How to PhD
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In short: This entry provides guidance for anyone who's planning or already engaging in a doctorate position, based on experiences made by Prof. von Wehrden throughout the last years and decades.
- 1 I - To PhD or not to PhD?
- 2 II - Finding a supervisor
- 3 III - Reading and designing
- 4 IV - Getting the first paper done
- 5 V - The empirical gap and/or trap
- 6 VI - Gaining flow vs procrastination
- 7 VII - Get rid of (almost) everything
- 8 VIII - Iteration circus
- 9 IX - You have to let go
- 10 X - X marks the spot
- 11 (XI) Celebration
I - To PhD or not to PhD?
Considering your options
First of all, it is difficult to know whether you really want to become a PhD student. Back in the day, I did not want to do a PhD. I was basically done with University. Then my future supervisors gave me a call, with the words: "This is a call from fate". I feel he was totally on point, spot on. For me, doing a PhD was serendipity. Not everybody is always totally clear whether doing a PhD is the right way. Others are clear about it already while doing their Bachelor, and always claim they want to do a PhD. Consequently they do not need to ponder much about it. What is however tricky is the group of people who do not really know what to do in general, and just do a PhD, because, why not? While it is save to say that everybody needs to find their way in doing a PhD, it is difficult if you start a PhD because you do not have any alternatives. Do not misunderstand me: many of the best PhDs will come out of this group of people who lack alternatives. However, some will realise halfway that maybe a PhD is not the main goal in their life. This is perfectly alright. However, ideally you should make up your mind as early as possible. I wish I could offer some suggestion on who should ideally opt for doing a PhD, yet I feel that academia is built on diversity, and hence there is no universal recipe for a PhD, let alone for a successful PhD student, that is.
Funding and positions
What is however relevant for your decision to do a PhD is that you get funding. If you apply for a project position, you will have funding, but there is also a clear expectation of what you are supposed to be working on. Quite often, you are part of a bigger team, and this demands not only a will to cooperate, but also a clear responsibility and reliability towards your other fellows. In my experience, there are quite some positions out there in exciting projects, but the collaboration in such projects is then part of your PhD, and you will constantly have to negotiate between your goals, and the goals of the team. While this sounds easy in theory, it is often a hole in which many work hours are buried under a pile of emotions. On the other hand, you may be the only PhD in a team working on a specific topic. There are for instance quite some scholarships available, and while I never understood the decisions about which PhDs get funding, and which are not funded, these scholarships have at least some sort of a stochastic chance to gain you funding. These scholarships are more independent, which then becomes a problem down the road. Many people believe that academia is about being part of a larger team. While this is in some sense true, because academics can work in teams, this exchange in teams will not take away the necessity that it is you who needs to shoulder the bulk of the workload. This workload is at the heart of any PhD, even if you want to contribute to a larger narrative, you will have to mostly work alone. This is something that almost all PhDs struggle with: to accept that it is them who will have to do the work, and no one else. As a supervisor, I am willing to go all the way with you, but I cannot go the way for you. You have to learn to walk this path alone, a supervisor is just for the general direction. A PhD is ultimately about learning to overcome yourself, not for others to help you overcome yourself. Others - your fellow students and supervisors - may be catalystic, but the learning is all yours. Embrace this early on. Everybody struggles with it, so I felt it is only fair if I tell you this early on.
What makes a successful PhD student?
However, there are some character traits that I observed in the past that created successful cases. First and foremost, I think that previous PhDs I know were often thrilled and excited about their research. This showed in many different appearances, but overall, many of these folks were basically quite driven in terms of their focus. You know it when you see it as an external observer. However, you do not know it if you are one of those driven people themselves. Instead, most potential PhD students are full of doubts, focus on their wannabe limitations, and are often never sure whether they are on the right track. Therefore, it is often a good indicator if successful researchers consider it a good choice for you to pursue a PhD, and are willing to support you. A PhD is more about what you could become compared to what you are. Learning is relative. Taken together, if an experienced researcher is willing to support you, and you feel you want to commit the next years of your life to work deeply on one topic, and mostly for yourself, then you may be the right person for a PhD. This brings us to the next point.
II - Finding a supervisor
Most of the time, you do not find a supervisor, ideally you find each other. I feel that a good supervisor knows that you are the right choice, or how my PhD supervisor summarised our first encounter: "At this point, I knew I would not get rid of him". I believe, doing a PhD is about learning, and equally is the supervision of a PhD about learning, that is, learning for the supervisor. There are several steps that you can take to pursue your academic life so that you and your future supervisor have an encounter leading to a PhD. First and foremost, leaving a good impression in a course is always a good idea. Many of my PhD students were students in our Bachelor or Master programs beforehand. Memories of good students are always vivid, and in my experience I can tell quite quickly whether a person is a good fit for our team, and a PhD. However, I also frequently hire external PhD students, and finding a way from outside is a bit harder. I believe that most of my colleagues and me get several dozen PhD applications form external students per year, often from foreign countries and with the question for a position. Unfortunately, this is not possible as most positions are related to specific projects, where there exist already clear ideas about the focus and goals of the projects, and positions are written out that people can apply for. In this case, you apply for a very specific context, and you should be clear what is expected from you.
