Report on the Participatory Action Research « Well-being, Health and Work during the PhD »

Participatory action research projects frequently incorporate goals that relate to students’ well-being in academic, emotional, cognitive and social domains (Smith, Beck, Bernstein, & Dashtguard, 2014[2]). A participatory action research was conducted in Paris (France) in March 2015[1]. Pascale Haag (Associate Professor at EHESS) adapted a curriculum called SPARK Resilience, designed by two renowned experts in Applied Positive Psychology, Dr. Ilona Boniwell and Lucy Ryan, with the aim of helping people to gain more control over their negative emotions and improve their resilience skills. SPARK was reorganised in its form as well as in its content to make it fit into a cycle of 4 sessions of 2 hours each, tailored to the needs of PhD students. The new programme was named BEST-doc, standing for Bien-être, Santé et travail pendant le doctorat (i.e. “Well-being, Health, and Work during the PhD”).

Each session of the programme focuses on a particular theme. The first one mostly deals with what happens on the cognitive level – how different people react in different situations – i.e. the identification of automatic thoughts, emotions, inappropriate reactions, catastrophisation, etc. Various answers and potential solutions are explored. The second session is devoted to the amelioration of interpersonal relationships in the academic environment, with a particular focus on the relationships with the PhD advisor(s). The issue of emotion regulation constitutes the centre of the third session, while the last meeting addresses the question of strengths and values (based on Peterson and Seligman, 2004). The whole programme aims at providing a large number of tools to make the PhD journey a rich and stimulating experience, both on the intellectual and the personal level.

In our research, participants were considered as co-researchers, i.e. “experts” of their own situation – in this case, the challenges of the PhD – and were fully involved in research decisions. They were also invited to contribute actively to the improvement of the programme for further sessions through comments and suggestions.

This approach was chosen because of its democratic and collaborative ethos (Coghlan & Brannick, 2005). We also took into consideration the fact that our research was still at an exploratory stage and that the purpose of this research aimed to generate practical knowledge that can contribute to the development of new practices (McNiff & Whitehead, 2011[3]). Moreover, although we fully recognise the merits of evidence-based medicine methods (such as randomised controlled trials), we are also aware of their limits (Slade & Priebe, 2001[4]; Williams, 2010[5]) and we strongly believe in the heuristically reciprocal enrichment of different, yet undoubtedly complementary, approaches. The result of this intervention was thus not to be assessed according to the requirements of evidence-based methods. Rather, our aim was to explore PhD students’ experience of the doctoral process and their appropriation of various techniques that could enable them to face most stressful situations they are likely to encounter.

Information about the project was sent to PhD students from three Parisian universities through their research laboratory in January 2015. Participants were invited to join this participative action research on a voluntary basis. The only conditions to be included in the project were: 1. current enrolment in a PhD programme; and 2. a commitment to attend all four sessions. Fourteen participants attended the project. They came from various disciplinary fields/backgrounds (anthropology, biology, history, humanities, psychology, sociology) and were at different stages of their curriculum/PhD programme (1st to 4th year).

We resorted to multiple methods in order to assess the results of the intervention. Although the number of participants was too small to be really statistically significant (N = 14), questionnaires on resilience, flourishing, and mental health were completed before the beginning and at the end of the programme, and once again ten weeks later.[6] After each session, an open-ended questionnaire was handed out comprising three questions about the clarity of explanations, whether they found any missing points and inviting suggestions/criticism/further comments, so that the programme would be ameliorated in the future. Participants were also requested to evaluate each component of the programme on a 4-point Likert Scale. The sessions were video-recorded and individual semi-structured interviews were conducted within the two months following the last session. A thematic analysis of the material focusing on problem-solving and on possible improvement of the programme was performed (Corbière & Larivière, 2014[7]).

During the first sessions, each participant expressed their expectations. Stress management was their main concern, together with the quality of their relationships – first and foremost with their advisor, but also with their partner, family and close friends who do not always understand what they are doing. More widely, they wished the PhD process to be a source of intellectual and personal growth. So let us assess to what extent the goal was met, and what the participants have to say about their experience…

The main themes that emerged from the data analysis of the open-ended questionnaires, and from the semi-structured interviews that were conducted at the end of the project can be divided in two broad categories: the various ways in which the programme was helpful, and suggestions for its improvement in the future.


