fr EPFL conducted the third Doctoral Survey

EPFL Magazine N° 27


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EPFL conducted the third Doctoral Survey


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EPFL conducted the third Doctoral Survey

Almost three students out of four are satisfied with their doctoral studies. But as also seen across universities around the world, their mental health and well-being are a growing concern.


PhD students working in a laboratory.

How do EPFL’s PhD students rate the supervision and quality of life on campus? In December 2018, EPFL’s Doctoral School asked its 2,179 students to take part in an in-depth survey about their experience at the university. The data analysis of this third EPFL Doctoral Survey – the previous two took place in 2005 and 2012 – was carried out by Roland Tormey from EPFL’s Teaching Support Centre (CAPE) and Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN), and Nadine Stainier from CAPE. The survey focused on issues raised by PhD students and their supervisors. As Pierre Vandergheynst, the Vice President for Education (VPE), says, “a PhD is not just any job, and a PhD student is not just any employee.”

Almost half of EPFL’s PhD students – 1,043 in all, making up 48% of the total – took part in the survey. They formed a representative sample in terms of gender, PhD program, faculty and year of study. “Our method was based on tried and tested, internationally recognized research tools, in order to make the results more comparable with those from other countries,” says Roland Tormey, CAPE coordinator and author of the survey report.

In general, PhD students are satisfied with their doctoral studies at EPFL (71%). They report good working conditions, a sociable and very intellectually stimulating environment, a large degree of independence and the opportunity to work with high-caliber scientists. However, the survey results also show that PhD students sometimes lack certain key skills, such as those relating to confidence in leadership, running a project and working collaboratively with other researchers. “We can see that these transferable skills are not always in place, although they’re important in any career,” Vandergheynst notes.


A delicate position

In terms of the well-being and mental health of PhD students, EPFL is no exception to the trend seen across universities around the world. 53% of EPFL’s respondents showed depressive symptoms, ranging from mild, in most cases, to severe. “We expected these results because several international studies have produced similar figures, but they are worrying nonetheless,” says Vandergheynst. “The Doctoral School enables us to highlight this type of problem, and we must now take action.”

In Tormey’s opinion, across the globe the lack of well-being among PhD students could be caused by the uncertainty they face. “Studying for a PhD puts you in a delicate position: you are in an environment of permanent uncertainty, you need to question yourself constantly, and your final success depends on just a handful of people.” Doing a PhD also involves a heavy workload, and 62% of respondents said that they couldn’t achieve an appropriate work-life balance.

While many doctoral students comment on how positive it is to work in an exciting, cutting-edge environment, a highly competitive climate is sometimes mentioned as a negative factor. As well as supervisors who put students under unbearable pressure and who sometimes instill fear in them. Around 14% of respondents – 146 students – said that they feel they have been bullied, mobbed or harassed during their PhD studies. ”Quite a few students point out in their responses that there is no evaluation of supervision.  They indicate that putting in place minimum standards and verifying them would be an option”, says Roland Tormey.

A working group has been set up to address the various issues raised by the survey. “The working group brings together PhD students and program directors. The aim is to find solutions to improve the supervision and well-being of PhD students, so as to make their quality of life on campus as good as possible,” adds Jeroen van Hunen, deputy to the VPE for the Doctoral School. PhD students who would like help and have not been able to discuss matters with their thesis director can contact their mentor, the PhD program director, the Respect Unit or the ombudsperson. Social and psychological counseling is also available on campus.


Laureline Duvillard, Educational Affairs