Doctoral students can use writing meet-ups to overcome isolation and depression — and boost their motivation, says Karra Harrington.

Taken from

Feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation are so common during a PhD programme that some have dubbed the experience ‘the PhD blues’. As a PhD student and practising psychologist, I wanted to try to reduce the impact of the blues on my fellow students and on me.

I decided to plan a regular meet-up with my student peers, in which we could write up our theses together. My hope was that it would establish deep social connections and help us to cope with some of the challenges of our PhD programmes.

I had attended Shut Up and Write! writing groups, which involve short ‘sprints’ of writing with breaks in between. Everyone works silently during the sprints and socializes during the breaks. These groups helped me to manage my productivity and motivation — but I had no sense of connection with my fellow writers. Often, participants would check e-mails or take a walk during breaks. And different people attended each session, which made it hard to get to know each other and to build connections. Any conversations were superficial and perfunctory.

For my group, I wanted to use the breaks to create supportive networks and to share ideas on how to overcome challenges. Ultimately, I wanted to create a community in which participants could learn from and support each other while also feeling productive and making progress on their theses.

I first needed to find participants. I reached out to students involved with the Cooperative Research Centre for Mental Health, an Australian research consortium based in Melbourne that aims to further mental-health research through collaboration. Students in the consortium work across research areas, institutions and geographical locations. Such diversity meant that relationships developed among students who would not usually interact regularly. It also meant that we could use the sessions to expand our networks and gain fresh perspectives on common challenges.

I launched the meet-up almost two years ago, and it has been a huge success, with a regular attendance of six to ten students every month. Our sessions are done in person and through videoconferencing, and include two to three hours of writing, as well as discussions on how to find mentors, structure thesis drafts or balance family life with completing a PhD. I facilitate each session, and group members raise topics according to their needs and interests. Members say that they feel accountable to the group, and that this motivates them and limits procrastination. They also check in with each other between sessions.

Interaction zone

Bringing together students from different institutions, and creating a space in which they could interact, was challenging. The videoconferencing helps members who can’t get to campus — they feel engaged with their peers and less isolated. The meet-ups help me, too: I often have limited contact with other people during my working day. A regularly scheduled time to meet with others and discuss my science gives me a break from the isolation and is something to look forward to every month.

It took some time to build trust in the group so that everyone felt comfortable participating in the discussions. As facilitator, I keep discussions on track and relevant, encourage quieter group members to speak up and provide opportunities for those participating through videoconferencing to contribute. These efforts help to establish a sense of fairness and equality in the group.

Illustration of group discussion with video conference

Credit: Adapted from Viktoria Kurpas/Shutterstock

The consistency of attendance by core group members is important because it helps participants to build relationships, thereby fostering a sense of safety and trust within each session. Group members say that they value having opportunities to connect with other PhD students and share their experiences, and that the group has helped them to maintain their motivation and sense of well-being.

Along the way, I’ve realized the importance of setting clear expectations using ground rules. Our ground rules are based on respect and confidentiality, and include speaking one at a time, listening to each other, not talking during writing sessions and maintaining confidentiality on all issues that we discuss in the group. All group members agree to stick to the rules, and the facilitator helps to enforce them.

As our group continued to meet and members started to open up about challenges that they faced, we found that the ground rules became even more valuable, because they helped to promote a sense of safety and encouraged useful exchanges between members. I found that it was also useful to make the group’s purpose — to manage productivity and well-being — explicit from the start. On signing up to join, members know immediately what to expect. We use the Pomodoro Technique, which involves blocks of writing, breaks for discussion and goal setting, to manage our productivity. At the start of each session, we share our individual goals with each other; and during the discussion breaks, we check with one another on our progress towards our goals.

For some group members, this was a new way of working and it took some time to get used to. But the fact that we made it clear from the start why we had adopted this way of working helped new members to understand and to agree to try out these techniques. Members say they’ve found that the group helps them to set aside quality writing time, and that the structure of the sessions enables them to make progress on their thesis even when they are struggling with motivation.

The peer-mentoring aspect gives everyone a space in which to ask questions and to share what they know. A group member might, for example, seek advice about conference networking while also providing guidance on a data-analysis technique. By creating opportunities for members to ask for support and advice, the sessions help everyone to feel more hopeful and to identify proactive steps that they can take to overcome challenges. The opportunity to help others and to share knowledge provides everyone with a sense of empowerment and the ability to recognize their own strengths and expertise.

Our discussions help to normalize the challenges of PhD studies and remind us to celebrate our successes. We wanted to share the benefits of the group with other PhD students, and so we’ve developed our model into a programme called Write Smarter: Feel Better. We have created guidelines for group sessions and training materials for group facilitators. These cover things such as how to build trust, and how to help the group reach agreement on ways in which members should interact with each other. Australia’s University of Melbourne and Edith Cowan University are now testing the programme, with evaluations planned for completion by the end of this year.

