The thing with PhDs is that it often takes someone who knows the politics and people of the field in order to really understand (or help) a PhD student's troubles (if any arise). At the same time, there are many similarities.

If they don't, who are the other best people to talk to in case issues arise?

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    This question is pretty vague. "Counseling services" can refer to many departments (student services, medical assistance, benefits...), and "issues" is very broad. Perhaps you could specify what you're referring to? – eykanal Feb 29 '12 at 14:15
  • In particular, do you mean personal troubles (like anxiety or depression or impostor syndrome) or professional troubles (like administrative hurdles or paper rejections or an irresponsible advisor)? – JeffE Mar 1 '12 at 3:47
  • Professional troubles. But also personal troubles that arise out of professional troubles too. – InquilineKea Mar 1 '12 at 5:14

Many university mental health centers have PhD-only group therapy programs. These often focus on stress and anxiety. They will be proctored by a professional counselor but are designed to be a space where graduate students can help each other.

The benefit is two-fold - you get to talk to people who are in grad school in your university, perhaps in a similar field or program. You'd be surprised how similar some issues are regardless of field of study (research falling behind, concern about funding, conflicts with PIs/advisers, etc.). But in group therapy you are able to work through issues in an explicitly private space. If you are having a serious issue, it may be good to start here rather than within your department. I'd say that is any grievance you air to someone within your department has the chance to spread.

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In general, university counseling should be aware of how to deal with PhD student affairs as well as undergraduate issues. (Perhaps different staff or the two groups, perhaps not.) However, I'll focus on the "if they don't" part of your question.

There is usually a graduate "officer" in most departments, who is tasked with making sure that graduate students complete the requirements of their studies, and that departmental regulations and policies are being followed. This officer should be the first person to talk to if something goes wrong, and the problem can't be resolved between the parties directly.

Beyond that, the members of the thesis committee have an obligation to intervene in the case of severe conflicts that could disrupt the program. Ultimately, though, the chair of the department would be the last "internal" stop before you would have to go to the university-level administration (the office of the dean of graduate students, or a similar position).

If you are looking for advice from fellow students, perhaps you can get information from the student committee that is present in most departments.

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Generally speaking, you'll get the best advice from one of the following, in order of usefulness & availability to help:

  1. Your advisor
  2. Postdocs in your lab/field
  3. Other graduate students in your lab/field
  4. Close collaborators
  5. Your committee members
  6. University departmental staff
  7. ...

In the past, I have spoken with departmental staff for issues, including my department chair, but often they're pretty limited in what they can offer. Your most useful advice will often come from the top three in the above list.

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