While I personally encourage my PhD students to give a position their own specific touch, there are clear exceptions from funding bodies and other project partners, with time frames, deliverables and milestones. If you apply for a position, try to learn about these things, and also learn about the team that you apply for. How are interactions facilitated, what about joint identity, and how is the supervision organised? All these things are valuable to know, and need to match your expectations. Many potential PhD students envision that they will sit with their professor all day, and will discuss things that sound important, and somewhat scientifically. This is not how reality looks like, I think it is closer to a cognitive apprenticeship, with a higher frequency of exchange in the beginning. In most cases, professors have ideas, and want their PhD students to pursue these ideas concretely. There may be regular interactions, but as long as you are not the only PhD student, there will be hardly daily active exchanges. People I admire meet their team on a weekly basis, yet professors have teaching duties, admin work and after all often apply for the next funding, and also have larger teams beside you. Finding a supervisor is hence often about managing your own expectations. However, in my experience, there is more.
I think the most important thing a supervisor can do is to motivate and to inspire. I have been very inspired by my supervisors and mentors. I think to me it was most important that my supervisors gave me direction and advice, not necessarily general advice, but more tailor-made for me. I have a rather old-fashioned idea of a supervisor being like the teacher in a Kung-Fu monastery: relaxed, effortless, but incredibly versatile if challenged. An inspirational supervisor makes mastery look easy, effortless and incredibly elegant. The moment of bafflement when the learner attempts to do the same is the main inspiration, challenging you to become a better version of yourself. Beside this inspiration a supervisor also provides a role model when it comes to structure in life (or at least that happened for me). More experienced people somewhat got their life quite in order, and the mixture of experience plus more structure and established habits is a big boost for productivity. I admire experienced researchers and teachers in how they make much look effortless, while especially today it seems like a badge of honor that people are busy. It was my supervisors and my idols that showed me that most people are not super-busy, but badly structured and unable to focus.
The last but not least thing a supervisor can bring to your development is specific advice. We all have our little twerks and insecurities we need to adjust, and there may be even bigger hurdles to overcome. My first professor basically took one good look at me and addressed my biggest flaw, quite bluntly. I am still thankful to him - at the time it certainly was not easy, but necessary. My supervisor was equally directly showing me not only flaws and blunders in my thinking, but also explained the academic system to me. Understanding hierarchies, norms and structures in academia takes quite some time. Young people are often impatient, yet it is also highly relevant and overdue to change the academic circus. A progressive supervisor will know how to help you on this path, but equally realise that the main goal of supervision is to aid not only your students to become better, but for the whole academic system to become better.
Most people these days are driven by topics, and want to make a difference with their work. While this is understandable and admirable, I think it is only a secondary goal compared to the main goal of any given PhD, and that is overcoming yourself. Looking back at my PhD, I loved my topic; it was about conservation, rangeland dynamics, and the Gobi desert. It was incredibly cool to do, and even had a real impact on the ground. I loved my PhD topic. But coming to think of it, my PhD was mainly about learning to overcome myself, and to learn key academic skills, which were in my case revolving around methods. I had interest in my topic, and my supervisors and colleagues were pivtotal to this end as well. But looking back at it 10 years later, it was more about learning to work deeply on a topic, any topic. Ever since, my focus has shifted. Many researchers continue to work on their PhD topics for their whole careers, which is kind of standard in the old days and in the normal sciences. Today, this seems to be vastly different. Your PhD may ramp up your live goal, but more often than not, people change their focus, sometimes repeatedly.
To summarise, you should try to find your way into the limelight of a supervisor early, and try to find for yourself what you expect from a supervisor, and what a supervisor can expect from you. In this way, you get a clear understanding about roles and expectations. These will change later on for sure, but can be an important door opener in an interview, and may enable you to find your way in a new role as a PhD student. Earning a PhD is among the greatest privileges of academia, and is for me only surpassed by the privilege to supervise a PhD. A PhD is about years of a life of a person, and that investment of a person counts for something, and then some, I would say.
III - Reading and designing
No research starts from scratch, but instead all research is standing on the shoulders of giants. We are part of a multiverse and a continuum, and no matter how small our own contribution may be, it is part of a bigger picture. This is the most important point of departure for any PhD, because it highlights the importance of reading the literature your work is built upon. What are the foundations of the topic? Who are central figures in the debate? What are the central theories of your work? All this you should read up upon, because it is expected that you become the expert on this small turf of current research. The goal of a PhD is to become an expert in one very specific part of current research, and to move it forward. This is a problem for many, because I believe that you hardly ever feel like an expert. I certainly do not feel an expert in anything, and most PhDs feel that they are predominately gigantic experts in procrastination. We have all been there.
