I’m looking forward to a return to the office as it’ll give more structure and ease of flitting between reading/writing and lab work, and I’m really craving those daily interactions with others going through the same experience.“ (PhD student)

How well do the workplaces provided on campus support PhD researchers? We published a discussion paper last week, exploring this issue. We can see how current approaches are undermining the potential of these researchers to deliver outcomes within a timely manner.

As campus space has become more finite, the PhD workplace has become less of a priority. Their desks often seem empty, resulting in more shared open plan spaces, or no allocated desks.  It presents a challenge for campus planning.

We reviewed data, spoke to researchers, Australian and UK universities, and workplace experts. The data referenced is from a UK Russell Group Institution, a US survey of 15,000 graduates and the UK Postgraduate Research Survey (PRES), but very relevant to Australian institutions.

We found that as well as a place to write/research, for PhDs the workplace provides a sense of belonging, organisational value, structure in a largely unstructured time of their career, motivation, professional and personal network-building and serendipitous knowledge sharing.

“My supervisor moved me to an office with four other PhD students. 10 years later we are still great friends. The social aspect of the space was hugely supportive and morale-boosting.“

As their space disappears or becomes sub-optimal, they lose their motivation, become disengaged and resentful towards the institution.

“As a part time candidate, my university deemed I was not worthy of a desk or space on campus”

We had only just moved to a shiny new building when I started my PhD and they just hadn’t thought about PhD study space. So we ended up shoved along the corridor.”

Researchers don’t want thriving and busy areas, they often just want a comfortable space with decent amenity (kitchens, bathrooms etc), and access to people with whom they can develop meaningful relationships.

“I was in a shared office with about six-eight other PhD students and postdocs in similar areas of research. It was in a new building, right across from our lab. I loved it.”

“Found it impossible to get anything done with people coming up and down the corridor constantly, so gave mine up for someone who might’ve wanted it more. Did the rest of my PhD cross-legged on my bed in my tiny studio flat.”

Whilst the pandemic has shifted the need for campus space, it shouldn’t be assumed that all researchers can or want to work from home. A US survey found that an unsuitable home environment was the biggest barrier to timely completion (especially for equity groups).

PhDs don’t necessarily need an individual desk, we came across creative solutions like moving researchers around based on stage, from large open spaces at commencement to small shared offices on completion. What was clear, was that we need to look beyond empty desks as a measure of whether they want to be on campus or not. Is the space right for them? Does it meet their needs? Small changes can help create PhD workplaces that support better productivity, community building and mental health.

Discussion paper here

Dr Samantha Hall is Principal Director of global design research consultancy Campus Intuition


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