"You get strong and self-reliant": How research shapes you

Elena Comincioli

Is there a common path to become a researcher? How meaningful is the relationship with your supervisor to become successful? A talk with Cristina Soriano.

(Image: Ethan Hu)


Cristina Soriano is a senior researcher and the coordinator of the education program at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, in charge of the doctoral school at the Center. She has worked at the University of Geneva for thirteen years and has had the chance to follow several cohorts of Ph.D. students from the start to the end of their journey in becoming researchers. We decided to talk with her and investigate.

Her role allows her to be between the students and the supervisors, acquiring a unique glimpse of what is going on and how the relationship evolves on both sides.


Elena Comincioli:  What are the primary rewards and main challenges of being a Ph.D. student coordinator?


Cristina Soriano: The main reward is to learn continuously. You are surrounded by enthusiastic people who are genuinely passionate about their topic, and you learn from them. CISA is very interdisciplinary, so everyone has a different profile and project; everyone learns something new; the environment is very enriching. In addition, that energy of people just starting their Ph.D. is always contagious for those of us who are more advanced. And the main challenge is seeing the hardship involved in the process—everyone struggles. I can distinctly remember the names and faces of the very few people who didn't seem to struggle to finish their PhDs. But all the others went through a period of self-doubt. This is normal, because doing a Ph.D. is a very demanding activity intellectually but also emotionally.  Besides, the supervision they get typically fails at some point, for many reasons.  For example, it is typical for supervisors to have large teams and there might be no precise role distribution in the lab, or they might be asked to do things that are not related to their PhDs, or something they don't have enough competence for, and perhaps they don't know how to acquire those skills. I think lack of skills, problems in supervision, and time pressure are the main three reasons that can make you feel lost trying to do your Ph.D., in addition to the intellectual and emotional effort.



Do you notice any common path in the evolution from the beginning to the end of a Ph.D.?


Yes, and everyone will go through this process at different moments, maybe just once, but also perhaps cyclically. At the beginning of the Ph.D., you are enthusiastic. Then, in the middle of the Ph.D., or several times, you feel lost and discouraged. This feeling can actually continue until the end of the Ph.D.; some people decide that they don't want to stay in academia. But no matter what you do after the Ph.D., this is a learning experience. There is a certain endurance learned during the Ph.D. At the end, you understand that you are strong and self-reliant. Everyone feels like this at the end; even those fed up and exhausted with the experience.



What about mental health? How does a Ph.D. impact your mental health?


Well, I don't think that a Ph.D. necessarily makes you depressed, but you definitely experience self-doubt, the feeling that you might not be up to it. I don't have much experience outside academia, so I'm not sure if this is a common feeling in other sectors.  But in an academic context you are supposed to be smart, la crème de la crème, and this sets you up to feel inadequate at some point. Besides, you're supposed to do whatever it takes, and put up with a lot. This is something we don't talk much about. But in the last years, I have seen a trend where mental problems and work abuse are no longer hidden. I see that doctoral students, and professors too, are more vocal about issues. There is more awareness and discussion about academia's toxicity, and hopefully, this will bring us somewhere. It is on the making; we are not there yet.



It seems that having the right supervisor is the key to success during the Ph.D.


Your supervisor can have a substantial impact. But I think that the network can also make a big difference. If you end up in a team, in a lab, with enough people who support each other, it can also benefit your success.

But usually having a good supervisor is the best option, sure. She needs to be competent in what she is doing, guide you throughout the process, be connected, and have your best interest and career in mind, and not just use you to fulfill personal research goals. So competence, projection, and also team skills, a certain capacity for managing people: this is what is needed. In particular, the last point is something that is not taught or even discussed. Still, a supervisor needs to manage a team, talk to individuals, and be able to set up positive and fruitful interactions.


We need people who are aware of their skills and can try to apply what they know to solve real-life problems [...] doing research needs to be something that has a substantial value for society and not just for academia

One of the numerous meme available in Facebook groups dedicated to Ph.D. students. This one was posted on High Impact Memes

What do you think are the challenges for a supervisor?


The first, I think, is logistics. When you start, you have just one Ph.D. student, and even if you don't have a lot of management skill, you don't have a lot of distractions either. You can focus on the one person, establish a close relationship with them, and learn by doing. At some point though, you will get funding, and you will go from having one person to two or three people. And different hierarchical levels. But you don't necessarily have the management skills for that. Perhaps you interact with them in the same way your supervisor used to interact with you, and, maybe, that is an old-fashioned way by today's standards. And you may start to think that you are now entitled to treat others in the same way because you were treated poorly too. There are other challenges. Personality traits are one of them. You need to deal with people with different kinds of personalities and need to adapt your supervision style to them. Another challenge is time; perhaps you don't have the time to follow each of your team members in the same way. And another is human resources; you might have people in your team that don't have the competences you need despite having the title. And then there is growth; you are expected to grow your lab, attract more funding, enlarge the team, and publish more. Like a spiral, this makes all the other constraints even more challenging.

Another issue is that, even if you have someone in your team who might not be compatible with your personality or who lacks the right skill set, you can't fire them. You can't fire a Ph.D. student. You commit to bringing them to graduation and guide them until the end of their Ph.D.



This is so true! I never thought about this. I was discussing with Ben that most Ph.D. Students don't quit even if they keep mentioning it. Nevertheless, as a Ph.D. student, you do have that option. But you can't get rid of a faulty team member if you are a supervisor. You cannot fire people.


And that can be a problem. Because you might have just one person in your lab who is negative or who is not working, and that can affect the whole lab.



The last thing I want to ask you is how being a coordinator impacts your life as a researcher.


Well, I have less time for my own research! (LOL). But to answer your question: It has made my perception of the value of research change. I still think research is valuable, but now I realize it is beneficial in more than one way.

When I first arrived in academia, I believed that research was valuable for the sake of research: we need to know things. There is this job that is about creating knowledge to expand our scientific understanding of the world, which includes human beings. I didn't consider the implications for society at large.

But after seeing that many people abandon academia, I realized that doing research should help people and inform society in a more practical way. When we do research, we need to train people who are not only excellent in testing a hypothesis and adding one more line about what we know about X; we need people who are aware of their skills and can try to apply what they know to solve real-life problems. And this is almost more important, because the academic world itself doesn't have enough jobs to accommodate everyone adding lines to knowledge. Most of the people who go into academic training and do research then go out into the world. So doing research needs to be something that has a substantial value for society and not just for academia.