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What are the main challenges PhD students face?

The journey to a PhD is long and arduous. But what exactly are the main challenges PhD students face? In this two-part article, we explore the challenges PhD students face from the perspective of PhD supervisors and students. In part one, we surveyed expert researchers in the field of musculoskeletal disorders and asked them what they thought were the biggest challenges their PhD students face. Below are the major challenges that emerged from the survey and the quotes from the profs.

Scientific writing, critical thinking and generating ideas

"Being able to clearly and concisely articulate the need for their research study, to be able to describe what their study contributes to current knowledge, and to be able to interpret their findings objectively and without bias in light of other research findings...a suitably broad and deep knowledge of the relevant literature, and an understanding of research design and biases within different research designs, in order to be able to produce quality writing"

Prof Rana Hinman (The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia)

“I think one of the challenges that PhDs face is to really take ownership of their PhD thesis. In our system PhD are appointed on a project for which we got a grant. This means that very often the project is already designed to a large extent and it should be conducted according to plan, because that is what we promised the grant agency. So finding the balance between conducting the research as planned, and including also some of your own ideas in one thesis is challenging.”

Prof Raymond Ostelo (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Funding, training and employment post PhD

“[The biggest challenges are the] low value of the stipend – meaning that all students need to be able to supplement their income; lack of formal “training” courses; and job prospects following their PhD”

Prof Kay Crossley (La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia)

“Costs for the student. In the US, we bake them for 7 years before they get their DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) and they typically have heaps of debt.”

Prof Chad Cook (Duke University, North Carolina, United States)

“The other big challenge is how to proceed after the PhD is finished. Getting a post-doc is not easy, so if you really want to stay in Science you need to get (some) grants. That is not easy and in addition to having a good idea that fits a certain call you also need LUCK. Working hard to develop an idea into a mature grant proposal is something within your reach. Enforcing LUCK is beyond your control…”

Prof Raymond Ostelo (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

“How they will etch out a career in research after the PhD and whether funding can be sustained and sufficient”

Prof Rachelle Buchbinder (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia)

“I think that the biggest challenge my PhD students face (when they are not a MD), is to find a job as a post-doctoral researcher.”

Prof Sita Bierma-Zeinstra (Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands)

“I’d say funding would be one big challenge.”

A/Prof Manuela Ferreira (The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

Lack of support, mentoring and being challenged

“Getting stuck in the wrong research group where you are not supported, mentored and challenged to achieve. PhD students often choose a supervisor who is interested in supervising their chosen topic for a PhD but the topic for your PhD is almost irrelevant. It is really the other stuff that matters. I think PhD students should be challenged to think big; and given the support to have a good shot at getting there. Some of the challenges the supervisor sets have to be a little daunting and a stretch goal.”

Prof Chris Maher (The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

Peer review

“For my own PhD students the biggest challenge is peer review. The system is in crisis and it is now almost the norm to encounter uninformed, cruel and combative reviews. If you have published a bit this stuff is annoying, but if it is your first manuscript this sort of thing can be soul destroying. What you expect your PhD students to receive is constructive feedback to improve the manuscript; and you hope that there might be an encouraging tone in the review or at the very least the writing is civil. Too often I am seeing reviews that are mean-spirited and cruel from someone who appears to have a very superficial understanding of the topic.”

Prof Chris Maher (The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

Balancing and prioritising

“Balancing producing enough “output” to be competitive for jobs or fellowships post PhD while also making time to think deeply and learn skills that will be critical to success post PhD. This is particularly the cases with the move to shorter (3 yr) PhDs.”

Prof Mark Hancock (Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)

“Probably the one that comes up most often is prioritising – and the tendency overcommit to various things (all exciting), ending up juggling too many balls and getting inefficient with time and clear thinking. The ability to ruthlessly prioritise I think is a key skill for PhD and life in general…”

Prof Peter O’Sullivan (Curtin University, Perth, Australia)

“I think it might be all the competing interesting activities that distract them from their main goal”

Prof Rachelle Buchbinder (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia)

“Also managing work (for those who are part time), family and a PhD would be a big challenge for some.”

A/Prof Manuela Ferreira (The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

Acquisition of data, statistics knowledge, and ethics approval

“Acquisition of reasonable data for the demands of the degree; spooling up their methodology and statistical analyses knowledge, and multi-institutional IRB (ethics) approvals”

Prof Chad Cook (Duke University, North Carolina, United States)

Overcoming setbacks

“In most projects there will be unexpected setbacks. The challenge is then to come up with the best solution, stay positive and finish the project…”

Prof Bart Koes (Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands)

Adapting to a new culture

“For international students, I’d say adapting to a different culture, language, and lifestyle, whilst overcoming the challenges of research and a PhD would be pretty hard.”

A/Prof Manuela Ferreira (The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

In part two, we will explore these challenges from the perspective of PhD students. Cheers!

#researcher #PhD #Challenges #career