I’ve often been told that doing a PhD is the best time of your life, but in reality, the life of a PhD student can be lonely and isolated. With all the pressure to complete within a limited time and publish as much as possible, it’s far too easy to become so focussed on your work that you get to the end of the day and realize you haven’t spoken to another person! It’s hard to find the time to socialize, and when you do the feeling of guilt can be overwhelming.

In the office it can be difficult to start conversations without feeling like you’re disturbing people, and as a shy person I find this particularly challenging. This isolation takes a toll on your mental health and can lead to burn out and ‘pluralistic ignorance’ – failing to realize that others are having the same problems as you. This is one of the main reasons students drop out of PhD programs.

The ‘work-life balance’ fallacy

I have been given a lot of conflicting advice about the PhD experience. Some seem to think the stress and isolation just comes with the territory, and that all socialization is time wasting. Forget about hobbies, family, friends and partners, and (particularly if you’re a woman) forget having children. Basically the message is that science requires hard work, and if you’re not willing to commit your entire life to it you should consider another career. This kind of message often comes from older academics, but not always. Then there are those who encourage the ‘work-life balance’, a mystical state of being in which you work from 9 to 5 and then forget about work while you tend to the rest of your ‘life’.

PhD comics regular working hours

It seems clear to me that socialization is not only vital for surviving the PhD ordeal with your sanity intact, it is also essential to the work itself. The people you meet during your PhD are future colleagues and collaborators, and discussions can lead to new ideas, opportunities and solutions to problems. The work-life balance is a false dichotomy – creating the distinction just leads to unnecessary guilt and stress. Although we are scientists we are people first, and we do science because we love it (although that’s easy to forget!). Our friends, families and hobbies nurture and support us to do good work. We bring who we are to our research, and research is part of our identities.

So how do we combat this feeling of isolation and guilt?

The PhD Student Retreat

Each year, the Fenner School runs an overnight retreat for research students (PhD and masters by research). The program is organized by the students, and usually includes presentations on publishing, science communication, and generally how to get through the PhD experience. This year I was involved with planning the program and it got me thinking about how to improve the social experience at the Fenner School.

‘Speed-dating’ icebreaker activity at the retreat – 1 minute each to introduce yourself and your project!

At last year’s retreat I was in my first year and found the presentations very useful, but I think the most beneficial part of the retreat is the opportunity to get away from the office and connect with other students, make friends and talk about your research with like-mined people. Unfortunately, many students choose not to attend the retreat after their first year because they are too busy with their own projects, and because most of the program is aimed at first-year students and they feel like they’ve heard it before. This year we wanted to encourage more later-year students to attend, not only for their own benefit but also to share their wisdom and experience with the new students.

We planned a concurrent session for later-year students including a writing workshop (using the pomodoro or ‘shut up and write’ method), and a peer review session where students were asked to read each other’s work and provide feedback. We organized it so that each person would read two papers, and each person’s paper would be read by two people. Seven people attended the session, including me, and I think it went really well. Because there was such a wide range of disciplines we ended up reading papers outside our areas of expertise, which I think was actually a real positive. I enjoyed reading other students’ papers, and the feedback I received was very helpful because it gave me an outside perspective and helped me pinpoint areas that needed better explanation.

We also had a panel session on ‘what I wish I knew when I started my PhD’. Three later-year students gave short presentations about things they had learned during their PhD, from either a social science, environmental or international student perspective. Then the discussion was opened up for any new students to ask questions of the panel members and any other later-year students. I think this session was really valuable, particularly for the new students. It also resulted in a list of things that new students need to think about in their first 6 months (ethics and travel approvals, licenses, grants and scholarships etc.) but might not otherwise know about, which will be a great resource for new students in the future.

Workshop on the oval
Brainstorming ideas for social activities – not a bad spot to spend an afternoon

On the second day, some of the academics joined us for lunch. For the last few years Fenner has organized a staff retreat to coincide with the student retreat, providing an opportunity for the staff and students to meet and mingle. The key to success is to alternate the seating arrangement so every student is sitting between two academics – this ‘forced’ mingling meant that I spoke to people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

We had planned a talk from Inger Mewburn (aka the Thesis Whisperer) on ‘how to survive your PhD’ (based on her very popular online course, which is available here. Unfortunately she had to pull out at the last minute, so we had a gap in the program. We decided to have a brainstorm session to come up with some ideas for social activities and ways to connect with other students, to try to avoid the inevitable feeling of isolation that so many of us had experienced. We decided on Monday morning teas, a weekly writing session, and Friday afternoon drinks to relax into the weekend. We also encouraged everyone to use the student mailing list to organize additional activities such as bushwalks, museums or movies. There was also a popular suggestion that we have a second overnight retreat later in the year, perhaps with a writing focus for students who are further into their projects.

The aim is to create a more open and friendly environment, where there are plenty of opportunities to interact without having to commit to something every week. So far I think it’s been working really well – the weekly events are well attended, and students have started to organize other activities. A group of students now get together each week to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones, and last weekend there was a bushwalk and I organized a visit to a museum exhibition. Even if only a few students show up for these events, it’s starting to feel like the atmosphere is changing. It feels more like a community – people are talking more in the office and the corridors, and we are sharing our experiences more.

So far so good, now we just have to keep it up!