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How to handle the one-size-fits-all PhD

Young researchers can use various strategies to help them to cope with the pressures and demands of doctoral programmes.

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Science is a profession built on procedures whose outcomes are, by their nature, unpredictable, yet scientists are trained through inflexible PhD programmes that fail to accommodate that inherent uncertainty, and in which projects are expected to ‘work’. Pushing PhD students to adhere to inflexible career requirements without the help of appropriate support networks will affect their mental health. A study published last year, for example, revealed that PhD students are 2.4 times more likely to have mental-health disorders than are other adults educated to tertiary level1.

This mental-health plight isn’t helped by the open question of what happens after the PhD. Students often report feeling undervalued, unrecognised and overworked, and many are left doubtful about their own futures: there are nowhere near enough positions in academia for graduating PhD students (see ‘A growing problem’). They must recognise that it is not a failure to go elsewhere.

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