Can the PhD student be fine? That's what it said on the invitation I received. The question was both funny and thought provoking. In this case, the question was also the title of a theme day I was invited to participate in.
The theme day brought together principals of studies, supervisors' college and representatives from the doctoral student corps, among others. Today they were to discuss quality in postgraduate education and the thoughts were both many and not always aligned among the participants. I took the initiative and presented how exactly SFS-DK sees the matter.
That postgraduate education raises both feelings and questions among those who work with quality in and for postgraduate education is perhaps not so strange, let alone among those who carry it out. It is the highest form of education the universities provide. Tomorrow's researchers and academics are trained here, and the excellence in Swedish society is brought forward. The doctoral program is also a time when the doctoral student can devote up to five years to his or her special interest, it is a fantastic opportunity for personal development and increased belief in one's own abilities.
But it is also a time bordered by worry and stress, which makes the perhaps initially subtle and somewhat basic question both important and relevant.
As recently as last spring, the report "How is the doctoral student doing" was released in a collaboration between SFS and Fackförbundet ST. The report shows that for a long time there have been signals that the doctoral student's work environment is both pressured and unsustainable. Many doctoral students are said to experience health-threatening levels of anxiety and stress. The image of a prosperous future graduate fades. Why is it like that?
There are 17 PhD students in Sweden (000 to be exact). A fifth of Sweden's doctoral students stated that they had difficulty sleeping a couple of days a week because of work; a quarter have to work overtime several days a week; and a fifth feel that they do not have the opportunity to take a holiday. For me, this is a bleak reverse of Swedish postgraduate education. These are just some of the examples mentioned in the report "How is the doctoral student doing".
Why the PhD student's work environment is important is because postgraduate education plays a central role in our common social life. Through research, new knowledge and ideas are produced which are often spread far outside the academic world.
An important part of postgraduate education is precisely the contribution to our common society. In the academy, an important part of the public conversation is also initiated and conducted. I would argue that without postgraduate training some of that conversation stops. Because without a postgraduate education, we also lack a future academy. It is of course the case that the entire Swedish academy does not stop, decline, or even disappear because the Swedish doctoral students do not have a safe and functioning work environment.
The attractiveness of Swedish postgraduate education, on the other hand, and in the long term, the quality of the contribution to the public conversation risks faltering. If we want to shape the academy of the future and plant the seeds for a better, perhaps downright sustainable, academic culture, it starts in postgraduate education.
So a more relevant question to formulate would be: If postgraduate education shapes the academy, how do we shape a sustainable postgraduate education?
A socially sustainable doctoral education means that the university works to ensure that the doctoral student can train, work and contribute in the academic space without unjust pressures and obstacles. A socially sustainable doctoral education is about both the situation today and the processes, structures, and frameworks that shape the social conditions for future doctoral students.
To be a doctoral student is to undergo an education and sometimes also to be fostered into the academy. When asked, is it possible to feel good as a PhD student, a more nuanced answer - rather than a straight shout - is sometimes difficult to give. Despite that, I believe that a sustainable research education with well-being doctoral students begins when we together decide to create a sustainable academy.