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Human science PhDs have less human contact

They are PhDs in the ‘human’ and ‘social’ sciences, yet they tend to work on their own, survey shows. This is in contrast to natural scientists who work with colleagues. But nearly all international PhDs are motivated and excited

Some are stressed, some not, but hardly anyone is bored.

This is the short conclusion of a University Post work survey carried out among international PhD students at the University of Copenhagen. More than 200 responded.

Across all faculties at the University of Copenhagen, the survey’s indicators showed that PhD students are excited, motivated, efficient and academically satisfied.

45 per cent are either quite, or very, stressed, 48 per cent just a bit stressed while only 7.5 per cent are not stressed at all.

Read article: PhDs motivated, efficient.. and stressed

Only seven per cent of PhD students are quite, or very, bored.

The university world is typically divided between work in Humanities, Social Sciences and Law, what we have chosen to call ‘PhDs of the book’ and experiment-based work in Science, Life Science, Health Science and Pharma, what we call ‘PhDs of the lab’. The large majority of international PhDs in Copenhagen are PhDs of the lab.

Our survey shows differences in the work routines between the two groups at the University of Copenhagen.

While Humanities, Social Science and Law PhDs spend several hours teaching and administering, most of the lab PhD students from Health, Life, Pharma and Science, have little or no teaching obligation.

PhDs of the book also typically spend 6-15 hours a week actually working at home, away from their assigned office. More than 21 hours of their work week are spent on their own. This is in marked contrast to the PhDs of the lab that spend more hours working closely with colleagues. As one pharmaceutical science PhD wrote in the comment field in the survey: »In the lab, one is never alone, and my colleagues are my friends«.

Read article: Concentrates best on the couch.

Toke Nordbo has worked both sides of the academic fence. He used to be PhD administrator at Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute which is physics, and now works at the PhD centre at the Faculty of Humanities.

He reckons that the different work routines of international PhDs of the book’ and international PhDs of the lab are in line with what you would expect among a group of Danish PhDs.

»Projects in what we in Danish call the ‘dry faculties’- humanities, social science, theology and law – are more individualised. As a PhD student in these subjects you are less accountable to others. As a physicist, where I also have experience, others are more dependent on your work,« he says, adding that for book PhDs, »work can be a very lonesome experience.«

Read article: Human and social sciences PhDs work at home, alone.

Lab work, the day’s ‘backbone’

Lars Holm Rasmussen is special advisor at the Faculty of Life Sciences and in close contact with PhDs. He explains the key difference between what we call lab PhD work, and book PhD work:

»If you are running experiments, most of the work in the laboratory, will require you to be physically present. The empty spaces of time between will be spent in the office, but you still have to go back to the lab, so the lab work becomes the backbone of your day,« he says, adding that departments consciously encourage PhDs to be present to foster social ties.

An often-heard complaint in the PhD world is that supervisors are hard to pin down for a meeting. University of Copenhagen supervisors are no exception to this rule, according to the survey, and especially in Humanities, Social Science and Law. Most PhDs in these subjects talk to their supervisors less than once a week, with one out of every six talking to their supervisors once a month – or never.

In contrast, three out of every four PhDs in the lab subjects of Science, Life, Health and Pharma talk to their supervisor more than once a week, many more than once a day.

According to Lars Holm Rasmussen from Life Sciences, there is a practical explanation for this too.

»Most PhD students here work on joint projects, and write papers with multiple authorship. This in itself requires more collaboration and requires more supervision. We also encourage a close relationship between the PhD student and the supervisor,« he says.

84 hours plus a week

That international PhDs of the book spend more work time at home, with less close contact to their colleagues and supervisors, apparently translates to more time on facebook.

Two out of every three PhDs of the book check social media twice, or more, times a day. But this is just slightly more than their colleagues in the lab: Half of Science, Life, Health and Pharma PhDs are on social media more than twice a day.

A few facts:

More than half of all PhDs want to continue working at university after their PhD. And one in every four PhDs attended no social events at all in the last week up to the survey.

PhDs like to think themselves as hard workers. But a geographer takes the prize for downright slavery: He or she,(the survey was anonymous), claims an 84 hour-plus work week; researching, writing, administering and networking. Luckily, a bland understatement is offered in the comment field:

»Teaching was concentrated into one semester in my case«.

The University Post is currently analysing the survey, and more results will be forthcoming.

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