What This Chapter Is About

This chapter aims to introduce you to important aspects of early-career research, particularly doctoral training, including its formal and informal aspects, and to map what is expected from the individuals at different hierarchical positions in their research environment. The purpose of doctoral training is to provide you with knowledge and skills for research that answers important questions, that research conducted with care and high standards, that you anticipate the implications and applications of its results, and that your research is replicable, transparent and open. This is not and cannot be achieved only through formal training, but through various forms of what is called a hidden curriculum. In this chapter, we will talk about shadowing and role models, research collaboration and international relationships, networking, summer schools and research exchanges. Considering the complexities of relationships in the research setting, we will also talk about the role of doctoral students, and their involvement in supervising others (such as Masters’ students). We will address the principles of respect, honesty and accountability in these networks of collaboration, with special attention to students and supporting staff in academia. Finally, we will discuss the aspects of work and life balance for doctoral students and the importance of existing support networks, with special attention to mental health support and principles of open communication.

Case Scenario: Silent Expectations of Doctoral Training? In Omnia Paratus

This hypothetical scenario was adapted from a narrative concerning the links between research environments and research integrity. The original case scenario is developed by the Members of The Embassy of Good Science and is available at the Embassy of Good Science. The case below is published under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, version 4.0 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Lane is a doctoral student working on gene expression in hepatic tumours. This is her second year of doctoral training, and it is safe to say that her work and life balance has gone out of the window. She spends her weekends in the laboratory, her working day evenings are reserved for data management or catching up on her background research reading, and she hasn’t seen her friends for weeks. This is taking a toll on her wellbeing, as she has also given up on her hobbies. Her laboratory is one of the top in this field of research. This also means that the climate at the lab is highly competitive. Senior researchers are not always keen on providing support. On several occasions, Lane has seen unfamiliar authors’ names appear on papers at the submission stage.

Lane’s supervisor is prof. Smith, famous for breakthrough research in cell signalling. Prof. Smith aims to publish in most prestigious journals such as Science and Nature, as he wants to secure tenure in the next 5 years. He has so far dismissed Lane’s results as too insignificant and wants her to continue working until she gets more impressive results. This means that Lane might not finish her PhD in time. Lane is starting to no longer enjoy this work, and feels like she’s never going to get the results Prof. Smith wants. She believes she has enough data to publish in a smaller journal, which would be enough for her doctoral thesis. She also doesn’t feel comfortable keeping these results unpublished. As the lab is publicly funded, Lane feels it is only right that the public gets access to the results. Also, other research groups might publish similar research before them, making Lane’s efforts unpublishable.

Meanwhile, Prof. Smith is nowhere to be seen in the last 3 months – he hasn’t visited the lab since the summer, and his emails get short responses at best. Lane feels like the only people she talks to are lab technicians and her fellow doctoral students, who are in a similar position. There are two postdocs in the lab who seem nice, but they are too busy with their work. One of them, Kirk, told Lane that this is how it is in highly competitive labs – she should quit now if she can’t handle the pressure.

Questions for You

  1. 1.

    Is Lane’s experience realistic of what doctoral training should look like? What is the rationale for your answer?

  2. 2.

    What is the role of Prof. Smith in Lane’s education? Should Prof. Smith’s professional ambitions influence Lane’s doctoral education? In what ways?

  3. 3.

    How should Lane address her concerns to Prof. Smith?

  4. 4.

    What could be done to improve Lane’s doctoral education?

  5. 5.

    Who should Lane talk to about her options? What initiatives are there to support students like Lane?

Mentors and Mentees: Roles and Responsibilities

A doctoral degree (dr. sc. – doctor of science, ScD – scientiae doctor, or a PhD – philosophiae doctor), is a title awarded to those who have successfully completed a specific study program, written and defended a dissertation. But what does it exactly entail?

The Greek word ‘philosophia’, translates to ‘love of wisdom’. In that sense, doctoral (PhD) training is an exploration of your love for knowledge and discovery. Hopefully, in that journey you contribute to the knowledge of the living world and the things around it. Just like the Greek hero Odysseus, you will meet new people on that journey, some of which will help you navigate the waters of research, and some that will try to lure you into poor practices with seductive songs of quick success. While you might not have Mentor or Athena, you will have a mentor who should guide you in your doctoral training.

Good research practice from the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity:

  • Senior researchers, research leaders and supervisors mentor their team members and offer specific guidance and training to properly develop, design and structure their research activity and to foster a culture of research integrity.