Still, consider the topic and theories that you read your way into, and try a little visualisation technique. Image a circle around you, maybe of about 100 kilometres. How many people would you think are surpassing your expertise regarding the very specific topic? Coming to think of it, quite few, probably. You become an expert. I for once became an expert about the vegetation of the southern Mongolian Gobi, and its dynamics. Granted, a very singular area of expertise, but there are a few handful of experts to this end, and I had to learn to acknowledge this in my PhD. More importantly, one needs to own it, and this takes time. Try to develop a strategy how you read papers, make a plan, and first and foremost try to learn to crossroad papers fast. You need to become able to grasp the main points of a paper quickly, especially the points that are important for you. Learning to get an overview of a field of research is a pivotal skill for any researcher.
Learning to read is a means to an end, and this end is to inform your own research direction and design. By building on previous knowledge you learn to identify gaps, and become able to verbalise existing questions that remain unanswered. Then, you can start to frame what you want to do and how you want to do that correctly. No one is an island. Other people will have done some parts of what you want to do before - it is often the recombination of information that is the really new and innovative step. Try to understand where the frontier is in your research area, and be bold enough to push this frontier a bit further. I often advise people that if your topic is innovative, you may want to have your underlying theory and the methods you utilise to be maybe not on the bold end of the spectrum. If the theory is bold, maybe a solid topical foundation can make it more tangible. If everything about your research is the unexplored country - to build on Shakespeare - then it will be very hard to build something tangible. In order to be bold and innovative in some parts of your research, I often feel it is helpful if other parts are solid and somewhat established. In a PhD, it can be good to depart from the state-of-the-art, and then progressively move this forward. The next section will deal with the potential architecture of your thesis.
IV - Getting the first paper done
The first paper is the hardest, always. I remember how much effort I put into my first paper, and it felt as if it would never be done. I feel that here the supervisor can potentially help a bit more, while towards the end of a thesis the candidate should ideally become more independent. What is safe to say from my viewpoint is that we all need help at some point.
I think all PhDs need three types of skills: Getting data, analysing data, and interpreting the results. Ideally, a PhD is more or less able to master at least two of these steps, and may need a bit more support by one of the other steps. Most PhDs are excited about getting data, a step that is often easy to begin and hard to end. This is why it is helpful to have clear designs and to fixate these in more or less binding written outlines. Writing a clear structure of your thesis in the beginning is helpful. This outline and structure will often be altered, but in my experience is it helpful to force your way through this, and this comes from someone who did not do this, which was clearly a mistake. I would say give it a try, have it critiqued, and then be open-minded to change it. But see it like a band aid: you want to rip this off fast.
This brings you to the first paper. In many institutions it is vital to have at least one paper published, and the typical three years you have for a PhD fly past fast. Since peer-review takes time, it is vital to get the first paper done rather quickly, and submit it. It may circulate for some months, or in severe cases even more than a year at the journal with editors and reviewers, so go figure what that means for the three year timeline of your PhD. Therefore, I often recommend that the first paper could be a systematic review. You anyway have to read all the available literature, so why not do that in a systematic sense. I acknowledge that I like reviews a lot, and approach many topics through reviews, yet in your PhD it also has the benefit that no one can take all this knowledge away from you. It can be quite comfortable to stand on the shoulders of giants, and in your defense you will be able to have references woven into your replies with ease, which people will appreciate. I also think it is quite helpful to write a systematic review to define your point of departure. All things considered, the outlook of the review may ramp up your agenda for the PhD.
An alternative way is to make a pilot study or a pretest of you next paper, and make this a small but precious first paper in your PhD. Such a small empirical paper can be an equally good starting point, as it is often quite easy to structure such a paper, and to get into a flow in terms of writing it. Here again, an outline is ideal, because many people are tempted to make such a paper more than it actually is. Remember that you start, and more can be pursued in the next papers.
What is also important to consider for your first paper is to identify a target journal. Which journals harbour the most literature on the topic you are working on? Which journals seem appealing in terms of the style, focus and audience? And maybe you want to consider a small gambit, and aim a bit higher? Depending on your time line, you might make the first submission a little bit higher, knowing that you have a sure shot at another journal that is slightly less prestigious? To this end, it is good to rely on the experience of your supervisor, and fellow PhDs and other colleagues. Some journals demand a specific format and structure, and this should be considered early on.
, in order to get this first paper done, you need to develop a mindset where you want to get this paper done. This is what the first paper is all about: starting to learn to overcome yourself. Try to keep it simple, try to establish writing as a habit, and also try to gain experience. At this state, many people claim to be bad at writing. I think this is simply not true, they are only untrained in writing. Writing takes practice, and I am not only talking about putting words on paper. I am talking about creating a structure and taking decisions. Writers take decisions. Hence you will need to practice, and this is what the first paper is for. You will have to learn to get your work into smaller chunks. If you write a quarter of the introduction of a paper in a day, then you should be done in two weeks if you keep up the pace. Since structure and momentum are key challenges, try to make a bullet point outline, or discuss the structure of the paper with your supervisors or your peers. If you ask me, try not to focus on the flaws, but try to get a full first version onto the paper. This is the hardest thing, but being in the limbo of iterations is something that will happen anyway, so try to write the first version with your heart, and then try to get it criticised. This is not about being perfect. This is about finding a way to start, which is exactly what the first paper should focus on.
