work?

“We can evaluate in two ways. We can measure satisfaction. That is the easiest way and we use this for the courses we provide. Therapeutic effectiveness is more difficult to measure. Comparing to other universities is an option, but it is difficult. I am the only fulltime psychologist for PhDs in the Netherlands, so I would have to work together with human resources departments. But at least people in Delft know how to find me. The first six months I was in office only ten PhD candidates came to see me. After that year it was sixty, then eighty, then 110. Over the last six months I already saw 98 PhDs. In general about 8 percent of the population visit a psychologist. At the Graduate School it is no different.”

You are now becoming a PhD yourself. Why?

“Being a psychologist for PhD candidates was totally new for me when I started this job five years ago. Now I am ready for a new challenge. My colleagues from other universities asked me if it wouldn’t be more logical if I were a PhD myself, to better understand what the PhD process is like. I think they are to some extent right. And also, during my work I encountered this specific topic I wanted to know more about.”

What do you want to research?

“I am in the phase of literature study and constructing a research question, so that isn’t set in stone just yet. I am a developmental psychologist. I know a lot about regular human development into adulthood. Bachelor’s and master’s students, for instance, are in the phase of developing an identity. Most PhD candidates are in the middle of developing autonomy and long lasting relationships.

Research shows that only 25 % of people at the age of 25 have already developed into autonomous people.”

Yet, we expect all PhDs to be just that.

“That is right. In the Netherlands independence has become the cultural norm instead of a regular human development phase. So when we hire a PhD candidate we expect them to be an autonomous person. Yet, in many countries – in Asia, South America, or southern Europe – young people have a longer lasting dependency state. They need to do what their teachers ask of them. If they come up with their own ideas they are criticised or even punished. But when they come here for their PhD some of their supervisors simply tell them: “Your go-no go is in nine months, start developing your own research question. If you need me my door is open.” That is really challenging for these young people.”

Don’t professors know this by now? 

“In Western societies we are born into this cultural norm. That often makes us unaware of it. But even with Dutch PhD candidates things go wrong. Many of them have a setback when they start this totally new job. They feel dependent again, don’t understand everything just yet and need a lot of information. It takes time before they can regain their autonomy. Supervisors can feel very frustrated about that. They can even get the idea that they have chosen the wrong candidate. It is amazing to see that within academia people think that PhDs are autonomous people, while in fact they still need to develop autonomy and need guidance during that process. That is only normal.”

Can you, as a psychologist, help PhD students to become independent people?

“Right at the start I developed a course on self-awareness and autonomy, because PhDs have to prove they are independent to be able to obtain a title. My course provides them with some insight into their own personal development in an effort to speed up the process. But there are no simple tips and tricks. First PhDs need to become self-aware. They must know who they are, they know what they want. Autonomy is all about knowing what you want, being able to make your own choices and taking responsibility for the consequences. Autonomy is also highly related to long term motivation. What are your personal values, why do you want to do a PhD? Some candidates don’t have a clue. The short term courses can help them answer these questions. It can also help with being assertive. Because knowing who you are and what you want is one thing, but you also need to communicate this to your supervisory team.”

Here cultural differences come in again.

“Yes, I am really interested in the international context of autonomy development, although regular human development into autonomy is not culturally bound. It is no different here from Malaysia, South Africa, Colombia or any other non-Western country. But still it is a common conception that people from those types of countries are not autonomous enough. How come? Is it because they have another way of expressing autonomy? Or are they actually not autonomous enough? And is that because they start developing into adults at a later age? I am very curious about that.”

Will your PhD research give more insight in effectiveness?

“Measuring the effectiveness of my autonomy training will be part of my PhD research. But first I need to write a strict protocol on my working method, then I need to train other psychologists to use it and then I have to collect and analyse the data.”

Is starting your own PhD already helping you better understand what other PhDs go through?

“It does. Like I said, I am now doing a literature study. And, like others, I thought I had come up with a very nice topic. Then I started reading and realised that a lot of research has already been done on the development of autonomy. That is a bit demotivating. I still need to think of an innovative research question.”

Is there a way out?

“Luckily there is, because there is something else I noticed. I would like to relate my research on the development of autonomy in the PhD process to the development of well-functioning groups. I think both processes are very similar. PhDs start something new. At first they need guidance. With that, they can become more autonomous. In their research groups the same thing happens. At first, everybody looks at the group leader for inspiration and tasks. Further down the line interactions between group members are born. The group leader then needs to start taking steps back. If they forget that, they will seem too controlling to the group members. Only when things go wrong the leader needs to come forward. When I look at supervisors at TU Delft it appears that some of them take their steps back too soon or too late.”

It sounds like a vast research project you are starting.

“It hasn’t been totally crystalised yet, but it really fits my personal interests and it is highly relevant to the Graduate School, the promotors and the PhD candidates themselves. I am super enthusiastic. My PhD is going to take a lot of time, mostly private, but that is okay. My son is a young adult. And now I can try to apply all my knowledge to my own PhD process.”


Paula Meesters studied developmental psychology at the Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen. After graduation she started working as a psychologist in a hospital. After that she worked as a psychologist for deaf and blind people within general mental health support. Twenty two years ago she started working as a psychologist for students at TU Delft, at the department of Career and Counselling Services. She is still looking for a promotor. “As a developmental psychologist it would be nice to go to either Amsterdam or Utrecht, although at Tilburg University there’s a group focussed on my topic, so we’ll see.” Meesters lives in Delft, is married and has a 21 year-old son.

Editor Redactie

Do you have a question or comment about this article?

Comments are closed.