At the Faculty of Science and Engineering, new PhD counsellor Yvonne Folkers dealt with sixty-one reports by PhD candidates in her first year.
Thirty-eight of the reports were made by women, the remaining twenty-three by men. It turned out that internationals lodged more complaints than Dutch PhD candidates: forty-five versus sixteen. The PhDs mainly complained of the intense work stress they experienced, loneliness, and mental health issues.
There were also issues with supervisors and cases of discrimination. According to the annual report, which covers the months of March to December 2021, there were three instances of sexual harassment.
The position of PhD counsellor was created as part of the 2019 PhD Well-Being programme, which aims to improve PhD candidates’ mental health. The UMCG had earlier created the position of confidential adviser for this same purpose.
Folkers deliberately decided to call herself a ‘counsellor’, she says, hoping it would make it easier for people to come to her. ‘PhD candidates may ask themselves if they should keep working or quit, and they struggle with procrastination and a fear of failure. But people tend to hesitate to go to a confidential adviser with issues like that’, she thinks.
She also hoped that not taking on the title of confidential adviser would allow her to be ‘more active’. ‘I have a little more wiggle room to mediate or come up with a solution.’ ‘But obviously, I don’t do anything without the express permission of the candidate themselves’, she emphasises.
She did receive a larger number of reports than she’d initially estimated, says Folkers, who counsels post-doctoral candidates as well. ‘I underestimated it a little. 3.8 percent may not sound like much, but in real numbers, that translate to sixty-one people.’
Most people had complaints concerning work stress. PhD candidates are often unprepared for what their supervisors want them to do, Folkers thinks. It would be a good idea if PhD candidates and their supervisors discussed their mutual expectations before a candidate starts their job.
‘Supervisors often say it’s not a 9-to-5 job’, she concludes. ‘But what does that actually mean? Some overtime here and there on the weekends? Or working seventy hours a week, every week?’
Fifteen cases involved a conflict between people. Some of them were easily resolved. ‘Sometimes it’s just a matter of feedback that was poorly received, or intercultural differences.’ Two cases required mediation to resolve.
Other cases were more complicated. In three instances, candidates were moved to a different research group, while three others quit their PhD position altogether. ‘Two others decided to continue their relationships with their supervisor, regardless of how difficult it was.’
‘Mediation doesn’t always work’, says Folkers. ‘I think we managed to figure that out on time. In some cases, mediation victimises the people involved in a conflict even more. So there were times when I decided not to do that.’
Finally, there were three cases involving sexual harassment. According to Folkers, all three cases were handled to the satisfaction of the PhD candidates. ‘What happened, happened, unfortunate as it may be. All I can do is oversee it as carefully as I can. It’s very important to make sure I know what they need to feel better again.’