V - The empirical gap and/or trap
While reading and designing the potential studies is one vital first step for any given PhD, getting empirical data (or engaging with conceptual depth in case of a non-empirical PhD) is the real deal. Time to get your hands dirty. The key challenge for any empirical work is that there are some things that can be planned and designed, and some other things where you have to embrace a healthy form of improvisation. The gap between these two is the source of endless stories of countless researchers across the globe. Planning what you want to work on needs to build widely on experience and previous research, hence consulting expert researchers, discussing your design with your supervisor, and first and foremost reading the relevant literature is the most important basis.
Now imagine you started gathering data, for example you are interviewing actors in a system. In my experience, most researchers will now enter the what if stage, where they either start to amend their design with all sorts of additional modifications, or where they start beating themselves up about what they could have done differently, or what they would do differently next time. This is normal. First of all, negative results are also a scientific results, although of course this is way less thrilling, and most research is biased toward positive results. Second, no results explain 100 %, a model or outcome that explains everything is certainly flawed. It is in the very nature of empirical research that it has flaws, and variance and complexity add to lessen the results. Within qualitative research, it may surface that with more samples - for instance more interviews - the results may be different, and many researchers frame this different as "better" in their heads. Again, this is only partly true, as we have to acknowledge that any type of empirical research is only looking at parts of reality. Still, I sometimes wonder whether most empirical researchers beat themselves up about their data approximately as long as it took them to gather the respective data. This process is sometimes refered to as "analysis". While experts in methodology would agree that proper analysis of empirical data - both quantitive and qualitative - takes as long as the data gathering, most of this time is dominated by doubts, regrets and the predominant wish to be able to travel back in time to do everything again. Learning that your data is flawed and could have been better is an important lesson, and the lesson is not as much about improving your knowledge to avoid this specific mistake in the future. Instead, this is about learning to live with the imperfections of the empirical. For conceptual work, this can be equally framed. Often, you discover the most important source towards the end, or even better, after you finished your work. Conceptual work has its own demons, and I think it is overall much easier to work empirical first, and with a focus on conceptual contributions later, but here I may be mistaken. As a philosopher, you will probably work conceptually from the very beginning. I admire this work, but is demands a high level of coherence, which is why it can be relevant for any given PhD student - including empirical workers - to derive a glossary of your most important words early on in your PhD. I wish I would have done this, as it would have saved me from iterations and inconsistencies. Better to reflect about a term once and deeply, and then settling on a compromise that you stick to for the rest of your thesis. Building such consistency is I think an underrated skill in most PhD works.
To summarise, you should consult experts on your empirical design, because nothing is worse than a failed design. However, do not expect something magic out of that: empirical sampling is work, harder work, and failing. Just try to get at it, and enjoy it while you can. The head of my PhD lab always claimed what a privilege we all had, since us PhD students only focus on one thing, and one thing only. I think this is so incredibly true coming to think about it now, but at the time it did not feel like it. Life as a PhD students is often stressful, but always remember that is serves as a basis for great stories later in your life. Glorious days!
VI - Gaining flow vs procrastination
Now let us assume you have your data, you are on your way towards results, and then you get stuck. What if you make just another round of fieldwork? How about one more campaign - a short one - just for a few more interviews? And did you see this great summer school that was advertised? It is not exactly your focus, but it sure sounds exciting, right? Maybe it would help you to gain some friction on your analysis, and then you could already join this years round of conferences to present some results. The one in Prague sounded really interesting! Welcome to the world of procrastination. May this stage be a short one, but it never is. You kind of started, technically you know what to do, and now you feel there are so many exiting opportunities that you need to seize as a researchers. And there are some plants that seem to need watering as well, right? Or how about a little snack?