At both universities, PhD students volunteer for the role of facilitator. We worked with the universities to develop strategies to support PhD students in this role; these included providing first-aid training in mental health and arranging for a university staff member to be a support contact. Importantly, although the universities offer support, the sessions remain led by PhD students and for PhD students.

Creating this meet-up group has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my PhD experience. I have learnt so much from organizing and facilitating the sessions, and now have a solid peer network. I have been able to gain insights on my research and career that I wouldn’t have had if I had stuck to working on my own or only with lab peers. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, my goal is not only to survive, but to thrive — with passion, compassion, humour and style — and my meet-up is helping me to do exactly that.


Nature 559, 143-144 (2018)

Raw Talk Live panelists share insights on science literacy and engagement

Raw Talk Podcast — a project spearheaded by graduate students from The Institute of Medical Science (IMS) at U of T — hosted its first live show at JLABS on May 30. A two-part panel discussion, Raw Talk Live explored the current climate of science communication.

Traditionally, science was communicated through conferences, where researchers in the same or similar fields shared their findings with their peers. The responsibility for communicating this research to the public fell on teachers and science journalists. These days, researchers also communicate their findings outside of the academic community through scientific outreach and the media.

Public engagement in science

Tetyana Pekar, an IMS alum and moderator of the first panel, asked panelists what they thought the status quo for public engagement in science was and how it could be improved. The panelists all felt that the status quo was changing for the better, but that there was room for improvement.

One key concern was that scientific outreach tends to stay within the ivory towers of academia, and getting the general public to take interest in science is an ongoing struggle.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Ontario Science Centre found 47 per cent of Canadians do not believe in or understand the science behind global warming.

“There is this aspect of the public’s awareness of science that’s incomplete and they’re going to celebrities for information and that’s very troubling,” said Dan Weaver, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics at U of T.

The results from a 2011 analysis indicate that students from underrepresented or underprivileged backgrounds have less access to science outreach initiatives, which further deepens these misunderstandings as these students are likely deterred from learning about science or pursuing a scientific career.

For Doina Oncel, founder of hEr VOLUTION, a non-profit organization in Toronto that empowers youth in underserved communities to enter STEM, outreach means that “We don’t [just] empower people, we give them tools to empower themselves.”

When Weaver and his research team traveled to Nunavut, they conducted science outreach activities with students from a local school. They showed the students how scientific instruments are used in research to make becoming a scientist a more concrete possibility.

Scientists also benefit from engaging with lay audiences about their research.

“I think the patient [and] parent voice in research is important. I think we have stories to tell and things to say that are valued in the research world,” said Connie Putterman, whose journey in science communication began when her son was diagnosed with autism 18 years ago.

The speakers agreed that citizens have a large impact on science policy, and, in turn, on scientific research. According to the Canadian Science Policy Centre founder and CEO Mehrdad Hariri, by creating a culture of public engagement in scientific research through initiatives like citizen science, we can better defend the integrity of science.

New methods of science communication

Eryn Tong, a Raw Talk segment host, asked speakers in the second panel what they thought effective science communication would look like in an ideal world.

According to Dr. Vicky Forster, a postdoctoral fellow at SickKids, science should be made more accessible through open access publications and accessible language. The other panelists echoed this sentiment. Especially as one in three Canadians are unable to follow science reports published in the media, creativity is necessary when reporting science accurately and in a way that is understood by non-expert audiences.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a real appetite… to take content and customize it and make it so that it’s consumable in ways that people can navigate it in [a] non-linear fashion,” said Kevin Millar, Senior Vice President of Creative and Medical Science at INVIVO Communications, a digital healthcare agency that creates visual aids for communicating science.

Millar added that Canada should invest more time and talent into communicating science more effectively and for specific audiences.

Helen Kontozopoulos, co-founder of the Innovation Lab in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, pointed out that bringing different voices to the narrative could also help change the way scientific research is shared.

Elah Feder, U of T alum and co-host of science podcast Undiscovered, added that communicating the scientific process is equally important. “People just see a headline that coffee is bad for you and then next week they see that coffee is good for you and I think [they get confused] because they don’t understand the process,” said Feder.

By Amber Dance

Taken from

The lab is sometimes a silly place — and perhaps it should be. A group that behaves in daft ways from time to time tends to be one that is positive, results-oriented and successful, says Michael Kerr, a business speaker in Canmore, Canada, who focuses on humour in the workplace. Jokes and pranks can serve as signs of a healthy workplace, and provide ways to foster trust and good communication among staff, Kerr says.