In doctoral training, your mentor plays a very important role. Studies have shown that choosing your mentor well is one of the most important factors that influence the success of your doctoral study. How do you choose a mentor? Firstly, you will have to identify what interests you and where your passions lie, i.e. which research topics you would like to study. Then you should find a researcher at your or some other research/academic organisation who already does research in that or a similar topic, and are preferably successful at it. That seems like a good idea, right? Maybe at surface level. Researchers who are most popular might be at the top of your search results, but that will tell you nothing about their everyday work, team leadership or supervision/mentorship qualities. What you want in a mentor is someone who knows what they are doing, someone who loves teaching and mentoring, and someone who will be available to you for help when you need it. There are too many absent mentor jokes and memes online for this to be ignored. ‘See you with two unhelpful comments on your dissertation in six months’ might seem funny while you scroll one more social media page filled with fellow students’ self-deprecating comments, but a ‘ghost’ mentor might be a bitter reality for the future you. While the waiting itself might be an inconvenience, it might be slightly more than that. It might cost you paid time you could have gotten on a job with a doctoral degree. It could cost you the opportunity to apply for a new position on time. It could cost you your doctoral degree, if situations like that continue indefinitely. Of course, you can always try to find a different mentor, but that will open a Pandora’s box of problems with ownership of research data, ideas and funding that you might not want to get into. And it will give you back exactly zero minutes of your time and effort. So, now that you’re properly frightened, how do you choose a mentor?

Most doctoral training programmes stipulate that you have to have at least two supervisors, one main supervisor and a co-supervisor. Notice how in this chapter we use the word mentor, not supervisor. Those two are not the same thing (Box 2.1), but we will not go into detail on their differences here. Broadly speaking, supervision is the process of overseeing work in a technical manner, ensuring everything is up to prescribed standards. Mentoring is a more nuanced concept of guidance which helps you develop beyond technical skills. It is more personal and should be a process in which both parties benefit and grow. Even though the word supervisor is used more often, it is important to know that supervising is not enough in PhD training. It should also involve sharing of knowledge and generation of ideas and giving credit where credit is due. People who guide your PhD training should push you into new opportunities and experiences selflessly. Unfortunately, in the ‘publish and perish’ culture, this is not always the case.

Box 2.1 Mentoring vs Supervising


  • Educational: introducing and integrating learning,

  • Personal: managing transitional states,

  • Professional: maximising students’ potential to become a fulfilled and achieving practitioner,

  • High level of commitment,

  • Reciprocal but asymmetrical.


  • Task oriented;

  • Organising, monitoring and directing research;

  • Technical, one-directional.

First-hand experience with a professor whose classes you have attended or a researcher that you listened to at a scientific meeting are a good guide for the start of your search for a research mentor. Ask if you can help with their current research projects, so that you can gather valuable experience and skills and get the feeling of the group and the subject area before you commit to it in a doctoral training programme. This might be a good idea not only in your search for the right mentor, but also in your search for the right subject of research. Your impression of science might be slightly different than its reality – a regular working day in research is usually much less impressive and much more repetitive than it might seem from the outside. It is always good to try it yourself (within a team, with all of the safeguards!) and see how it fits your desired lifestyle. Research experience will also give you the opportunity to communicate with the team of PhD students and other researchers who already work with the potential mentor.

That brings us to the next piece of advice. What might be most helpful in your search for the perfect mentor fit is the good old word of mouth. Contact your friends, colleagues, former students and online communities and see who they recommend. What to look for? Here are some tips:

  • A mentor who is open in communication, but not ‘cruel in the name of being honest’ (Taylor Swift got it right, even if she didn’t write that lyric with a doctoral supervisor in mind).

  • A mentor who is professional, but not completely reserved and distant.

  • A mentor who is a friend, but who also knows and respects boundaries.

  • A mentor who does good research, but also knows how to transfer the necessary skills to their fellows.

  • A mentor who provides help and advice when you need it, but also does not do the work for you.

While it might seem pretty cool to have a mentor who takes care of your manuscript, and the lab equipment that broke down again, and sweet-talks the librarian who does not reply to any of your emails, it might not be so nice once you are out there on your own with a doctoral degree. Your mentor will not always be there to write a reply letter to peer reviewers for you. You have to learn to do it yourself. Some might call this ‘tough love’, but it might be more appropriate to say ‘skilful mentorship’.

Good research practice from the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity:

  • Research institutions and organisations ensure that researchers receive rigorous training in research design, methodology and analysis.

A good mentor will also guide your education, in your specific academic discipline and in research integrity and ethics. Your doctoral education should equip you with skills of proper research design and conduct, asking the right questions and using the right methods to find the answers. It should also enable you to report research results in an appropriate manner, encourage you to share data publicly and to acknowledge help you receive from co-authors, technical staff and research subjects. During your doctoral studies, you should acquire habits of staying up-to-date with relevant research and new knowledge, recognizing your field of expertise and getting comfortable with being wrong, accepting constructive criticism, and applying that experience into future work. Doctoral studies are as much character-building as they are knowledge-building. While learning to report your results, transparency, accountability and fairness all come into play. You should be transparent in reporting all the methods you have used, all of the data you have collected and all analyses you conducted, including those that have changed since the original protocol. You should be accountable in crediting all of those who helped you in the process, and fair in acknowledging funding and support you received along the way.

