Self-help book aims to make stressed-out PhD researchers happier

Psychiatrist and ‘meta-scientist’ Joeri Tijdink specialises in the well-being of researchers. Now he wrote an uplifting self-help book on how PhD researchers survive academia.

Joeri Tijdink: "The major, structural realities still affect PhD researchers on a daily basis. That’s why I wanted to help them." (Foto: HOP)

Not infrequently, PhD candidates set out on their research path with sky-high ambitions and idealistic plans. But working in the world of research is not always what they imagined it to be. For one thing, it is far more stressful. An estimated 40 percent of all PhD researchers experience symptoms linked to stress or depression.

PhD researchers get in  at TU Delft are also getting into trouble. They have to deal with high work pressure, low salaries and and uncertainty about their scientific future. Often, PhD candidates do not manage to finish their thesis within the given amount of time. COVID-19 made things even worse.

This needs to change, argues psychiatrist Joeri Tijdink. He is a member of The Young Academy, an association of researchers who are relatively new to the academic world. As a ‘meta-scientist’ at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, he has set himself the task of examining integrity and trustworthiness in academic research. With his new book The Happy Academic, he aims to help PhD researchers become happy and successful members of the academic community.

Your book features 34 tips, many of them humorous. For example, you tell readers they had better stop promoting themselves on their own website right away. Why did you opt for that light-hearted tone?
In all the research I have done on academics, I was confronted with a lot of suffering: everything from publication pressure and academic misconduct to depression and panic attacks. Academics are often relatively serious souls who tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. I want to encourage young researchers to take a more light-hearted look at their own situation.”

‘Even in very trying situations, you often have more options than you think’

Why is the book mainly aimed at PhD researchers?
“They are the ones who face the most problems. No fewer than 30 percent bail out before they finish their research project. That is such a terrible waste. Doing a PhD can be so much fun and a fascinating challenge, even if you don’t go on to pursue an academic career afterwards. As a PhD researcher, you get to spend years working on a topic you find incredibly interesting. That really is a privilege and so it’s a great pity that this particular group encounters so many problems. It’s important to remember that PhD candidates are the future of academic research. They still have a lot to learn, of course, but they also have the freshest ideas and the most creative insights. So it’s extra sad to see them becoming discouraged.”

The book is highly critical of academic culture. You could have chosen to write a full-on critique, yet you opted for a self-help book instead.
“The same painful realities have been published and talked about for decades: universities are too hierarchical, the pressure to publish is too intense, there is too little supervision, and the lack of research funding means that competition is fierce. In recent years, universities have gradually been moving in a different direction with their ‘recognise and reward’ initiatives. But that shift is far from complete. So those major, structural realities still affect PhD researchers on a daily basis. That’s why I wanted to help them deal with those issues.”

What action can PhD students take themselves?
“University hierarchies mean that academics who are ill-suited to influential positions can occupy them for a long time. If your department head is a narcissist, it’s useful to know how best to deal with someone like that, without suffering any adverse consequences. It is also worth thinking about how to be productive without having to work day and night, and how to support each other as academics instead of seeing each other purely as rivals.”

In your book, you advise your readers to stop working with people who make them feel miserable. But PhD candidates are very dependent on senior researchers. What can they do if that working relationship becomes a struggle?
“If you have the chance to pick your own supervisor, the most important thing is to find someone with whom you feel a connection. If you don’t have that option – for example, because your project is already linked to certain researchers – during those three or four years make a point of exchanging ideas and collaborating with people you do get along with. Even in very trying situations, you often have more options than you think.”

Some self-help tips for PhD candidates

  •  Research is also an exercise in rejection; that’s something you have to learn to deal with
  • Accept that academic research is never perfect
  • Stop excessive use of social media
  • -Don’t romanticise an academic career
  • Making mistakes is all part of the process! You are not the sum of your results
  • Get used to having to modify your opinion or academic outlook at times
  • Share your problems with others
  • Think about something other than work: minimise overtime and go for exercise and sports instead  
  • Take early-warning signs of an anxiety attack or burnout seriously
  • Remember to have fun and enjoy what you do

HOP, Peer van Tetterode /Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

  • The Happy Academic, VU University Press, €24.50. The book is an English-language adaptation especially for PhD students of Joeri’s previously published book Wetenschapper op de sofa [Researcher on the Sofa].
Science editor Kim Bakker

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