I believe that the creativity of most researchers I admire is maxed out when they try to procrastinate. I have been there, and I am still there, sometimes. The world is full of exciting alternative opportunities when you should be actually writing your PhD thesis. What is most important now is that you learn to manage yourself, and this form of self-improvement starts with building consistent habits. Try to develop a daily rhythm that works for you. Me, I like starting rather early, doing some Yoga, writing the first text before 8, making it a rather energetic morning, taking a break at midday, preferring a nap for a lunch break, and setting meetings into the afternoon when energy levels are lower. In the evening, I might take another round of concentrated writing for some hours, or maybe some sort of mechanical tinkering such as some statistical analysis. My day was not always like this, but today it is planned down to 15 minute blocks, focussing on balancing my energy levels, and trying to build a pendulum between motivation for challenging tasks vs gratification with some of the nicer tasks. Keeping my energy levels constant is I think my main goal these days, preferring to avoid both extreme peaks as well as total slumber. Gaining flow in writing is a great challenge, and takes livelong practice. I like to start with a clear designation that I start writing in this moment. Either I make myself a coffee, have a location change, or I have the time clearly designated in my calendars (a trick I only learned recently). Most writers have deeply ritualised habits, and are often working to improve them even further. For a long time now, I have been writing with music or background sounds. I have almost a dozen nature sound apps on my phone, and Philip Glass, Dawn of Midi and Max Richter are my staples when writing. These days I get hardly distracted by this music, but instead is actively prevents my mind from wandering, and allows me to create text for long stretches of time. Another helpful step is to carve out the general structure, and then fill this up. Me, I like to structure my texts in bits of about 200-300 words. Everything more detailed is taking too long, and everything less detailed does not to justice to catching the overall structure. I encourage you to try things out and to try to develop your own habits and strategies.
In order to be able to do this, you need to practice. Writing and gaining flow at your work is not something that you learned in school, I guess, and most people have not produced a few hundred thousand words yet in their life. Academia communicates widely through writing, and learning to structure your thoughts in writing is one of the essential goals in a PhD. If you start by writing about 1000 words per day, you will see how this can ultimately bring you into a state where you are quickly able to structure your thoughts and fixate them on paper. Many prefer actual paper, yet most use their computer. I learned that a comfortable hour in a garden chair with my mobile phone can well produce 2000 words that propel me up for a good start. I often write a lot in the very early hours of the day, just as now. Late at night is another sweet spot, as there are less distractions. Find these niche spots, and write. Get at it. You are not a bad writer, you are just an untrained writer. No one would expect to grab a musical instrument for the first time, and play music right away. You need to practice in all you do, but I think the reason why the hurdle is higher in writing is because the actual form of scientific papers seems somewhat distant from us and our everyday life. Yet in order to do a PhD, and to gain recognition for your future career path, you need to publish or perish. There is - in the current system - no way around it, and in my experience PhD students who question this simple path dependency are literally doomed to perish. To spin it less dramatic: I would argue that other people deserve to read your work. You are being paid to do research, and your results should contribute to the greater good of science. Typically, your salary is not so bad - if you write 3-4 papers in your PhD, consider the costs of one of those papers. Scientific papers are certainly not cheap, but they are necessary to make your work transparent, and to enable other researchers as well as society to learn form your insights. I think it is safe to say that peer reviewed publications will be the baseline of science for quite some time to come, hence they should be the baseline of your PhD as well.
This bring us to the next point: the role of your team. Most PhD students are part of a team, and that is a good thing. While I already said that it is you who is writing your PhD, and no one else, I think that getting feedback from your fellow PhDs, and learning how you can collaborate with others, is actually a core academic skill. Still, I think every paper should have someone who is in control, literally leading the others. The skill of mastering a multi-authored paper is not about others taking the workload from you, but you designating smaller parts to people with a complementary expertise, and you integrating their chunks. The bulk of the workload is with the lead author. Equally, a paper you co-author can be no excuse to not work on your papers first and foremost. Your papers should always be your main focus and only when these are done you can shift your energy to something else. Focus! I know it is so tempting to work on something else, but you may want to consider to have a clear plan how to divide your energy. Working for four days on your PhD and one day on a co-authored paper would be a reasonable division of your label force. Then the co-authored paper can become a reward, but make no mistake: You will have to shoulder the hardest part of your work by yourself, there is no way around it. Learning to gain flow in your own work is an essential academic skill. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your supervisor. I for once had to learn how to gain flow in my work in order to become able to try and inspire others, and to help them on the way. I can only write these lines now, because I learned to focus on my work at some point. In order to be able to supervise and inspire others in the future, you need to become able to gain flow and to prioritise your work above all else. In order to achieve this, focus is pivotal, which brings us to the next points.
VII - Get rid of (almost) everything
You know a lot now, right? You read all the literature. You are pondering about all sorts of theories and frameworks, and then some. You learned your system inside out. The model of your working area that is in your head is at leats ten times as complex as reality itself. No other human has ever comprehended what you learned about all this during the first part of your PhD. Now you need to explain it to others. Those who know me understand how fond I am of Occam's razor. Everything needs to be as simple as possible and as complex as necessary. Empirical research is about models of reality. Hence it is your work to reduce the full model of your results into a tangible version to follows Occam's razor. Every piece of information that you reduce is like a small death, to give this line of thinking a dramatic spin. What is important, what is not important? You are the judge. Whoever made you the judge will not be there to help you, because no one is supposed to understand this stuff as good as you. You are the expert, yet you feel a million miles away from understanding anything. How to proceed, you ask? Let us go through it point by point.
