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Learn how to cope in grad school

Student wants to break laptop
Credit: J.Ibrakovic / iStockphoto

Ideally, graduate school is a time of exploration and discovery, during which students steep themselves in their chosen disciplines and emerge as seasoned experts. The other side of the coin, though, is that, for many students, these training years can be emotionally taxing, stressful, and depressing. Yet while most graduate programs offer—or require—courses for scientific learning, students are generally left to their own devices when it comes to the emotional learning required to deal with the challenges of pursuing a Ph.D.

A new, free massive open online course (MOOC), How to Survive Your PhD, aims to fill that gap. For 10 weeks (beginning 26 August), Inger Mewburn, the director of research training at the Australian National University in Canberra and founder and editor of The Thesis Whisperer blog, will address the role of emotions—such as confidence, frustration, loneliness, fear, curiosity, confusion, and boredom—in Ph.D. students’ lives. “The Ph.D. is an emotional roller coaster, and how well students react to these emotional pressures is crucial to their success,” Mewburn says in the course’s introductory video. “You have to be smart to finish your Ph.D., but you also have to be emotionally resilient. … Students are going through a stressful but exciting time in their lives. I want these emotions to be recognized, understood, and celebrated for what they are.”

The Ph.D. is an emotional roller coaster, and how well students react to these emotional pressures is crucial to their success.

–Inger Mewburn

The course is intended primarily for current graduate students, but Mewburn also encourages their advisers, administrators, families, and friends to consider enrolling. For those interested but worried about how they will fit it into their busy schedules, Mewburn writes in a blog post that “it’s designed to be lightweight and easy to manage and should take you no more than an hour a week,” although the course’s page on the online learning platform edX predicts 2 hours of effort per week.

In her blog post—where she describes how she came to feel the same emotions when preparing her MOOC as Ph.D. students working toward their degrees—Mewburn notes that the course is meant to be a first step toward a broader discussion about researchers’ emotional health. In addition to the video lectures, “[w]e’ll be extending the conversation onto social media so you can participate in a number of different ways,” she writes. More broadly, she and her colleagues who helped her design the course view it “as a node in a huge global conversation [bold in the original], where students and supervisors could, together, work to understand the emotional problems that can get in the way of good research progress, [and] find and share new strategies for coping.”