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Amplifying the Voices of PhD Students

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

Through its active social media presence, PhD voice amplifies the voices of PhD students, helps encourage connection and even offers Viva preparation support. It is also home to the "Journal Rater" database, a platform that provides researchers with the opportunity to rate their experience with specific journals; the apt tag-line of the database is: Life's Too Short for Reviewer 2's.

Technology Networks
spoke with PhD Voice to discuss why doing a PhD can be so challenging, the use of Twitter by the PhD community, and tips and future changes it would like to see in the academic field.

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

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

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

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

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

Another common challenge is a 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 a fairly comparable wage to industry, however, others do not. That financial strain can manifest in many ways. The most obvious and direct is constantly struggling to make ends meet. However, there are many other effects, and some of them negatively impact universities as well. For example, worrying about your bills is a distraction at work – instead of being able to solely focus on your project, you have financial worries taking up mental space. This negatively impacts how productive you can be, not to mention being psychologically detrimental.

A massive challenge that so many face, yet few discuss, is loneliness. From what we have surveyed, a little over 50% of PhD students move to a new city (and in many cases to a new country) to do their PhDs. That means they leave behind a support network. In their new cities, they don’t have their friends and have to try very hard to make new ones. In many cases they struggle because they don’t have the time or the social situations to do so. It can be awkward making new friends as an adult – I mean, what can you do sometimes? Go up to someone in the supermarket while they’re squeezing the mangoes and ask them if they want to be friends? Because friendship networks are such a personal topic, many don’t feel comfortable discussing this problem with their colleagues and that’s why you do not hear about it as much as you should.

MC: What is your opinion on the use of Twitter by the PhD community?

Overall, it is fantastic. Being able to connect so easily with people in a similar situation is a massive benefit. As mentioned, being able to talk about problems with others is very helpful. What’s more, being a PhD student in your first or second year, you can then look at these challenges faced in the later years and prepare now.

Another huge benefit of Twitter is that it has made academia less rigid and formal. Academia has always had this very serious persona, but Twitter is doing a lot to break that down. You even see some universities and journals tweeting silly memes because they understand that Twitter is about personal interactions. Twitter isn’t like some of the other platforms where it’s all about professional self-promotion; it is more about the person behind the work and the more goofy you are, the more you fit in.

MC: What is the Journal Rater database, and what purpose does it serve?

The Journal Rater database is a platform where researchers from all over the world can go and rate their experiences with journals and look up these experiences before they submit their paper to see what to expect. The tag-line is, “Cause Life’s Too Short For Reviewer 2’s” – that sums up the ethos of it.

We made this platform in early 2020. It has about 30,000 journals entered and about 10,000 of them have at least one rating. Some of them have many – I think one has around 25 ratings currently.

You can rate journals on three criteria from one to five stars; quality of reviewer comments, speed of publication and easiness of comments. Additionally, you can write a review and give more detailed information.

The reason why we chose these criteria is primarily to feed the information back into the PhD process. Many PhD students are required to publish at least one paper before being allowed to graduate. If a paper gets held up at a journal, or you get difficult comments from a reviewer, then that is going to negatively impact your PhD. What’s more, you want to get good comments from reviewers – comments that will improve your paper. So, these criteria are a good mix, and the detailed review is an additional feature for extra information. The information here is obviously useful for researchers in general too.

MC: What changes would you like to see in the academic field to support PhD students?

One of the most important changes would be to reduce the uncertainty in PhD programs. For example, the fact that some PhD programs require you to publish a paper before being allowed to finish – well, much of the publishing process is out of the PhD student’s control. To get published, you obviously need to have a decent paper, but you also need to get reviewers that have time to review your paper properly. You need reviewers that want to help your paper as well. You need journals that care more about the contents of the paper than the names on the paper. By reducing the uncertainty, you create a more stable environment where students can focus on learning and not worry about making mistakes.

Another important change is to pay PhD students a wage commensurate with an industry position. That will alleviate many stressors and lead to happier students, but also better research, because they won’t be worrying about financial problems. Some argue that PhD students should not get paid that much because they are learning still, but no matter what job you get, you have learning to do. Some jobs take a few years to really settle in, so there’s no difference.

As for PhD students making friends in new cities, that is a more challenging task, the reason being that the rigidity of academia often makes social events less effective. Everyone’s confused as to whether you are supposed to be serious, or whether you can be yourself. These social events are useful, but there are alternative options. One of our proudest moments was when we sent a Tweet out asking PhD students (and researchers in general) to reply with what city they are, and to then look through the responses to find others in their city, and connect.

We weren’t sure how well it would work because there are so many cities with universities around the world, but there were hundreds of replies and thousands more getting in touch with those people. A lot of people made new friends with people literally in their city. It may not seem like a big deal, but it made a positive impact in many people’s lives, and that’s something we’re really proud of. We’re looking forward to getting bigger and doing this even better in the future.

MC: What would your top three pieces of advice be for PhD students?

One, remember that you’re the student. You’re not supposed to get everything right. You’re not supposed to know everything. If you don’t know something, or are unsure, make use of your supervisor. That’s what they’re there for.

Two, treat your PhD like a job. It’s 40 hours a week, that’s all. When you leave for the day, disconnect and enjoy your life. A relaxed 40 hours per week schedule yields better work than a stressed 80 hours every time anyway.

Three, find out what the rules are that govern your PhD and follow them. Always. That’s especially important if you don’t get along with your supervisor. Learn these rules off by heart so you know exactly what you need to do to get your PhD, and what to do if things don’t go well.

PhDVoice were speaking to Molly Campbell, Science Writer for Technology Networks.