On savouring the bittersweetness of a PhD

[Photo: ©Crispin Blackall via Flicker]

Invited author: Dr. Lea Fuenfschilling, a postdoctoral researcher at CIRCLE, Lund University as well as a lecturer at the Department of Sociology, University of Lucerne.
I was approached by the editors of this blog with the request to write a post about my experiences with my dissertation in the field of transition studies in order to provide new students with insights into how to best conduct their research and careers. Unfortunately, there is no patent remedy for a successful PhD. So what follows is a very personal, somewhat random and not too serious list of reflections.

First of all, welcome to academia! Second, my condolences! I don’t want to lie to you. You have entered a peculiar world. Understanding its rules of the game and finding your way in it will require some effort. Yes, it is going to be painful. But it also has its moments. I’m sure you’ve noticed. But just in case, some tips and tricks.

  • Feeling lost is normal. It’s called academia. And it will never completely go away. So get used to it and don’t let it paralyze you. Take one day at a time. Eventually, things will start to make sense. I promise. After all, the only thing a PhD really signals, is that you are able to hang in there. Only very few people care about what your thesis is really about.
  • Feeling lonely is normal. Since you get awarded a degree, it is usually by design that collaborations have to be limited. No matter how inefficient this might seem. You have to prove that you can do it alone. For a sense of community, find other PhDs to commiserate with. And check out phdcomics.com. We are all sharing the same questionable reality.
  • Be patient. Reading and contemplating ideas takes time. Writing even more so. And publishing… well, let’s not go there. So don’t only consider formal goals like publications as achievements. They are normally the result of many little efforts combined. Rather, define a lot of small milestones, such as finishing a literature review, designing your empirical study, gathering specific data and so on and celebrate them in style. Otherwise, you will go years without recognition or the sense of achievement, which can be detrimental to your motivation.
  • Go to conferences, workshops and especially summer schools. Not necessarily to present your work, but to make friends. One of them will give you your next job. So skip sessions if you must, but never the dinners. Most importantly, also not what follows after the dinners. Especially at the IST Conference. And don’t forget to polish your dance moves. You never know when Johan Schot might challenge you on the dancefloor.
  • Establish routines. They open up space for innovation and creativity. You might need to experiment what suits you best. When are you most productive for what task? Can you work in cafes, the library or at home? Although it might seem that you can do a lot from home and that it is convenient, getting out into the world prevents isolation. Also, schedule lunch with colleagues. Mainly to stay in touch and get information (and commiserate). Most things in academia are decided through unofficial ways. You want to be part of that process.
  • Don’t be shy. Talk to people before you have figured out the problem for yourself. Get inputs and advice. Let other people do the thinking for a change. Especially senior researchers that seem from another galaxy. If you wait until you’re “ready” and won’t “embarrass” yourself, you will never talk to them. Thus also never learn from them.
  • Take the Pareto principle seriously. Always keep the 80/20 rule in mind: 20% of your input will lead to 80% of your output. Be really careful how you handle the missing 20%. Valuation and evaluation of quality are highly contingent. You will never please everybody and criticisms will always remain. It’s academia.
  • Trust your thoughts and ideas. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it might actually be flawed. Challenge established knowledge, assumptions, and people. It’s the only way to move the field forward. And to keep things interesting for all of us.
  • Once you have learnt how to deal with feeling lost and lonely, enjoy and savor this freedom. I don’t think there are many other jobs that give you the opportunity to shape the way people think about problems and solutions and to be part of an ongoing societal discourse. Leave a mark.

And the final and maybe most important point: finish! A good dissertation is a finished dissertation. At some point, you need to put everything aside, no more reading, no more researching, just write it down and hand it in. It will never feel finished. If you leave academia, no one will care about the details. If you stay, you will pick up the work where you left off anyway. Good luck!


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