Sharing experiences and putting issues into perspective

All participants without exception pointed out the fact that the programme helped them to stop dramatising, and to tone down the importance of their problems. They also realised that other PhD candidates felt exactly the same, that they were not the only ones to feel anxious or to lose self-confidence.

  • BEST-doc really helped me to identify the moments when I was under stress and was spending lots of time brooding over my problems and catastrophising). I am now more able to point out negative thoughts. It does help to put words on things and to find resources and solutions.
  • Suddenly, I realised that my difficulties, distorted thinking, and weaknesses were not uncommon… It had an instant “de-dramatising” effect on me!
  • What I liked: we were discussing PhD students’ issues in a group of PhD students. I usually consider that these are personal problems, and thus do not talk about them. Here, I felt that other participants were interested in what I had to say and that I was not alone.


Spontaneous integration of the tools and stress reduction

The various exercises and techniques taught in the programme were appropriated differently, depending on individual needs. Interestingly, several participants noted that things seemed to have changed naturally, not always because they had decided to adopt new behaviours or ways of thinking, but because their perception had changed.

  • I did not practice the exercises the way we did during the sessions, but my state of mind has clearly changed. Even if I sometimes go limp, I feel much better now, and I am more and more able to value my accomplishments.
  • I have the impression that things happen bit by bit: I did not do any work… but there are things that stand out: to divide big tasks into smaller ones, I now think: “It is not you being too stupid, it is the task that is too big!”
  • It is not always easy to know which are the factors that help me out. In some cases, I have no control on circumstances, but in others, I do and I can make choices accordingly. For instance, I have realised that my teaching activity gives me lots of energy, that I actually like it.



The general aim of this programme is to provide a set of tools that can be appropriated and used depending on specific needs at any stage of life/under most circumstances. This was clearly expressed by one participant:

I joined this programme to be able to identify whether problems that might emerge during my PhD are normal or not, and also to find out which tools I could use in such a case in order to analyse and solve the problems. At the moment, I have no difficulty, it was merely preventive. From this perspective, the goal has been achieved, all the more since checklists are provided.


Limitations of the program

There are some cases for which it seems difficult to help doctoral student solve their problems. The strongest obstacles seem to arise in contexts where the individual has little or no control over the situation, and very few options are available for them to get out of it. For instance, a participant whose PhD research was not funded (which is rather common in France, especially in disciplines such as social sciences or humanities) attended all the four sessions. Although he was very happy with the programme, he declared at the end of the training that he did not manage to integrate any of the tools in his daily life and that everything went back to normal as soon as the programme was over. His perception was confirmed by the scores in the questionnaires: unlike his fellow participants, the scores of depression, anxiety and stress did not decrease, whereas resilience remained the same.


What participants liked

  • The simple fact of giving PhD students the opportunity to meet and discuss was already a good thing. But the programme does not stop there: the combination of theoretical explanations and practical tools was well-designed and relevant for researchers.
  • I do appreciate the idea consisting in identifying and liberating one’s own creativity and innovation strengths… and the idea that everyone’s in capacity to change without stigmatising good or bad attitudes, nor issuing injunction to go one way or the other


Suggestions for improvement

Duration of the program. Most participants found the programme too brief. They suggested to add at least one more session specifically devoted to the relationships with their supervisor(s) and to have three-hour session instead of two, in order to have more time for discussions. Here are a few comments from the participants:

  • The programme should be longer – so that we get more time to elucidate theoretical elements
  • It would be nice to have more time for practice and experience sharing
  • You could develop the practical side of the programme even more and spare more space for discussions: to emerge from the silence of solitude, and to see yourself in other people’s eyes is such a rewarding experience!
  • It would be nice to have more focus on the supervisor who is a key-person in the success of the PhD. What about an individual record of each participant’s relationship with their supervisor? Specific problems could be discussed in small groups, solutions could be suggested, and then a summary of the solutions could be offered to the whole group?

 Cultural adjustments. One of the suggestions was to elaborate on some of the concepts, such as “flourishing”, so that they matchthe French and South-European, Mediterranean mindsetsmore accurately.