The theoretical foundation
Science often builds on theories, paradigms, framworks or concepts. While all these operate on different levels, it is still common that you identify one or several conceptual foundations that your work resolves around. Most PhD students are quickly falling in love with several concepts, and encounter problems when deciding which concepts are valuable for their work, and which concepts are less important. Theories are simplifications of reality, and hence imperfect. If you deductively try to falsify or confirm a theory, the theoretical foundation is very simplified, but easier to handle. Research over the last decades has had a general tendency to be more inductively, or even abductive. To this end, a theoretical foundation may give clear boundaries within which you work inductively. Take for instance the stakeholder theory, which you can test in all sorts of different settings or systems, but you always integrate a resource-based as well as a market-based view in your research. What is sure about theoretical foundations to this end is that several of them together are difficult to integrate. If you work on ecosystem services, focussing on biodiversity, building on neutral theory, investigating resilience, to investigate climate change adaptation, then you got yourself into a deep mess. Theoretical foundations have a tendency to exponentiate each other. If you have two theoretical foundations, you may get a vague one concrete, if the other one is concrete. Personally, I would leave integration of more theoretical foundations to philosophers, or at least to conceptual papers. In empirical research, more than two theoretical foundations are more often than not confusing. Still, many PhDs have some sort of a fear of missing out concerning theoretical foundations, the more the merrier seems to be where many get stuck. Never forget, they they are all only models of reality, and equally you will have to compromise which theoretical foundation(s) work best in your case.
The empirical results
So you have your data, and now you dug yourself a hole in the world of analysis. May it be the never ending coding in a content analysis, or a statistical abyss - there is a long tradition to bury yourself in your own empirical results and their analysis. Remember that you are looking for the most important information now. Not everything, but the main patterns. What do you think the world can learn from your data. Many will iterate themselves though all stages, from do I got anything at all, how can I every make sense of this mess, it is dead, Jim, A New Hope to finally how about I leave it like that and hate myself forever for it?.
Empirical research is messy. There is no mincing words here. Yet it is learnable. You can learn to live with it. Experience in empirical research almost never feels good, I think. It is either a total challenge, or being absolutely bored. Strangely, there is hardly anything in between, only the feeling of being totally overwhelmed, or the weird querkiness of thinking that is just cannot be that simple, and all this is super trivial. Get over it. What you should learn in the long run is that you may want to embrace your results, but still be critical. Results may vary. Even patterns are hard to be reproduced these days. Remember that we unlock parts of reality. Stand by what your data can do, but always keep an open mind to the simple truth that it will change probably in the (very) long run, because hardly anything is constant. You work is a contribution in the here and now, and I feel this should be enough to get it done in the here and now.
The contribution to the topic and the state of the art
These days, much of science is driven by topics. People want to make a difference. To me, topics are mere samples. Do not misunderstand me: some topics are timely, and some are more important than others. But when you look at your PhD one or two decades later, you will know what I mean. Your interest will necessarily shift, yet what will remain is the skills your learned and the experience you gained. Taking your thesis to find your way into a proper Philosophy of Science is something that will surely stick. Developing your work ethic will surely stick. But this section is not about all that. It is about your topic. You have to become the expert on the respective topic, so much we already agreed upon. You will be the expert, and you need to break the topic down in order for others to understand it. What are the most important pieces of information that build as much as a whole picture? How can you frame your knowledge into a narrative? Do you have an elevator pitch to tell someone the really short version of your thesis? And what if you get stuck in an elevator with the president of your University, do you also have a longer version? Developing all this takes time, but you need to get at it, and test your expertise then and again.
Most importantly, are you also able to share your excitement about your PhD with people outside of academia? Many people within academia will measure your impact by the journals you publish in, but these days impact is measured in many facets, and driving change in society is of growing importance, and rightly so. What is however difficult to grasp are the outer margins of your topic. Try to work hard to define what you are working on, and what you are not working on. Many people get dragged into a rabbit hole where they try to shoulder everything, but it is equally important to know what you are not working own, as to know what you are working on. Ideally, you can choose and reframe along the way. The typical PhD student changes their concrete focus quite a lot along the way. What is always sad to observe is how PhD students are continuously worried that someone did exactly what they did, but half a year before. While this can be the case in some cutting edge branches of medicine or genetics, where the trajectories are following a clearer path, I hardly encountered that somebody really did exactly the same thing as you were planning to do in your branch of soft science. There are always differences, and quite often pretty substantial ones. Just be relaxed, in the end it is all going to be alright. And because no one will relax about this point any day soon, let us move to the next point, and quickly.
