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Although an alarming number of PhD students are struggling with psychological problems, universities are generally failing to respond. This situation prompted sisters Lara and Luisa Solms, both PhD students in Work and Organisational Psychology at the University of Amsterdam, to create a podcast series that focuses explicitly on the challenges PhD students face.

In February this year, Lara and Luisa competed for the 2021 NWO Synergy Award, a social impact award for PhD students in the social sciences and humanities. Their idea – a coaching podcast for PhD students – bagged them the award. Half a year on and the first episode, on the subject of ‘uncertainty’, has just been released. The podcast series is in English, will have a minimum of six episodes and is aimed at PhD students at universities in the Netherlands and beyond. Luisa Solms tells us more.

Why a separate podcast series for PhD students?

‘Despite the alarmingly high number of PhD students who are struggling with mental health problems (Leveque et al., 2019), little is known about how to ensure PhD students get the support they need. At the universities themselves, there is generally little on offer that focuses explicitly on the well-being of PhD students. Our podcast is a support tool that anyone can access, at a time that suits them.'

Lara and Luisa Solms

What do you discuss in the podcast series?

‘The podcast is aimed specifically at PhD students and discusses the challenges they frequently face. For example, work and publication pressure, the impostor syndrome (also known as the con-man syndrome: ‘when will people realise that I can't actually do anything that I’m supposed to be doing?’) and uncertainty. Our podcast is unique because it consists of a number of  'live coaching' sessions in which a PhD student discusses a subject of his/her choice with a professional coach.’

Those coaches are experts in their field. Can you name any names yet?

Jenny Rogers is our guest in the first episode. With more than 30 years’ experience, she is one of the UK’s most experienced business coaches. In 2019, she won the Henley Business School Award for her outstanding contribution to coaching.’

Your first episode is about uncertainty. Can you tell me a little more about it? Why this subject?

‘PhD students start at the bottom of the organisational ladder and are surrounded by people who generally have more expertise and experience than they do. This can either motivate them or promote insecurity, especially if they don’t get a lot of (positive) feedback. PhD students are completely dependent on their supervisors, which makes them think twice before expressing an opinion. So, they tend to avoid raising conflicts for discussion because of the negative consequences this could have for them. They won’t reach out for help quickly either, because they don’t want their supervisors to think that they’re ‘not up to the job’. Ultimately, this affects their well-being and their job satisfaction too.’

What do you want to achieve with your podcast series?

‘We want to give PhD students concrete tools to help them deal with the challenges they face in their PhD research. The podcast series will also enable PhD students to recognise themselves in each other's experiences and realise that they aren't alone. If they start to see difficulties as something that connects them with others rather than setting them apart from them, they will find they are able to deal with the difficulties they encounter more constructively. We also want to give the subject of ‘PhD well-being’ a place in public debate and encourage PhD students to discuss it with their supervisors and colleagues, etc.’

Want to know more about the project?

Go to the website of PhD Unplugged and follow the project on LinkedIn or Instagram (@phdunplugged). If you are a PhD student and would like to take part in a podcast session, please send an email.