Where and how do you learn about these research principles? They will very likely be a part of research integrity and research ethics courses. You might think that research integrity and ethics education means being familiar with ethics codes and regulations – just another box that needs ticking. While it is true you should be aware of regulations that apply to your research, research integrity (RI) training encompasses more than that. RI training should look beyond boundaries of discipline, culture and politics. As described in the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, it should strive to cultivate good research practices, led by principles of reliability, honesty, respect and accountability. Training in research integrity should include topics and problems that are not traditionally included in similar education, like time management, recognizing and preventing poor practices. Real life examples, both in the form of case scenarios and personal experience, help you to be more engaged and help create a learning environment.

Good research practice from the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity:

  • Research institutions and organisations develop appropriate and adequate training in ethics and research integrity to ensure that all concerned are made aware of the relevant codes and regulations.

Your university should offer training in ethics and research integrity, with the minimum requirement of introducing you to relevant codes and guidelines for your research. Some universities develop their own training, which we strongly encourage you to search out for. Some offer theirs online, via platforms like Epigeum, while others host their own training, with downloadable tools and materials. It is not unusual for universities to have ethics and integrity training embedded into research methodology courses, or courses on animal research or ethics in general. While this is certainly better than no inclusion, it would be best to have separate, dedicated learning time and sources for research ethics and research integrity. Materials and educational tools that are free to use are available at ENERI training page, RRI Tools, and The Embassy of Good Science training page, where they are continuously updated.

A large proportion of these educational materials are focused on norms and regulations. Some RI trainings have departed from rule-based learning and are focused on virtues and values that should guide practice. VIRT2UE train-the-trainer course is based on virtue ethics, with the idea that that development and cultivation of virtues will equip researchers with skills necessary to act appropriately in different situations, without the need to know all of the rules. This way, researchers would know how to react in situations that we have not yet anticipated and created rules for.

While being technically good at research methods and practising research skills are important for being a good researcher, they are not nearly enough. A good researcher will also be open, conscientious and reflective, self-critical and willing to admit mistakes, learn from them and improve. These principles are common to every discipline, but are often taken for granted, overlooked and poorly addressed in doctoral training.

Good research practice from the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity:

  • Researchers across the entire career path, from junior to the most senior level, undertake training in ethics and research integrity.

Training in research integrity and iterative work on the integration of these values in everyday work is necessary if we want to build the generations of researchers who are good for society. However, this does not mean that only novice researchers and students should undertake such training. We cannot and should not expect that doctoral students should bear the weight of research integrity while everyone else keeps doing what they always did. Senior members of the research environment, as well as non-research staff, benefit from reminders about the core values of research and what roles they have in the fragile ecosystem of science. They should lead by example and participate in continuous education and improvement of their practices.

Your mentors should also provide you with funding and opportunities for networking. Learning how others work in your discipline and socialising through research exchanges and summer schools is a valuable part of doctoral education. It is important that mentors enable and support those experiences. Your mentors will also help you prepare your work for presentations and guide you with their own example on how to communicate research results, both with the research community and with the society as a whole. They should guide you and introduce you to the standards of quality that are expected in research. Research misconduct often happens because of poor mentorship that led to poor research practices, especially in large research collaborations.

There are numerous disputes and even more opinions on the duality of professional and private life in research, many of which stipulate the importance of personal values, both of those who judge and of the subjects of their judgement. Separating the art from the artist might be tough and whatever your stance on it, you might feel like a hypocrite for doing so. You might want to work with the superstar researcher in your desired field, but are you willing to ignore the stories about their inappropriate behaviour at conferences or past relationships that erased all boundaries between their work and personal life?

While it is important to strive towards a good balance between your personal and professional life, it is unreasonable to think that one will not influence the other. That might especially hold value during your doctoral training, which is more than a job. It might be a paid position, yes, but not for everyone. However, for the majority of doctoral students, it will be a path of education and growth. In that period of your life, you will learn new methods and skills, in research and in communication. You will also grow as a person and might (if you are lucky) find what you want to do and what you most definitely do not want to do. In that process, you might want to be guided by a person who shares your values and whose life you look up to. This ‘life’ will not only be reflected in the number of books and citations your potential supervisor has, tenured positions offered and grants awarded, but also in the supervisor’s impact on the lives of people in the research group.

