Around 800 students and lecturers visited the annual PhD Day in De Oosterpoort. Organised by PhD students themselves, the event contained lectures, workshops and networking. The 8th edition of PhD Day in Groningen shone a spotlight on the importance of the physical and mental well-being of PhD students.
Written by Yelena Kilina
Academia recognised the problem
Siobhan, who came from South Africa to do a PhD in biomedical science, found the PhD Day’s themes appropriate and especially enjoyed lecture ‘On creating dangerously… and the value of doing a PhD’ where she learned that her attitude to things is an important factor for conducting a 4 year long research. ‘I find it proactive and progressive that the university recognised the problem of mental health and that they are making efforts.’
New environment and stress
Naufal from Indonesia has been experiencing a lot of stress during his PhD in behavioural and social sciences: ‘I am really depressed – new country, new academic environment, new language. I want to learn how to cope with mental pressure.’ Even though Naufal already obtained a Master’s degree in another foreign country, Egypt, where he studied in the Arabic language, by the 2nd year of his studies in Groningen he hasn’t found a solution. ‘It happens to most Indonesian students, but they are rarely open about it,’ admits Naufal. The student attended the event for the 1st time and was looking forward to the ‘PhDepressed: An overview of PhD students’ mental health’ lecture.
Coming for a 6 month exchange from Thailand, Tanwarat also acknowledged the stress from studying in a different setting. The PhD student in science and engineering attended the event to learn how to adapt and to be more professional in a new academic environment.
According to one of the PhD Day speakers, Suzanne Bindels, stress is meant to give people energy to liberate from danger. When people constantly fail to recover and relax sufficiently, they expose themselves to a long-term stress or even burnout. That is why students who are in a challenging period of their lives can consider incorporating relaxation techniques into their routine. Conveniently, the workshop programme was rich and varied: from mindfulness meditation to exercises for breathing and coordination. That came in line with another highlighted message of the day: PhD students should not forget that there is life outside academia. PhD project shouldn’t become an excuse for neglecting relationships, hobby, volunteering or simply meeting new people.
‘There is a lot of pressure in academia,’ Karen from Belgium confirms, as was stressed in the PhD Day theme. She just finished her PhD and is now starting a postdoc. The science and engineering student recalled one story about a postdoc researcher who quit her study programme, had a child and was unemployed for three years before receiving a Marie Curie Fellowship. ‘Good that they didn’t choose someone with a perfect career to present the Fellowships at the lecture. It was a positive message that you can eventually succeed even without a perfect academic record and career path.’
‘I wish such an event existed when I was doing my PhD in the USA. I had to find my own support system back then,’ reflected May, a postdoctoral researcher in science and engineering. She just moved to Groningen and appreciated that she could find all necessary information in one place because it is more difficult to gather different speakers in a big country such as the United States.
Margot, who grew up in Drenthe, studied in Groningen and currently lives in Friesland, attended the PhD Day for the 4th time in a row this year. Even though the idea of the annual event is always the same, the biomedical science student comes back every year to broaden her view, learn things outside of her research area and visit the career fair.
Anna and Riccardo attended the PhD Day for the 2nd time. The Ukrainian and Italian students are about to finish their PhD’s in computational physics and chemistry. ‘We came here to talk to our printing company as we need to print our theses for the thesis defence. The company is based in Utrecht and we had some questions about preparing files for printing, it is easier to talk in person and we saved time this way. We actually found out about the printing company at PhD Day last year.’ Even though Anna and Riccardo didn’t visit mental health-related lectures, they agreed that the theme is relevant for many students: ’It is good to know that you are not the only one who experiences the pressure.’