  • I could not get into the assertive communication technique, possibly because of some personal prejudiced ideas against techniques that remind me of NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming)
  • The concepts of flourishing and, for instance, well-being scales make me feel suspicious at once. I think that these North-American models deserve to be adapted to a European audience that is often allergic to “happiness recipes”. I might be over-reacting but I think that even a mere linguistic re-formulation would be helpful to make the idea of Positive psychology more acceptable to PhD students and – if I may go this far – to intellectuals

 Indeed, using words such as “well-being”, “resilience”, “self-efficacy”, “happiness skills” or “flourishing” often elicits strong reactions in France, where reluctance to happiness appears to be a cultural phenomenon[8]. Although WEIRD[9], the French may be “weird” in a slightly peculiar way…

Expansion of some aspects of the programme

People’s individual needs differ necessarily. The programme was designed to address them in a global perspective, trying to give options for participants to keep on searching and sharing beyond the four sessions. As expected, some participants would have wished to further investigate one or the other aspect depending on their own difficulties.

  • It is difficult for me to go and meet people, for instance, in conferences. I would have liked more emphasis on interpersonal relationships.
  • More advice on time management would be extremely useful.
  • It is extremely difficult for me to reconcile all the various activities of a PhD student’s life. Maybe we should spend more time on this question?
  • I would have liked to have more tools to reframe distorted thinking.


After this pilot experiment, the next step is to go on experimenting by teaching the programme in various settings during the 2015-2016 academic year in order to improve it further. One monthly research seminar opened to M.A. and PhD students will be held at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS, Paris) from November 2015 to June 2016, and a 15-hour module will take place at the C.R.I. in 2016 during the spring term.

Simultaneously, research funding will be allocated to set up an experimental protocol. We are planning to evaluate the programme’s effectiveness through a multisite, randomised control trial in three different places (Grenoble, Marseille, and Paris). In the future, we hope to be able to train psychologists so that the programme can be taught in French universities, not only to PhD students, but also at earlier stages (undergraduate and graduate students).

Beyond the scope of this intervention, what is at stake is a positive transformation of the individuals, so that they can grow, develop their full potential and find the best way for them to contribute to scholarship or even, more widely, if they wish to do so, to the society and the future of the planet.

[1] I wish to thank very warmly all the participants that contributed to the success of this experiment. My thanks are also going to the Centre de recherches interdisciplinaires (CRI that hosted the sessions, to Amélia Legarve, Sophie Pène and François Taddei for their support and encouragements, and to the members of the scientific board of BEST-doc: Ilona Boniwell, Fabienne Cazalis, Mélusine Harlé, Richard Rechtman, Thomas Saïas and Bénédicte Zimmerman.

[2] Smith, L., Beck, K., Bernstein, E., & Dashtguard, P. (2014). Youth Participatory Action Research and School Counseling Practice: A School-Wide Framework for Student Well-Being. Journal of School Counseling, 12(21).

[3] McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2011). All you need to know about action research. London: SAGE.

[4] Slade, M., & Priebe, S. (2001). Are randomised controlled trials the only gold that glitters? The British Journal of Psychiatry, 179(4), 286‑287.

[5] Williams, B.A. (2010). Perils of evidence-based medicine. Perspectives on Biology and Medicine, 53, 1, 106–120.

[6] The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC, Connor & Davidson, 2003) for resilience, the Mental health Continuum Short Form (MHC-SF, Keyes, 2009) and the 21 items Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS-21, Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995).

[7] Larivière, N., & Corbière, M. (2014). Méthodes qualitatives, quantitatives et mixtes dans la recherche en sciences humaines, sociales et de la santé.

[8] The French economist Claudia Senik goes as far as to call this “the French depressiveness”. She writes: “It has now become common knowledge that the French are much less happy and optimistic than their standard of living would predict. This comes in contrast with the French high standard of living, universal and free access to health care, hospitals, public schools and universities, and the high quality of amenities (as attested by the exceptional inflow of tourists)”. See Senik, C. (2014). The French unhappiness puzzle: The cultural dimension of happiness. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 106, 379‑401.

[9] The acronym WEIRD – standing for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic –, was forged by Heinrich and his colleagues as they tried to draw the world’s attention to the fact that most of the research conducted in psychology was actually based on… samples of students at US universities. See Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61‑135.

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