In everyday settings, this might describe a mentor who greets the janitor by their name every morning, a mentor whose former students reach out to them for help or simply to catch up with, and a mentor who is not afraid to speak up when they recognize injustice. In the words of virtue ethicists, you might very well want to have a good moral exemplar as your supervisor, which will make them a mentor in the full sense of that word. If you recognize someone you know in these words, by all means, talk to them and ask if they would be willing to guide you through a doctoral journey. If you do not recognize anyone, do not fret – you are not alone. Supervisors and mentors like these are hard to find. If they were easy to find, we would not have nearly as many PhD Comics.

If one of your doctoral co-mentors/supervisors fails your needs and expectations, you can always try to find help from the other. Of course, it might happen that you do not get much help from your co-mentor either. This is why it is almost equally important to have a good support network as it is to find a good mentor. Your support network can come from your personal life, but also from your professional life. Sometimes, those two will blend. You might make friends with fellow doctoral students, with post-doctoral researchers, students, lab technicians, librarians or any other members of the research group or organisation. Those people can be a part of your mentorship and support group. Likewise, you will be a part of theirs. This leads us to the next question – what is your role, as a doctoral student?

As a doctoral student, you have to keep in mind your goals. Be prepared to fail and to learn, and to work hard. Be committed, ask when you don’t know something and when you want to know more. Be open and be kind. Is this specific for doctoral training? No. Is it very important then? Yes. Nurturing these values will set up the foundations you need to be a good researcher. It might also help you become a person people want to be around with, someone they will look up to one day. If you end up working in a research group, it might be expected of you to supervise a younger student. These opportunities are a part of the training in which you learn how to mentor others. You might want to use this to gather feedback on your performance – ask the students to share their experience and any suggestions they might have. This will be your opportunity to help build a better research integrity culture.

Through communication with your colleagues and fellow doctoral students, you will also have the opportunity to engage in more or less formal peer mentorship. After all, your colleagues understand your experience best and you have the opportunity to learn from each other. You can make this process more formal and follow the example of medical researchers, by organising monthly meetings with a 5/10/30 rule: 5 minutes at the beginning of the meeting are spent on checking in on everyone; 10 minutes for the discussion of short-term goals; and 30 minutes to discuss long-term goals and steps to achieve them. This way you are encouraged to assign specific actions for your goals and to work on them in smaller, but less intimidating, tasks.

Doctoral training can feel intimidating, partly because there is a general understanding that it involves long working hours, little to no days off, and low pay. While it is true that there are toxic environments like that in doctoral programmes, it does not mean yours has to be. When starting your doctoral studies, schedule your day in a way that is compatible with your tasks and fits your productivity hours. Keep in mind that this schedule might change as you progress. At the beginning, you will likely want to engage in more social activities related to work. This is your opportunity to get to know everyone you will be working with and start relationships that you can cultivate throughout your time there and beyond. Social hours will likely take place in your schedule later on as well, but will probably be more networking oriented.

Your working hours do not have to be 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, even if it feels like they should. Of course, the culture of your organisation, your research discipline and your mentor will have a direct influence on this, and having a more open and accommodating leadership will make it easier for you to find the optimal schedule. What might help is that, while you work, you remain focused on that activity only. Few focused productive hours are better than many hours interrupted by social media or long lunches. If you like your work, it is very likely you will be doing it in your free time. That is more than fine. However, make sure you do not do it because you feel you have to, and make sure you take some time every week when you completely switch off from work. Some form of physical exercise will do you loads of good and will help you get back to your work refreshed and ready to go on.

Doctoral training can be very demanding and ‘research fatigue’ is a real thing. If you start feeling like you are losing interest in things you used to care about, are low in confidence, have difficulties trying to concentrate, take a step back and re-evaluate. These might be signs of a burnout and signal that you need to take some time off. More than 40% of postgraduate students’ report symptoms of depression, emotion or stress-related problems. Organisational climate can impact mental health of the employees, and while raising awareness is a good first step, more needs to be done. Providing resources and training for well-being, as well as good mentoring practices, could be a step in the right direction. Rewarding researchers for accomplishments for less traditional outcomes, for practices that foster RI, is another initiative that could improve the climate.

European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc), an international federation of doctoral candidates and early career researchers’ organisations, have started a Mental Health Working Group with the aim to raise awareness, identify risk factors and promote good practices for mental health of doctoral students in Europe. Researcher Mental Health and Well-being Manifesto was published in 2021, and calls for “the assessment of how the mental health and well-being of researchers can best be nourished and sustained through actions and initiatives at the policy, institutional, community and individual levels.” See if your university supports initiatives like this and if they want to do more. Your university likely offers individual support and counselling services, and it might be good to seek out their advice even if you don’t suffer from severe burnout.