Managing a PhD

Managing a PhD

When I started writing this blog post I intended it to be on the topic of managing a PhD, but when I started listing all the aspects of management that a PhD involves, from designing experiments to supervision of undergraduates to keeping track of your time, the text quickly grew out of proportions for a single blog entry. The main idea remained the same though: pursuing a PhD involves a lot of independent work.

Before starting my PhD I had worked in the field of research and development for a number of years. Starting with an internship in a wastewater R&D company my career meandered through various positions in the academia as well as in the industry. Thus I thought I was well prepared to pursue my graduate studies. Yet, I quickly realised that the pre-doctoral position differed profoundly from anything I had done before, and the main difference was that as a PhD student you are in charge or more or less everything regarding your project.

My previous positions had held various degrees of freedom and responsibilities, but I was always either part of a research group or under the wings of a professor or a boss. Thus, what I was to do was decided within a group or in discussions with a superior. In my PhD on the other hand, it is me who decide what experiments to do and when they are to be done, I choose what hours to put in, what courses I should attend and what conferences where I should present my work.

Taking into account that many of the things I do, I do for the first time, the amount of freedom and lack of a manual is sometimes overwhelming. This is especially true in our case as we time and again during our PhD find ourselves in new environments where we have to understand how things work in the new place while simultaneously pursuing our work. Building a house blind-folded is the first metaphor that comes to my mind to describe this experience.

Obviously problem-solving is a part of the PhD experience, we are after all supposed to break some new grounds, or at least be prepared to do so when we come out as fully fledged researchers. The art of learning by doing, or observing how others do things and attempt something similar, are also two effective ways to acquire new skills. Yet, I am not sure the idea of solving everything on your own is the best way to conduct work. One brain is in the end just one brain, and if your ideas are not challenged and exposed to others, you might be blind to weaknesses in your approach or do unnecessary detours and loose time.

Not only are mental health issues, a common phenomenon among graduate students, closely connected to interactions with other people, exchange of ideas and openness can prevent murky structures that easily breed in closed groups. The recent #metoo movement has shed light on some particularly nasty structures in different fields of work, but bad behaviour might just as well come in the form of not evaluating your analytical methods. So please, let's communicate.