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PhD survey: Here are your comments

In our survey, the University of Copenhagen's PhDs revealed their work habits and life routines. Here is an anonymised selection of their comments

The 2014 University Post PhD survey was carried out in August and had 684 respondents from all the different faculties at the University of Copenhagen.

The responses in the comment field after each question supplement the raw statistics. They can offer insights into some of the unresolved conflicts and issues that are at stake in the life of a PhD student.

There were thousands of comments. Here below is a representative selection of them placed under thematic headings. Any references that would undermine the anonymity of the responses have been deleted.

Think of a typical week: How many hours do you work on your PhD each week doing the following?

On being typical
-There really is no typical week! Some periods have been dedicated to teaching, others to research visits, conferences etc, which has sometimes had the knock on effect that administrative tasks have taken up way too much time. Now, in my final term, I can finally concentrate almost solely on research and writing, but this is not typical at all.
-It is difficult to think of a week that sums up the average of all three years. the balance between research, writing and teaching can be completely different. And missing from this list is taking classes.
-I am an ethnographer and during fieldwork, I spent all day doing research, while during days of analysis, I spent most time for reading and writing, and during time of teachings, I spent most time for preparation for teaching. And when conferences are due, I spent days engaging with presentations there. So, I can’t really give you an answer in regards to what a “typical” week looks like.
-Field work, lab work, teaching, writing and everything else comes in pulses. So in some periods I work 24/7 in the field or in the lab (yes – literally). At other times 50-70 hours/week on teaching or writing, while at other times I use 0 hours on that but do full-time conference attendance.

Administration, more administration
-The administration at UCPH is the most horrible organised mess I´ve seen.
-I spend a huge amount of time trying to get the right instrument/equipment – I don’t know where to put that in the scheme.
-The administration in pharmaceutical department sucks.
-An obscene amount of time is used on administration.

Teaching a lot
-In the periods where I have been teaching, this has often taken up 35 hours a week, leaving very little time for other tasks.
-There is zero room for progress on research or writing when teaching. Invariably this means that the quality of the thesis suffers, especially when compared with other institutions at which students have 3-4 years dedicated to research and writing (and some administrative work). In effect at KU you have only 18 months to research and write (because you teach two full semesters and a third semester is taking up going to conferences in order to get ECTS points).
-The teaching is very time consuming and in the semesters I have been teaching I tink research have been pushed in the background a lot!

Lab work, reading and pressure
-I work in the laboratory most of the time, between 40-50 hours per week. I wish I had more time for reading and writing during a normal week but as you feel the pressure of publishing quick, you prioritise the experiments, although, I realise that I might have been more effective if I had more time to learn all the background knowledge and planned the experiments better beforehand
-What is the difference between research and writing? Writing is a part of researching… As conferences and presentations are usually clustered at a specific time of the year, it is difficult to say number of hours per week
-clinical work, supervision
-You miss article reading as a separate point under research. We should spend time also to read articles, but most of, at least my time, for research is unfortunately in the lab.
-Reading should be included.

Where do you work on your PhD in a typical week?

Getting out of the office
-There is construction noise outside my work office and the construction workers blare techno music throughout the day. It is very difficult to concentrate in this environment and so I rarely work there. I also live next to metro construction which is distractingly loud so I cannot work there either. I tend to work at the Black Diamond or in cafes, neither of which is ideal given limited access to printing and other university resources and slow wifi at both.
-I do my utmost to ‘leave work at work’ – and if I absolutely have to, to work somewhere else than home (e.g. cafes or the park). I do so to avoid stress and not get on my partner’s nerves and I strongly recommend all PhDs to follow this principle – it has worked out great for me, so far.
-I do not have an office after returning from maternity leave. I do not want to waste my remaining time (8 months) with the hassle of getting one.
-If the weather is nice, I try to do a lot of the reading outdoor, e.g. in a park.
-The balance may vary a lot. Once in a while I work at home for an entire week.
-In the train, 2 times 50 minutes a day

What is work anyway?
-Since I do research in philosophy, my work need no practical application. I can and do work anywhere at any time: In the airplane, when researching abroad, when biking to work, when having a good conversation, when meditating. In a sense I am always working, even when sleeping. although the hours I spend in my office might correspond better to the way to want to define “work” in this survey.
-I work on my PhD in my mind.

The distractions
-Too much noise and too many interruptions from other people at the office. I can work much more efficiently at home but then I miss out on the social side of the PhD so I try to work some hours every week at the office.
-We have a policy stating that work hours (9.30-15.30) should be spent in the office, e.g. no working home or at other places.
For the most part I try to sit at the assigned office at the institute in order to network and chat with colleagues, show commitment and to have a better division between work and play time

-I often find myself questioning the overall idea of acquiring the PhD degree and I regularly look for job offers elsewhere (particularly in the private sector). Although my colleagues are very nice and I am – let’s face it – fortunate enough to be paid to get smarter every day (which I am grateful for), my work oftentimes leaves me lonely and dissatisfied with myself. I have confidence in my project and I have faith in the programme. Still, I don’t feel comfortable with working as a PhD student.
-My lab is not setup for my project type. So I waste a lot of time, which is very frustrating and leads to not very relevant academic results.

