Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Using Jahoda's theory of employment to understand the psychology of a PhD

Half the challenge of a PhD seems to be psychology.  Chats with other students about PhD life invariably revolve around the more psychological aspects of work.  Problems seem to centre less around the actual content of study but more about the actuality of doing it: structuring the day, keeping motivated, overcoming barriers and so on.

For my own PhD I'm exploring the psychosocial effects of unemployment and, more specifically, how welfare policies can help mediate these effects.  One key theorist in the literature is Jahoda (1982), who argues that one of the reasons why unemployment is so mentally damaging is because the process of work fulfils five key functions:
  1. Time structure
  2. Social contacts
  3. Participation in collective purpose
  4. Status and identity
  5. Regular activity
Whilst reading Jahoda, I began to think that this theory might go some way into explaining the psychology of a PhD.  I don't think PhD students have any problem with no.4, status and identity, but I think Jahoda's other four 'psychosocial functions of employment' are challenged whilst doing a PhD. Structuring time is perhaps the most common problem cited by PhD students: the days are long and empty and it's solely up to you to fill them productively and efficiently.  Having social contact is an exception, not a rule.  Whilst our PhDs are contributing to a wider, collective knowledge, most of the time PhDs can feel highly narrow and individualised.  Finally, having regular activity can also be problematic, especially, I imagine, for first-year students engaging almost solely with the literature base.

While PhDs do present a challenge, understanding why this is - as  I think Jahoda's theory helps us to - can enable students to overcome these hurdles.  Structuring the day, linking up with fellow academics with similar interests and making the effort to attend conferences, lectures and workshops may just help us feel slightly - just slightly - like members of the real world.

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