I will speak from my experience as an integrated-Masters graduate in Physics in UK, but I think this is applicable to any discipline.
Universities got it right when it comes to laboratory experiments or research projects during the degree: they make students work in pairs. I loved my final year research project because being able to brainstorm and bounce ideas back-and-forth with my MPhys partner took away most of the daunting nature of research. Having someone right next to you working on exactly the same project can prevent students from feeling deeply disoriented and aimless. You support each other when you're feeling lost, and given you're both on the same boat, it takes away the natural response of procrastinating and losing motivation that comes with being alone in such situations. Thinking about things together as loosely as needed can give you a natural sense of motivation somehow and allows you to be a lot more productive and effective.
- More productive because together you are able to come up with a lot more ideas, and you motivate each other to keep thinking for longer periods of time without giving up.
- More effective because the ideas coming from you and from your partner build on top of each other, and gain strength to penetrate into the unknown. When you are on your own, it's more likely that your ideas will stack up at the bottom, not having the same penetration potential.
A study in the UK reported that 46% of researchers feel lonely at work, which increases to 64% for PhD students. I believe the loneliness of independent research is the real root of the problem with Academia, the reason behind the mental-health isues such as impostor syndrome, anxiety and depression.
I looked up on Google 'Why don't PhD students work in pairs' and there are no results at all. Why have we normalised that research should be done alone? Yes, you have your supervisor to discuss things with maybe more than once a week if you are lucky, and yes, you have other PhD students around you to socialise and discuss ideas with, but this is not the type of loneliness I am referring to. It is the loneliness of independent research, where you get to your 3rd, 4th year of PhD, and being so advanced in your project means nobody understands the nits-and-grits of it like you do and hence no one can really help you anymore.
Now, I can think of a couple of issues with pairing PhDs up:
- Money. Universities don't want to pay twice the money for a single project. Say you have the same number of PhD students, but they're all paired up. The pyramidal scheme of Academia wouldn't want to halve the number of projects for the same amount of money. That is less publication potential so nah. They are increasingly putting up more Mental Health support services, but I think they are not tackling the root of the cause, just the symptoms.
However, the fact that putting students in pairs could make them a lot happier, more productive and effective, means this could be turned around and it could actually end up being benefitial for the research output.
- How do you match pairs up? Pairings students up randomly could go wrong if they don't end up getting along well. And some students might even prefer just working on their PhD on their own.
Just make it a normal part of a PhD offer to let the student decide if they want to undertake their PhD alone or with a partner. And put some formal procedure in place in case a pair of students really did not manage to get along. The procedure could just involve splitting the directions of research of the pair so they can carry on alone, or join someone else's project (as long as it's sufficiently related) who might have been split from their previous partner but would still want to work in pairs.
- PhD is preparation for independent research. PhDs who manage to finish the programme on their own show they are prepared to be successfull in climbing up in Academia, in case they choose to apply for a Postdoctoral research assistant job.
If PhDs could hugely benefit from working in pairs, the same idea could be extended to Postdocs. I understand once you get to positions higher up in Academia, especially after tenure, one gets so many responsibilities (meetings, lectures, tutorials, supervisions, etc) that having a pair to do your research with becomes unfeasable. But still, given you have a fixed office in a department, nothing prevents you from having a collaborator who you work with as closely as you want.
Are there any other reasons I have missed which makes this unfeasable? Am I think about it wrong? If University knows pairing students up during their undergraduate is benefitial, why discontinue that afterwards?