'Bringing problems out into the open straight away prevents sleepless nights'
In his first year, PhD-PDEng counselor Stijn van Puijenbroek spoke with more than 100 PhDs and PDEngs about small problems and larger ones. “A listening ear is often all that's needed, but sometimes I help them take next steps.”
More than a hundred PhDs and PDEngs have now found their way to Stijn van Puijenbroek, and he hopes to see these numbers grow. The PhD-PDEng counselor emphasizes that voicing problems earlier can help PhD candidates and PDEng trainees. “They can sit on these problems for years. It often makes me think, ‘If you'd come earlier, we could have prevented this situation.’”
Accessible, independent and confidential. These three words typify how Stijn van Puijenbroek works, the counselor on hand to support the 1,941 doctoral candidates and 239 PDEng trainees at TU/e. In the eighteen months he has held this position, he has conducted more than a hundred sessions dealing with all kinds of subjects, in various degrees of severity. These range from communication problems with your supervisor to mental health issues and the impact of, say, the pandemic on your productivity. “I am here to help with any issue they are struggling with in their work. If something is bothering you but you're reluctant to discuss it with, say, your supervisor, you can always come to me.”
And so he appeals to them not to wait too long when something is niggling them. “I once had a session with a third-year doctoral candidate who for years had found his supervisor's authoritarian style hard to deal with. He had already developed physical symptoms and would sleep badly the night before a meeting with his prof. In cases like this I can't help thinking, ‘What a pity this couldn't have been brought out into the open sooner, it might have kept the problem from getting out of hand.”
I'm here for any issue PhDs and PDEngs are struggling with. You can always come to me
Stijn van Puijenbroek, PhD-PDEng counselor TU/e
In another case, Van Puijenbroek spoke with a doctoral candidate who expressed his concern about a supervisor's conduct and the impact it was having on a colleague. He himself wasn't very affected by it, but feared this might change over time. “He used me as a mirror. Am I seeing this right? Do you think this behavior is inappropriate? It's often a question of deciding has the boundary been crossed and social safety flouted or is this 'simply' a rocky working relationship? The fact that this doctoral candidate came to see me proves to me the added value of my position at the university. Immediate action doesn't always have to be taken; I'm also here to enable feelings, stress and thoughts to be vented and validated. And to help think how something can be prevented from becoming a really big problem,” says the PhD-PDEng counselor.
Many of the conversations Van Puijenbroek has are about problems with supervisors: “Some doctoral candidates feel intimidated by the manner in which a supervisor gives feedback. This can make them feel unsafe. In these cases, one question I ask is whether they talk to other people about this, and what they have to say. ‘My colleagues see it happen too, it's been like this for years’, I might then hear. Or, 'Just put up with it and do what you're told, then that'll be the end of it’ and ‘It's been mentioned before, but that hasn't made any difference’. In the face of this, you have to be very sure of yourself to raise the issue. These situations can leave some doctoral candidates stressed out, sometimes even having nightmares.”
He places great emphasis on empowering the doctoral candidates who come to him with this problem. “We talk about how to communicate that the manner of giving feedback is problematic, that you are uncomfortable with it, for example because it is always negatively critical. I coach them in conducting the conversation, because that way they hold the reins. If you don't define the direction, someone else will. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. In that case, what is your next step? Who will you talk to about this? If you need to escalate the matter, I can always help point you in the direction of a solution.”
Confidentiality and solutions
A blessing is how he regards the confidentiality observed by any counselor, because it means the PhD/PDEng can safely assume that his or her story remains within these four walls. “I'm sometimes aware of undesirable practices in the workplace, but I'm not empowered - as yet - to change anything. That makes me feel antsy.”
Students are sometimes referred to other counseling services. “If someone has laid their soul bare to me, I want to be sure I'm not sending them on a wild goose chase. Where improper behavior and a lack of social safety are concerned, incidentally, I often find it wise to refer the person to a confidential counselor. They are in a position to record the incident and open a case file.”
As a counselor, much of Van Puijenbroek's help involves guiding the young researchers in the right direction to solve a problem. “A listening ear is often all that's needed, and help with structuring thoughts, but sometimes I help guide them towards another ‘avenue’ within the university. Thus, I might be asked questions that are the domain of the HR advisor, for example about the scope for extending a project because someone has been ill, or is pregnant. They often don't know who they need to be speaking to about these kinds of questions.”
Van Puijenbroek is now adept at navigating the network of helplines available at the university. “When I started eighteen months ago, this was one of my first tasks: getting an overview of where you can get help with which issues. There are so many avenues: psychologists, health & safety doctors, HR officers, the ombudsman, confidential counselors.” Together, they form a network from which he also benefits, in the absence of a team. “We sometimes discuss cases, but always anonymized.”
Psychologist vs. counselor
“Sometimes a session with me is sufficient, sometimes a referral to the psychologist is needed. I see that people often have to cross a threshold before they feel able to contact a psychologist, evidently they find it easier to come to me. Even so, we may well both conclude that an appointment with a psychologist is the best step. As a counselor, in our talking sessions together I aim to empower people, to set them on the right path, confirm what is going well and what steps they can take. A psychologist can help you things like understanding somber feelings and getting them under control.”
I aim to empower people, set them on the right path, so that they can take steps of their own
Stijn van Puijenbroek, PhD-PDEng counselor TU/e
Sometimes a little encouragement is all it takes, Van Puijenbroek knows from experience. During the corona pandemic he was aware that for internationals, in particular, the world could become very small (read how these two internationals overcame their problems). “They lapse into their own thoughts and negative spiral. Then, I am often one of the first people they enter into a conversation with, and I can help them get things straight in an impartial way. It's something they could have done with a good friend, but often shame stops them.”
“I spoke to a PhD who was becoming increasingly lonely in his own housing unit during the lockdown. He wasn't getting out, wasn't seeing anyone. I suggested he make an appointment at the Sports Centre to start playing sport. It's a way of meeting people instantly, and who knows where that may lead,’”
Van Puijenbroek is keen to see PhDs and PDEngs find their way to him. And when in doubt about whether to contact him, he says, please do. “Rather one session too many than years of muddling through. Every week I have nine slots available, and on-campus is now an option again, so book an appointment. I am here for you.”
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