Doing a PhD can be a lonely business but it doesn’t have to be

Doing a PhD can feel pretty lonely but online social platforms are here to help. PhD image from www.shutterstock.com

Completing a PhD is no small feat. It requires both high intellect and a great deal of tenacity.

But it can be lonely at the top, with many PhD students struggling with stress, feelings of isolation and depression. The pressure can mean that many don’t see their degree through and drop out early.

But there are ways you can cope and increasingly many PhD students are turning to social media as a way to share their experiences and support each other.

Doing a PhD in Australia

In Australia, the average time to complete a PhD is around four years. In Europe, completing a PhD takes about five years while the average is seven and a half years in the United States.

According to a recent report from the Group of Eight (Go8) universities, between 2000 and 2010 the number of doctoral enrolments at Australian universities grew by 68% (from 27,966 to 47,066) while completion increased from (3,793 to 6,053 per year).

In 2011, there were a total of 118,396 PhD graduates living in Australia, which means having a PhD puts you - literally - in the top 1% (academically speaking that is).

In Australia, research students perform close to 57% of higher education research - yet many complain about a lack of support and feeling isolated. Indeed, surveys of Australian doctoral graduates show they rate the feeling of isolation as a major difficulty.

Looking at the drop-out rates, it is clear that many students lose the motivation to complete their studies. I found no recent Australian figures but in the United Kingdom, the failure rate can exceed 40%. And in the United States, only 57% of doctoral students complete their PhD within 10 years.

Many PhD students complain of a lack of support and feeling isolated. Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham - www.phdcomics.com

The very nature of the PhD process is prone to create a feeling of solitude. It often requires long stretches of work, much of which is done alone in an office or a lab. And trying to come up with the innovative edge to make your PhD stand out, will inevitably induce a great deal of stress.

Social media: a new lifeline

Increasingly, a number of PhD students are turning to social media to meet and support each other as they take the long and demanding journey of completing their PhD.

For many, social media breaks up the routine and creates a sense of community by linking up like-minded PhD students across several universities. Blogging is also becoming increasingly popular as an easy way to document the research process. But it can also help in getting students to practise one of the greatest obstacles to finishing their thesis: writing.

Some academics are also encouraging students to write blog posts during their PhD – Dr Inger Mewburn and her blog The Thesis Whisperer is often shared in PhD student circles.

There are other sites like Study Hacks which helps students find the best way to study and 3 Month Thesis which offers a guide to a “painless PhD”.

There’s also Graduate Rise, a newly founded platform designed for PhD students to connect with each other (built by yours truly) and Research Whisperer, a blog similar to Thesis Whisperer but more focused on research in general.

Most importantly, being part of these communities and forums allows you to share your worries and ask for help. It can also help you to realise that your experience is not that uncommon amongst other PhD students.

Blogging is also a great way to have an impact and disseminate your research and can nurture a sense of optimism as you’re working through challenges and documenting your thought process.

It is also a great way to learn to deal with feedback, as harsh as it may seem at first – a key aspect of an academic career.

The Twitterverse and #PhDchat

Other social media tools such as Twitter are also proving to be quite useful for early career researchers and PhD students. A quick search of tweets featuring the hashtag #PhDchat will show thousands of tweets linking to various articles on how to efficiently tackle your research.

For PhD students experiencing extreme loneliness, Twitter has become something of a lifeline. It is also a great source of information and an efficient way to look for help, providing that is, you link up with people in a similar field as yours and expand your network.

In the era of social media, increasing your exposure and visibility through these tools is a small investment for a potentially large return that can aid with your research.

Nowadays the PhD is considered to be the summit of formal educational achievement and PhD programs tend to attract some of the best and brightest.

The support within universities is not always in place, and without that support, the next generation of experts will not be nurtured.

Social media is providing one way for students to connect. After all, with that many voices of encouragement and support, it’s much harder to feel alone.