VIII - Iteration circus
At this stage you have your data, you have a vague idea how you are going to contribute to your specific part of science, and you have a menu of what theories you can utilise in your thesis. This is the stage where many struggle to master their spirit and get instead lost in self-doubt and endless questioning everything inbetween the smaller details and - well - everything. The best way to countermeasure this is to start early to have a structure that allows you to have early success with your first paper. Building on Ali Abdaal here, we got motivation mixed up. It is not our ideas that motivate us, but instead smaller success that motivates us towards larger challenges that lead to larger success, and so on. If you do not manage to reach early success, the larger challenges of work will become impossible to overcome. This is why I think that you need to learn writing first, and then use this skill to write what you actually want to write about. Writers block is an altogether different story, I think. Many people who think they have writers block have either not even started to learn how to write, and are just lacking a routine, or are living in the believe that writing should feel great. Science made a dramatic mistake when is starting selling itself as a Heureka-generating euphoria - that simply does not match reality. Writing in science is hard work, and in any other field of labour, if nothing else will work, work will work. The other challenge is taking decision, which I extensively outlined above. Again this takes practice, you need to learn to become constant in your life habits. There are too many things beyond your control that you need to take into account, hence the more stability you can add to the process, the better.
First, your supervisor
Try to establish a clear protocol early on. What is expected from you, and what would you like your supervisor to do? Remember that your supervisor could probably write your thesis in a matter of months if not weeks, but this is not what it is all about. Some things you can only learn by yourself. Yet if there is one thing that was absolutely fantastic during my PhD, it was the fact that the door of my supervisor was always open. Whenever I had a question, I could ask him. Looking back at it, I do not know how he managed this, and coming to think of it, much must have been quite annoying. I can consider myself lucky that I had a supervisor with an incredibly high level of patience. Looking back today, I think that I can be grateful, yet as a supervisor I would clarify the roles clearer, which is another nod to the patience of my supervisor. It is however the role of a supervisor to give a frank and honest evaluation of the current stage of the thesis, and to motivate the student if need be. This is easier said then done, because this is different for every PhD student. Therefore, I think the most important thing one should try to develop is trust. There is no magic portion or spell that can help tu to develop trust, but it should be the goal from both sides, I feel.
Second, your co-authors
Managing co-authors is a pivotal academic skill, and most PhD students learn hardly more than under these constellations. I exclude the supervisor here, as I dealt with this relation before. The rest of the co-authors can be divided into three groups: The Peers, the superiors, and the minions.
The peers are the most important group for you. Find peers with a similar interest and work ethic. And with 'interest' I do not mean 'topic'. It is not important what they work on, this can be different, but how they work on it should be allowing to build a link, and the means of their work should be to allow for the creation of a reflexive space. You learn the most about yourself through the reflection of your peers. Working together with peers can give you energy, and help you to master hurdles together. Yet make no mistake: Your peers will not write your thesis, and in the end you will have to take the decisions they cannot take for you. I had three fantastic peers during my PhD, and a wonderful wider team at our institute. The closer peers - and later also some other fellows - were active collaborators. This was highly relevant for me, because I learned about methods through the data of other people. I think that it is ideal if you can use a peer-to-peer exchange to develop yourself. The wider circle is important as a social buffer, where you can share the experience of academia, and lighten the load of the smaller and larger challenges all PhDs face. This is after all also a time one should enjoy.
Publishing with other superiors is a privilege. If someone with less time than you is available to you wants to commit their dense schedule to your work, then you should try to leave a positive impression. Be clear in your communication, discuss openly who is doing which tasks, but try to have the others maybe first outline their role, and then try to match it. Peer-review also led to the rise of some opportunists, but remember that the line between a real contribution and some helpful thoughts is a blurry one. Still, for a PhD it is often difficult to access the contributions of a professor or postdoc, hence ideally you rely on your supervisor, who may decide together with your supervisor which contribution merits which authorship. I had the honour of having many co-authors as a PhD that were on a much higher level, both in hierarchy as well as experience, and I learned very much from them, and for this I am truly grateful.
If on the other hand you have minions working for you, and by that I mean student or technical assistants, then you should extend the same learning experience and gratitude to the people that you work with. Students will look at you for inspiration, and you could be a mentor for them through which you learn in turn as well. Working well with technicians will help you to learn about their specific expertise, and in my experience there is hardly anyone more motivated and kind than a technician who feels valued. Again, with students and technicians it is important to cleary communicate your expectations and make sure that everybody is on the same page. Try to lead by example, if you are hard working and committed, the others will be motivated and empowered.
Third, peer review
The system of peer review is better than its reputation. Impressions of reviews are highly reproducible, and the system creates hundreds of thousand of papers every year. However, sometimes it takes some patience, and it has some challenges the one needs to learn. The first rejection will feel like a total devastation, and it will be hard not to take the comments of reviewers and editors personal, especially if these comments are at the lesser end of the spectrum. Yet peer-review is not about every little detail, but it is more of a lump sum process. Some comments are less important than others. It is more about the general pattern of a review, and not you escalating yourself about piecemeal. Yet, peer review takes time. Submitting a paper, hearing back, then submitting it elsewhere after a rejection or working on a revision takes months, and for each step a few months easily adds up to a year. Learn to see this as a process that is established - criticising it will help you very little. You may want to ask your supervisor if you could do a review of a paper, given that you are up for it, then you will learn that reviewers are also people. Peer-review is something that you learn, and this principle works for both receiving criticsm, but also for handing it out.