A 2012 meta-review of studies on humour in the workplace found that it is linked with strong employee performance, effective stress-coping mechanisms and sturdy group cohesiveness1. The study, conducted by two management researchers at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and a psychologist at Florida International University in Miami, also linked humour to reduced burnout among employees.

Although humour has its benefits, researchers caution that jokes and laughs must be appropriate for the workplace and lab members should avoid making fun of each other in potentially or clearly hurtful ways. “Make sure you’re not harassing somebody or singling someone out,” says Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London. “Banter can be bullying.” And simply saying “I was joking” doesn’t undo the hurt, she adds.

As any comedian knows, attempts at humour can fall flat or even backfire. Adam Ruben, a molecular biologist at Sanaria, a biotechnology company in Rockville, Maryland, worries that humour could ruin a younger scientist’s chances of being taken seriously. Ruben does stand-up comedy on the side, but keeps his major scientific talks mostly free of jokes.

Newcomers to a lab group should get to know their labmates and principal investigator well before they start joking around, advises Bernie Chun Nam Mak, a lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University who studied workplace strategies, including humour, during his PhD programme in applied English linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Burst the stress bubble

There’s no shortage of hilarity in the lab where James Utterback, a PhD student in physical chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder, works. His greatest prank (so far — labmates beware) was inspired by a laser system that arrived in late 2015 for the group’s studies of solar photochemistry. It came in a crate with metres and metres of bubble wrap.

While another group was in a meeting, Utterback and his accomplices coated their student office’s floor, desks and printer with the bubbly sheets. They hid in the office so that they could catch their colleagues’ shocked reaction. Both groups laughed and entertained themselves popping the plastic bubbles.

But that wasn’t the last of it. When Utterback returned to his office after a conference in mid-2017, he discovered he’d been replaced — with a bubble-wrap mannequin, complete with a wig and clothes. “He had been named James 2,” says Utterback. “He became kind of like our group mascot.”

James 2 regularly rotated between the lab’s student offices, surprising people who turned on the lights to find him diligently ‘working’ at their desks.

“Working with James [1] was seriously delightful,” says Amanda Grennell, a freelance science writer in Missoula, Montana, who earned her PhD in August 2017 from the same lab. “Pranks gave my brain a much-needed break from both work and stress.”

Graduate studies and science in general can be frustrating and isolating, agrees Jorge Cham of Los Angeles, California, who earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in California. He started a PhD comic strip, ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’, soon after beginning graduate school, as a sort of art therapy to cope with the pressure cooker of academic training.

After a stint as an instructor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he switched in 2005 to cartooning full-time. He regularly lectures about the misery of graduate studies and the joys of procrastination.

This unusual career path has given Cham more fame than he probably ever would have earned in academic robotics — his original plan. The comics, which have drawn 188,000 followers on Twitter, have appeared in more than 50 US newspapers and been collated into 5 collections that have collectively sold more than 100,000 copies. They’ve helped many a stressed graduate student laugh through tough times, simply by showing readers that they’re not alone in their academic struggles. “Burnout is so common, anything that can be done to help people keep perspective and enjoy what they’re doing, the better the long-term prospects of the lab are,” says Cham.

A light attitude can also help to diffuse tension that arises from failures or errors. Cham once spilt a bucket of mildly toxic resin in another lab that had a group leader he found particularly intimidating. He was horrified. “I vividly remember my life flashing before my eyes,” recalls Cham. “I never thought that was something that actually happened.”

But the postdoc supervising Cham took it good-naturedly, simply telling him he was allowed to make that mistake — once. That helped Cham to move past the error.

As that supervisor so deftly illustrated, humour can be a powerful tool for leaders. The meta-analysis of workplace humour found that when those in power were viewed as fun and funny, their subordinates performed better and had stronger teamwork. Staff were also happier with their jobs and their bosses. And a fun, lighthearted lab group might produce better science than one that is perpetually solemn and serious. Humour, says Kerr, is a positive catalyst for thinking creatively. Or, for mathematicians: “Ha + Ha = Aha.”

Light-heartedness can also reduce embarrassment when inevitable mistakes happen in the lab. “Humour can help workers, especially superiors, to imply something negative to each other in a less face-threatening way,” says Mak. He once observed a situation in which a worker made a mistake on an Excel spreadsheet. Her supervisor admonished her by making a wry joke about the error, and they both laughed it off.

Lead with laughter

A humour-filled lab might not happen spontaneously, so leaders might wish to actively encourage it. Scott, who studies speech and laughter, makes a conscious effort to build a happy team.

But leaders should be wary of forcing humour onto junior scientists. “They have to feel comfortable first,” says Scott. “They have to feel part of a group.” She pays particular attention to new lab members — especially when they’re from other countries — ensuring that they feel comfortable, and not left out. If they’re laughing and joking, she knows that they’re settling in.

