Nature survey reveals the good, bad, and ugly sides of grad school

Photo courtesy: Unsplash/Adrian Dascal

A global survey of more than 6,300 grad school students has pulled back the curtain on Ph.D. programs, showcasing the good, the bad, and the ugly involved in obtaining the highest levels of education.

Here’s a breakdown of the results.

The good

 Most of the students (67 per cent) surveyed said they were happy with their relationship with their supervisors.

One student cited in the article credits his supervisor with providing “plenty of good strategic advice” and for teaching him how to “act like a scientist” — qualities that will likely assist with the transition into post-doctoral life.

“Students who are effectively mentored outperform those who aren’t,” Ruth Gotian, assistant dean for mentoring at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, told Nature. The article references an upcoming report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which argues positive mentorship is the “most important factor in completing a STEM [science, technology, engineering or mathematics] degree.”

According to the report, students who are effectively mentored are more likely to publish papers and complete their Ph.D. training.

The bad

Nearly half (49 per cent) of the respondents spent less than an hour each week interacting with their supervisor one-on-one.

While some students work better in unstructured, solitary environments, others may require more guidance. One student notes her disappointment in not being able to develop a strong connection with her supervisor, who called her by the wrong name in the middle of her Ph.D. training.

“That was a low point,” she told Nature.

Only a third of the participants were satisfied with the post-doctoral career guidance they received, with nearly 60 per cent reporting their career decisions were made independently and based upon their own, independent research.

Part of the problem, the article posits, is that many advisors appear too preoccupied with their research to participate in career mentoring. Another issue could be that supervisors who have only worked in academia may not spend much time thinking about other career options.

The ugly

Several Ph.D. students (21 per cent) reported on-the-job bullying and discrimination, with the majority of the toxicity (48 per cent) stemming from a supervisor.

Gender and racial discrimination reportedly made up 70 per cent of the cases.

Of the students who experienced bullying, 57 per cent felt they could not speak about their experiences without facing repercussions.

About 36 per cent sought help for any anxiety or depression caused by their studies. Toxic work environments and long hours (in some cases 50-60 hours per week) were some of the triggers for mental health issues.

Other respondents cited burnout, with 20 per cent of the participants saying they held a part-time job while completing their program. 

A potential shortcoming in the findings?

In a Reddit thread user mwoby, whose tagline indicates they are a computer science Ph.D. student, points out a reasonable, potential shortcoming in the results.

“If you ask a bunch of current Ph.D.students whether they’re satisfied with their decision to pursue the program, you would expect most to be at least somewhat satisfied,” mwoby says.

“The ones who were very dissatisfied have likely already quit. It might be more impactful to measure graduate program attrition rates over time.”

The survey represents the fifth biennial survey of Ph.D. students, created by Nature in conjunction with U.K. education market research company Shift Learning.

Read more about the findings here.

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