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How to handle the one-size-fits-all PhD

A scientist in a laboratory

Credit: TCmake/Getty

Science is a profession built on procedures whose outcomes are, by their nature, unpredictable, yet scientists are trained through inflexible PhD programmes that fail to accommodate that inherent uncertainty, and in which projects are expected to ‘work’. Pushing PhD students to adhere to inflexible career requirements without the help of appropriate support networks will affect their mental health. A study published last year, for example, revealed that PhD students are 2.4 times more likely to have mental-health disorders than are other adults educated to tertiary level1.

This mental-health plight isn’t helped by the open question of what happens after the PhD. Students often report feeling undervalued, unrecognized and overworked, and many are left doubtful about their own futures: there are nowhere near enough positions in academia for graduating PhD students (see ‘A growing problem’). They must recognize that it is not a failure to go elsewhere.

But long before graduation, and before the almost inevitable pressures of a doctorate surface, PhD students must begin to cultivate ways of protecting themselves and their work. Many such strategies exist. A few examples from my own training include keeping a professional journal of effective actions and improvements; learning how to deal with difficult conversations; and practising how to be responsive rather than reactive. Students should begin developing these protective strategies early, and should build them into their daily, weekly or monthly routine.

Something that helped me during my PhD was to break down my research project into a diverse portfolio of short-, medium- and long-term goals, with varying levels of risk. By diversifying, and agreeing on the goals with my supervisors, I increased my chances of consistently achieving research milestones.

Another approach that I found useful was to create a support network that was entirely independent of the laboratory. Although most of my networks started from having coffee with peers, over time they grew to include a diverse range of students, academics and professionals who still guide, support and cheer me on. This network could be likened to a personal board of directors.

For organizations, a good starting point for change would be to discuss and acknowledge the effects of mismanagement on mental health and research productivity. This needs to be a priority, because intense competition — combined with the regulatory, social and managerial demands placed on early- to mid-career researchers — encourages dubious and counterproductive research practices2.

More time and support must be devoted to developing and sustaining scientists at every career stage. Some suitable steps would be to recognize the importance of good mental health, to create policies that support students (particularly regarding work–family harmony, funding and conditions of employment) and to teach the scientific community how to become inspirational and supportive leaders.


This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at


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    Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. & Gisle, L. Res. Pol. 46, 868–879 (2017).

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    Freeman, R., Weinstein, E., Marincola, E., Rosenbaum, J. & Solomon, F. Science 294, 2293–2294 (2001

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