IX - You have to let go
You did your empirical work and analysis, you have your papers happening, maybe presented at a conference, and you can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Or so you should. For many PhDs, the final phase is dense, stressful, just an altogether twice-baked turmoil lacking any sugar coating. After the papers you should start early on the red tape, which is the overall part of the thesis that in the end will have woven all parts together. This will be hard for most, because it means that your time as PhD student will end. You have to decide that it is done. You will have to accept that you become a part of the academic merit that so many passed before you. You will have to acknowledge that you did what you could. You have to stand up to your supervisor, your peers, the whole institute. You should see this as a part of a process that is overall well established. Why should your case be any different? In my experience it helps to make a rather clear structure of the steps you have to take to finalise your PhD, and to stick by this list. Try to share it with others and build up peer pressure. Discuss it with your supervisor. And most importantly, build a continuous timeline of the phase after your PhD. What do you want to do? If you do not get this right, at least in terms of the general direction, than you will probably procrastinate. You do not need to have a postdoc position waiting for you, but you should know which next steps you want to pursue.
Also, try not to be obsessive about finalising your thesis in terms of typesetting and layout. Try to learn the necessary skills early, I certainly failed this lesson. Become a Word pro. Maybe this is not the most exciting skill, but surely helpful when you need to set up a few hundred pages of text, you text, your thesis. Get help, if you need it. Have people read the pre-final version, the penultimate version, and help you with the printout. Once the whole thing is handed in, never look at it again. Ever. There will be flaws and mistakes. Most people will not recognise them, even your reviewers may not find them. Hence you may want to keep this opportunity to harvest anxiety out of your defence preparation.
X - X marks the spot
Day X, the day of your thesis defence is approaching. You need to start your presentation slides. How could you ever boil down all these papers into the few minutes you have?! You need to choose, maybe you drop one paper altogether. You need to focus on the main points. Try to attend defenses early on, learn what is expected, who did well, and why? Learn about the questions the committee asks, and try to prepare yourself mentally for similar settings. Practice way early by presenting at some conferences or in front of your peers. Have your slides critiqued by your peers. Build a narrative. It should not be magic, it should be robust, and it should follow the existing conventions. Giving at least some mockup presentations is crucial, as you need to learn the timing and the drama of the whole thing. Do not worry about being repetitive: once the real thing happens, adrenalin will kick in, and whip you through the whole thing in no time.
To prepare for a defense means that everything that can be asked was already in your head once. You need to become so deeply embedded into your stuff, that you become everything that can be asked. In my experience, this is mostly not about knowledge, but about confidence and structure. You need to overcome the doubts you have, listen to the questions people may ask, breath once - shortly, to think - and then give a crisp answer. Do not ramble. Say the most important things, and then find an endpoint. Just like in writing, you need to take a decision. A good friend once told me that an outstanding PhD student to him is someone, who can afterwards independently conduct research in the respective field alone, or as a supervisor. I think this is what you should be thriving for. This is what a PhD is about. You follow a path of learning that many went on before. You become part of an academic tradition, and the key goal of this tradition is that you become an innovator. You learn to overcome yourself, and become an academic. Depending how you go on, you can become an expert in civil society, do research in society or academia, and in academia you may later educate others and inspire them to follow in your footsteps. To me, this is my greatest privilege I have as an academic. Thank you very much for this.
The end of any successful PhD is a celebration. Personally, I am very bad at celebrating, but it is part of the academic circus. For most people the celebration is important, and it is clear that it is well deserved. You have to give a speech. Hardly any surprises ever happened at such speeches, as it is widely scripted by the circumstances. There is often food and drinks. Your supervisor will probably talk with your parents, always the greatest pleasure for me, and almost always an embarrassment for the PhD student. This is a moment of true emancipation of the PhD student, both from the parents and the supervisor(s). The PhD student is however often too shellshocked to process anything that is happening. Often it is quite a turmoil of emotions, and it will take days to realize that it is done. From then on, you will go into a phase of reflection that will take years. I closely follow when my fellow professors talk about their supervisors, you often hear gratitude, subtle criticism, or even downright tendencies of Stockholm syndrome. This is all perfectly normal. Coming to think of it, there are hardly any relationships in life outside of our family and partners that are closer. Also, learning can be stressful. I know that all I am in academia was seeded by my mentors and supervisors, and their patience and experience. It took me years to figure this out, since we do not only learn how to do things, but also how to do things our way. Academia is about development, and doing a PhD is about personal transformation. You engage in a journey that technically ends with your defense, but actually it never ended. The latest stepping stone I reached was when I understood that I am not a teacher, but a learner. Having passed the rites of a PhD and now being a professor, the whole endeavor is about learning and teaching, intertwined, woven, twisting. This is what I came to love the most about academia, as I know that academia has a lifetime of learning to offer to me.
The author of this entry is Henrik von Wehrden.