The PhD candidates wrote to Engels that EUR’s PhD students face an excessive workload, which constitutes a physical and mental health issue. ‘Unclear and unrealistic expectations, unevenly distributed teaching duties and other duties, a bad work culture and integrity issues with regard to appointments’ are some of the issues listed in the letter. Independent psychological support might help, but there is no such support for PhD students at the university.
Earlier this year, Slegtenhorst brought up the lack of a psychologist for PhD students during a meeting of the University Council. “I was looking for greater support myself. I’m nearing the end of my contract, so I have to make a lot of choices as to what I wish to do after getting my PhD. What are my options, anyway? I wanted some independent support in answering these questions. I found it hard to get that support at Erasmus University.”
Delft University of Technology does have a psychologist whose sole duty is to support PhD students. Slegtenhorst thinks this has its advantages. “We do have student psychologists, but they told me after my intake interview that they have neither enough time nor enough manpower for PhD students. A social worker said, ‘You’re welcome to come and talk to me, but I can’t do much with your problems. You’re at work as you’re supposed to be, and you are not depressed.’ If I wanted help, I was told to find it off campus.”
Conversations with other PhD students at other faculties will result in many similar stories. “We are under a great deal of pressure to achieve and have a great workload. In addition, we have to embark on a major research project and start teaching. It can be quite overwhelming.”
‘No one is cheerful every day of the year’
Slegtenhorst feels that people should be more open about their problems or setbacks. “No one is cheerful every day of the year. Sometimes things just don’t go your way. If you get stuck in that negativity, things will keep not going your way. You have to strike the right balance in that regard: be open [about what’s going on], but don’t dwell on it too much.”
In the last few months Slegtenhorst has spoken to EUR’s career development coach several times. “She took me through some exercises to determine what I want to do after [getting my PhD]. So we discussed questions such as, ‘How are you feeling? What is causing you pain?’”
“She taught me that you can serve as your own coach. How do you focus on positive thoughts, and how do you convert negative thoughts? You need to put in the hours yourself, but coaching can teach you a great deal. Without that coach, I would have felt very differently, and the work would have taken me much more time. I have a lot more energy now.”
A coach or psychologist can help you strike the right balance, the PhD student found after a few consultations. “I was so glad to be able to talk to an independent party. I was also able to discuss personal problems with my career coach.” However, she admits that that’s not really what career coaches are for.
Letter to Engels
Slegtenhorst is a member of a working group made up of seven PhD students, all of whom signed the letter to the Rector, Rutger Engels. “We want to map out for the Rector which faculties are offering the right level of support and which are not. Also, what is it we PhD students need? We want to examine that, too.”
Slegtenhorst says that the conversations she has had with fellow PhD students show that the level of support PhD candidates receive differs from faculty to faculty. She hears many stories that are similar to her own. “An awful lot of PhD students suffer from impostor syndrome. They are afraid that they are too stupid, that they were hired by accident. They are surrounded by professors and other academics. It can be intimidating.”