To help foster a positive group dynamic, Scott often organizes lab social events and includes both personal and scientific discussions in casual lab meetings over coffee. The personal sharing is optional, of course.

“The demeanour of the principal investigator will affect the atmosphere of the whole meeting,” she says. “I try to keep a positive and friendly mood.”

It might seem simple for Scott’s group to spice their work with humour — they study laughter, after all, and their work entails developing funny videos to make viewers and subjects chuckle. But no one has to be a stand-up comedian to infuse some humour into the lab. Kerr says that there are plenty of ways to make work fun, even for the less comedy-inclined. One option he likes is to put up a ‘humour bulletin board’. Lab members can contribute funny statistics, research results or cartoons.

Starting group traditions is another way to make work enjoyable. Kerr suggests giving out fun awards, such as the ‘Most Likely to Overdose on Caffeine Award’. Employees feel appreciated, and everyone has a good time.

Helena González

Helena González teaches science through comedy.Credit: Ignacio Izquierdo

Ruben recalls a fun tradition from his PhD lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Each scientist picked an orange test-tube stopper, or septum, and drew a little face on it. Once a week, they’d take a break to place the stoppers on a shaker; whichever stopper stayed on the longest before bouncing off won its scientist US$1 from each of the other entrants. That two-minute break provided a valuable bonding experience, Ruben says.

And if one wonders what to joke about, “the easiest person to laugh at is yourself”, advises Josh Willis, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who has trained with comedy troupes The Groundlings and Second City. He christened one of his missions OMG, an initialism for ‘Oceans Melting Greenland’.

Willis is perfectly willing to engage in a bit of self-deprecating humour, and one of his studies made it easy to do that. In 2006, early in his career, he collected data showing that, despite the effects of global warming, some of the world’s oceans had somehow cooled between 2003 and 20052. Willis endured a fair bit of ridicule for this ‘discovery’. Even conservative pundits got in on the harassment, using Willis’s paper as evidence that left-leaning scientists are clueless about climate.

Willis, trusting his data, took it all in his stride. Then, in February 2007, he discovered the error he’d made. No, the oceans weren’t getting colder: certain temperature sensors had given bad readings. He published a correction shortly afterwards3.

In response — playing on the talk-show punditry that Willis had endured — his wife gave him a set of business cards imprinted with the title ‘Idiot leftist scientist’. He still carries the cards in his wallet. “That dose of humility and making fun of myself — in the long run, I think it benefited my career,” says Willis.

Tread with care

Some joke topics are simply not acceptable in any workplace, notes Nicki Fuchs, a stand-up comic and biochemical engineer at MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Gender, politics, race and religion, among other matters, are off the table, she advises.

Those rules still leave her with plenty of room to jest with her labmates. And it’s useful for her to joke about work, says Fuchs, because it helps her, a 30-year-old woman, to connect with the rest of the lab members — all older men. A recurring wisecrack is about whoever most recently left the water running and flooded the lab — a not-uncommon occurrence, because their work involves filling up large, pressurized bottles.

Jokes may fall flat in some settings. In graduate school, Ruben often ended his lab-meeting presentations with a joke slide. But during one such presentation, his adviser was already unimpressed with his scientific progress, and Ruben suspects that his joke slide — a colleague’s head that was Photoshopped onto a goat’s body — deepened his adviser’s doubts. Since then, he uses jokes only in informal presentations or talks about science careers.

Scientists should also be careful about humour that might not work well with people from other cultures. What’s funny to one ethnic group can be incomprehensible or offensive to another, Mak notes. It’s fairly simple to learn about the sense of humour in a geographical region to which one is travelling or moving, adds Kerr: he just Googles it.

Of course, some topics that scientists study — cancer, for example — aren’t funny at all. Yet jokes can help to ease tension and discomfort around specialities that deal with tragic subjects, says Helena González, who earned a PhD studying the epigenetics of cancer in 2013 and is now a science communicator with the comedy troupe Big Van Science in Barcelona. “That kind of black humour releases your feelings and makes your work much easier,” she says.

Still, she adds, scientists need to be careful about where they make any such jokes. Generally, among a few close colleagues in the lab, it’s fine. When dealing with patients or the public, it’s not.

And although pranks are fun, those that might endanger personnel, equipment or experiments have no place in the lab. Ruben recalls one supervisor he had at a summer job, who dropped a lit match into a recently emptied jug of ethanol. “A column of fire shot up to the ceiling,” Ruben says. “He probably shouldn’t have done that.”

That said, everyone can use a chuckle now and then. If you’re planning a — harmless! — April Fool’s lab jape, be sure to share it with @naturejobs, hashtag #AprilFools.

Nature 555, 689-691 (2018)