JUDE BARBACK talks to Dr Inger Mewburn about how social media has widened support networks for PhD students.
In the PhD world, Dr Inger Mewburn – better known as The Thesis Whisperer – has celebrity status. So I’m thrilled to have the chance to chat with her about her latest MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on ‘How to survive your PhD’.
An impressive 12,500 people have signed up to the MOOC, and nearly halfway through the 10-week course 40 per cent are still participating, which, in MOOC terms, is remarkable. Mewburn says the course nearly didn’t leave the ground due to concerns over the content being too specific.
Unsurprisingly, Mewburn, who is director of research training at Australian National University (ANU), feels vindicated at how sticky the MOOC is proving to be; it confirms a real need to talk about how to cope with the emotional and financial stress often experienced by PhD students.
Thanks to the 50,000 followers on her Thesis Whisperer blog, Mewburn is well aware that there is a thirst for such discussions.
One of the most popular blog posts bears the title ‘The Valley of Shit’.
“It talks about the sense of hopelessness during the PhD. But it’s a valley, not a hole – there is a way out! People really identified with that post – they sent it to each other, printed it out, put it above their desks,” says Mewburn.
Indeed the post has had 223 comments, many of them lengthy accounts of their own experiences in the ‘valley’.
It’s clearly a problem for many. Mewburn says the emotional and financial stress placed on PhD students contributes to nearly one in four dropping out in Australia.
She says universities are often left unaware of why people withdraw from their PhDs.
“Sometimes they simply just leave with no warning or explanation. They leave their books and their half-drunk coffee just sitting there.”
As the ‘Valley of Shit’ post suggests, stress can rear its ugly head at any stage of the PhD process.
“People talk about the second-year blues but loneliness or boredom can strike at any time,” says Mewburn. “Some people have imposter syndrome the whole way through – I know I did.”
Imposter syndrome refers to a psychological condition where the student feels they are faking it and not really up to the task.
“It’s amazingly common. They start feeling that someone’s made a mistake by letting them do a PhD in the first place.”
Mewburn says counselling services are generally sought more by PhD students than other students.
“One university counselling service told us that there was a four times higher instance of PhD students using the service compared to other students.”
She thinks part of the issue is that PhD students are studying at an age where they have higher priorities.
“The average age of students starting a PhD in Australia is 32, so these are people with families, mortgages and responsibilities.”
“A lot of them take a long time, so they are paying an opportunity cost, not being out there earning money.”
Even so, part-time PhD students – those who typically juggle their research with work –aren’t immune from the stress either. Mewburn says many part-time PhD students don’t make it past their first year, but aside from those, part-timers are often the best completers. Mewburn puts this down to part-time PhD students typically being older, female and more resilient.
Coping strategies crucial
The key is learning strategies to understand and cope with the stress when it hits and avoiding the temptation to quit during those periods.
Mewburn says self-care is particularly important. She posts weekly tasks on her blog, such as having a cup of tea with someone outside of the research faculty, or asking students to reflect on what motivated them to do the PhD in the first place.
She says support networks are important. The discussion forums on her blog are testament to that.
“Social media has been an absolute boon – it has opened up a whole new world for PhD students,” says Mewburn.
Twitter forums such as #phdchat and #phdlife and Mewburn’s #survivephd15 mean that guidance and support is offered to students far beyond that of their supervisors.
“You can really tell the PhD students who are ’plugged in‘ to the social media world.”
She says the main challenge with social media and the internet in general is navigating through what information is trustworthy and what is not. However, well-supported forums like Twitter will essentially moderate themselves.
In a world of Twitter, MOOCs and blogs, there is no doubting the landscape has changed for today’s PhD student. However, social media doesn’t provide a silver bullet for dealing with the stress that comes with PhD study – resilience must come from within.
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