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How far am I to go to help a PhD student in need?

In this step we discuss when you as supervisor need to rely on others within your organisation to help your PhD student.
The words “Ask for help”.
© University of Groningen

As you notice in the answers to the poll in the previous step, there is no general agreement on whether or not the supervisor should feel responsible for the well-being of the PhD student. Yet, whenever something is blocking the PhD student in their learning progress, or hindering the project trajectory, it is always the responsibility of the supervisors to seek to improve the situation.

How? In the first instance by identifying that there is an issue. Here it helps to make use of the listening and communication skills that we have presented earlier in this week. Secondly, the supervisor can either help the student directly or by referring them to external help or courses.

But where does the boundary between offering direct help and seeking external referral lie? This very much depends on what the supervisor feels comfortable with, on the specific situation and need of the student and also on the additional support available for PhD students at your university or graduate school.

Supervisor’s social skills

Not every supervisor has the same level of social skills to address (personal) problems with their PhD students. Of course, these skills can be trained – as we hope to have shown in the previous part on effective interaction – but even so; some supervisors will feel more comfortable talking to their students about personal issues than others. Self knowledge is important. If you know your social skills are not your strongest suit, it is important to recognize that you might miss signs of problems that your PhD student is struggling with. Even if you do not feel comfortable helping the student yourself with certain issues, it is important to pick up on these signs. It can help to ask how they are doing on a regular basis and to observe your PhD student as we discussed earlier in the step, Professional communication.

The specific situation and need of the student

Even if your social skills are up to the mark, there can be situations where outside support is the better option. This depends on the needs of the PhD student. Psychological problems are better addressed by a psychologist for example. It can also be that a problem can better be discussed with another person, because you – as a supervisor – are part of the problem. Another reason to seek support somewhere else is if the student does not feel comfortable talking about it with his or her supervisor; this happens a lot. As there is dependance within this relationship, it can be hard to be honest about your struggles to your supervisor.

PhD support at the university

To be able to refer to external support you need to know what is available at your university. The range and availability of support differs a lot from one university to another. In the next step, you will get an example of the support that is available at the University of Groningen, and also do an assignment to find out what your institution offers in this area.

When to help and when to refer?

To get a picture of the kind of problems PhD students may face during their trajectory, have a look at the list below. (We use this list in our training sessions for PhD supervisor and PhD student). As you read through the list, try to determine where you think you should be giving the support or where others are needed. You can download and print the list and tick the issues where you think you could (or should) play a role in helping the student:

Problems PhD students experience

  • Having no clear research question
  • Lack of resources
  • Behind on schedule
  • High workload/ working too many hours
  • Supervisors do not agree on content of the project
  • PhD student experiences feedback from you as a supervisor not useful
  • PhD student experiences your guidance as not helpful/ supportive
  • PhD student experiences abuse of power/ intimidation/ discrimination/ harassment by you as their supervisor or others
  • Cultural differences that hinder clear communication/ makes the PhD student feel lonely, excluded or not understood
  • PhD student is not able to get (enough) data
  • PhD student does not have enough time for their research because of other tasks such as teaching or side projects
  • People who are sabotaging the PhD student’s research/ PhD student not getting support from colleagues

Personal factors

  • Depressed mood/ mood problems
  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of failure/ imposter syndrome/ feeling insecure
  • Lack of assertiveness
  • Ad(h)d/Autism/ other functional disability
  • Psychological problems
  • Sleeping problems
  • Illness

Personal circumstances

  • Loneliness
  • Homesickness
  • Bereavement
  • Having to take care of someone (family/ friend)
  • Bad housing
  • Financial problems
  • Too much administration (because of moving/ double degree or otherwise)

Lack of skills

  • Lack of organizational skills (planning, keeping an overview, meeting deadlines)
  • Lack of knowledge (lacking certain knowledge at the start)
  • Lack of match with the job (personal talents and preferences do not match the requirements of the job)
  • Lack of communication skills (either due to language difference, cultural difference or general communications skills)

Once you have assessed the elements you think you as supervisor could support the PhD student, we invite you to use this assessment to rank the areas of support so that you can better compare between your assessment and that of others.

Once you have done that you can find the group response here. Please share your observations with the other learners and discuss which areas you think supervisors should provide support and when other (outside) support is needed.

In the next step we will share with you how PhD support is organized at the University of Groningen.

© University of Groningen
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