On a typical day, how would you describe your level of boredom, excitement, motivation, stress, work efficiency, academic satisfaction?

Boredom or excitement
-I love being a PhD student!
-My lab is not setup for my project type. So I waste a lot of time, which is very frustrating and leads to not very relevant academic results.
-My work often leaves me lonely and dissatisfied with myself. I have confidence in my project and I have faith in the programme. Still, I don’t feel comfortable with working as a PhD student.
-Working a lot alone is not so motivating for me and during this time of my phd I have experienced low level if supervisor support which I think has a negative impact on both my motivation and excitement
-One year into the PhD the initial excitement has worn off and been replaced by a large and confusing body of data. My work efficiency feels low as I try to sort through it all, pursuing both wrong starts and dead ends for days on end, while repeatedly hearing a small whisper in my head, asking: “Why are you doing this anyway? Where is this research going to end up, and how can the value of the output ever match the trouble of its production?”
-Well – lab work is repetitive and boring and so is data management and processing. But field work is amazing and so is conferences and looking for results. Writing can go both ways, but is usually enjoyable. Teaching is great! The excitement and high motivation and academic satisfaction are all because I wrote my own project and have the freedom to run it myself.
-I find my project very interesting, but have lost my motivation and joy over time due to the lack of encouragement and motivation from my supervisor.
-Boredom is inherent to office tasks. I am not a person who feels excited very easily. Motivation to do better is of course necessary. Stress is also inherent to a doctoral position. Efficiency is a very difficult concept to quantify, especially in the early stages of a PhD project. Academic satisfaction varies very much, it is great to teach undergraduate students who are actually interested in what you have to say, a little less to postpone the obtaining of results.

-My first semester has been very stressfull
-Stress and tension are issues, but in most cases I stay very motivated, which makes it much easier to cope with stress.
-There is always a time pressure to finish and this is very stressful. The most stress comes from not having enough time to do proper research as demanded and then fill all the teaching and course work requirements as well. It is an impossible task for anyone – no matter how efficient – and that is very stressful and unfair working conditions!

Any further comments?

On the University of Copenhagen and on Denmark
-I have never seen a lower workload and [lower] expectations by responsible people. The phD- student position is by far the most boring position. Fundings for research in denmark are handed out like give aways regardless of the impact of a research. the standard is lower than in every country I have worked in.
-I’m old enough to have worked outside (UN, Development NGOs, Danida) and inside the university (2 different faculties as ‘specialkonsulent’) b/f being employed as a PhD student and this is by far the most challeging working position I have ever had!
-It has several times appeared as if we are there for the administration and not vice versa. Some of the so-called teaching is actually technician work. Many Chinese and other foreign phd students are underpaid as low as 8000dkr per month. That is shameful because they do the same work as Danish PhDs students!!!!!!
-PhD contracts in Denmark are both motivating and stressful given the high number of requirements in the PhD contract, for only 3 years of time.
-This PhD system is not suited to the needs of the student. It is too short, the demands are too high for the amount of time given and frankly as a foreigner the university has done nothing to prepare me for a life in Danish society. Ultimately this will lead to me to conclude that i am simply a number with a required level of productivity. i don’t feel valued or even acknowledged by the university of danish society in general which leads to a very negative impression of this experience.

Stress again
-I find it difficult to manage work-life balance with 2 small children and a PHD thesis. I do not have the possibillity of staying late at the office, and my evenings are booked with bedtime stories and other children administration…
-Balancing life with a dissertation, a busy (also ph.d.) partner and a two-year old is regrettably a nightmare.
-I hope this survey is useful for providing a less stressful academia environment
-I think doing a PhD is a bit of an emotional roller coaster and I have felt very differently about my job at different times.

The fight for office space
-I have replied sincerely to the survey, but I haven’t got the slightest expectation that it will improve my situation, because in the end all power lies in the hands of the department management, and they are not willing nor capable of making any changes to their style of management. Just last week the vice head of department came into my office and asked, I suppose jokingly, me and my two colleagues when she can kick us out of the office (hunting for office space). Oh yes, we had a good laugh indeed – it’s always nice with spontaneous reminders that we are completely insignificant to the department (now and in the future) and are mere make-believe employees temporarily obstructing space for the real employees.
-Financial problems in our group lead to dramatic lacking of disposable lab equipment, what turns out to be quite frustrating no interest about my project from supervisors side non supportive behavior of other phd-students workflow and material provision could be more effective feels like a viking in a battle

Elephant in the room
-I think there is a major elephant in the room which has not been addressed in this survey, which certainly interact with all the answers: the broader job situation (unemployed, postdoc, tenure track, another country, another professional field etc). I know all PhDs have these thought in the back of their minds and it influences their professional choices, not at least regarding work-life balance.
-I was missing a question about exercise! I think it is a very important part of work-life balance, especially for people with “brain”-heavy work as ours.
-You could have asked more into if we fell happy and so at the moment… I think you would be surprised by the answer. At least the most people I talk are feeling very unhappy with their jobs at the moment.

Loving it
-I love being a ph.d. student. It is not a easy job, but I love doing it.

(See attached pdf file for an overview of the questions)

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