The other week I was on Twitter scrolling through my feed when I saw several tweets of the following nature: “Can’t help but feel like I’m continually hearing the negative aspects of PhD life” and “I only see negative tweets about grad school/PhD experience and I’m trying hard to be excited and optimistic…”

I think we can all agree that it is very important to talk about the negatives about academia, and problems we as scientists, are currently facing – how else are we going to promote positive change? However, is it good to only be talking about the negative aspects of PhD life and academia?  Might this end up causing more problems – by scaring off potential new students and making it seem an unwelcoming place, rather than helping us develop the kind supportive environment we all want?  

Even though academia is hard and is a job in which you will face a lot of ups and downs, overall, I think most PhDs will say that it was a fantastic experience which they don’t regret (despite having days where they hate everything). 

In this day and age, it is so quick and easy to tweet out our feelings with a hashtag lamenting the woes we have faced that day (I know I have!). In the same way that Instagram filters out ‘normality’ to highlight only the best moments, Twitter can sometimes act as a filter against positivity. It is far more likely to see a tweet saying “bah! The western failed again” than “I spent the day analysing data and got the best results”. Unfortunately, our brains have the habit of picking out the negative and remembering those parts. And so, in our (much needed) comradery of sharing our latest annoyances, mental health advice and diversity problems, we could inadvertently be building up an outwardly negative community which could be more than a little off-putting to future students perusing hashtags like #phdchat.

But, social media also offers us a way to create positive online communities, to share our experiences, connect with scientists old and new, and help to promote a more welcoming and diverse environment – and maybe also help change academia for the better. So, how do we communicate the good, the bad and the ugly to new aspiring scientists without making them feel overwhelmed and like they are about to get on the direct line to hell?

  • Talk about the negatives and the positives together. Most things in life are not entirely positive or negative experiences, and so, maybe when we talk about our PhDs we should also try to give more balanced views. For example, instead of “You will have no life outside work” , try for “A PhD is time consuming, but with careful planning you will be able to maintain a good work-life balance”
  • Share the positive stories! Were you able to turn a bad academic experience around? Did you manage to implement something in your work place to help other PhDs and their environment? What did you do? What advice would you give to others who want to try and improve their work environment?
  • Stop with the “DON’T DO ITTTT”, “GET OUT WHILST YOU CAN” replies to people voicing a want to start a PhD. It’s unhelpful at best and detrimental to academic progression at worst.
  • Open conversations and talk about the bad, but also what you learnt from it, how would you do it differently now? What changes would you like to see happen? And, help others implement the change too. You can see how groups of likeminded individuals have managed to create positive, encouraging online communities which are helping to alleviate some toxic elements of academia (like @PhD_Balance, @Also_AScientist) where diversity is celebrated and good work-life balance is shown as achievable.  
Categories: Guests

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Erica Hawkins

Postdoc at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Norfolk, investigating how starch is made in crop plants. I am also a mental health advocate. I have generalised anxiety disorder myself, and through blogging and social media, am trying to support a academic environment which speaks more openly about mental health issues.

1 Comment

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Ken Hughes · September 4, 2019 at 22:24

I completely agree. The posts celebrating the good side of academia are far outweighed by those looking at the challenges. This post reminds me of a similar one calling for people to comment on what parts of the status quo in academia are “just fine” and that we should remind ourselves of how good we have it sometimes.
(https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2019/04/17/which-bits-of-science-and-academia-are-just-fine/)

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