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General Science

Reflections on my PhD

In this post I want to write down what I learned during my PhD and what might help you too. It is my opinion on the stuff, but I used all of the techniques I described and they helped me. I split this up into four parts: Before you start, finding a supervisor, writing and finishing.

Why start a PhD?

When I thought about starting a PhD I had the motivation that I liked scientific work. I had done internships and work as a student in companies, but I wanted to dive deeper into research and learn more about the stuff I learned at university.

I also had in mind that a PhD is normally not a bad thing for your career. However, you might earn in a well-paid industry job at least at the beginning more money than in your PhD. And if you really only do it for the title, the time doing it might be really hard for you.

All this depends a lot on the field. Take a look at people you know in the field that archived things you want to archive and see what they did to get there. For me it made sense, since I was interested to get deeper knowledge about the field and could imagine to become a professor.

Finding a supervisor

In German the relationship to your supervisor is really close, you even call them your doctoral mother or doctoral father. But this also shows one issue you should be aware of: Your PhD depends a lot on these people. So choose them wisely!

So, how do you find a supervisor? In my case, I knew some of supervisors before, in fact I wrote my master‘s thesis in their department. My third supervisor I did not know before. Since the relationship to these people is really strong and you depend on them, I would encourage you to choose supervisors you get along with. Three (or four, five, six) years can be a hard time if you hate your supervisor or vice-versa. Also, it might make sense to not join the most prestigious university but get better support (Although you need some balancing in this since your degree might help you afterwards with finding a better job).

Another thing you should keep in mind is that also your supervisor does not know everything. I did my PhD in the very interdisciplinary field of open science, information science, ontology engineering and human-centered design, so I constantly needed to get feedback from other people and I was very lucky to meet a lot of helpful people. I was also happy for some workshops and courses about scientific methods like interviews I did not know a lot before. I also got really valuable feedback from the folks at University of Washington as well as unexpected places like the peer review of some of my articles. Conferences with PhD-sessions are also a great place for this, although I did not attend a lot of these. I also used the PhD programme at the University of Frankfurt a lot, since they provide a lot of helpful workshops about scientific methods, project management and other topics you might need for you dissertation.

Writing

Write drafts

Since I had several supervisors who do not all work at the same institution, I had to do a lot of communication between them. What helped me here, was to write a summary of the next steps I would do in my process and send this to them before the meetings. This takes of course some effort, but it allows your supervisors to know what you are doing and your agreements are more precise if you send them some text before meeting than just presenting your content. I tried this at first, but it did not work out. The other great advantage is if you wrote down your next steps, you are already done with some parts of your thesis!

Start early

Based on this, I also started writing up my analysis as soon as I did it. Since I used a multi-level design process, this was crucial anyway to get to the next step. The disadvantage was that I had to do a lot of reworking at the end.

Start with something easy

You won‘t write your thesis from the beginning to the end. Therefore, start with an easy part and go from there. My order was (with a lot of going back and forth): method – literature – results – discussion – introduction – conclusion. You might start with some other part, but this is your work, so make it comfortable for you.

Make a plan of each chapter

What also helped me a lot was to make a plan what I wanted to say in each chapter. This helps you to keep the red line within your work. The plan can also change during the process, but most of the plan will stay the same and helps you to navigate through the work. Keep in mind that your thesis will most likely be longer than 150 pages, so it is impossible (at least if was impossible for me) to keep an easy overview. The plan can also help you to keep track about your progress and helps finding chapters where you need to focus more on

Software

I used LaTeX to write my thesis. This was because I used LaTeX before in my master’s thesis. The advantages are that you do not have to worry about a document crashing and being unreadable, backups are also very easy, LaTeX takes care of your citations and the final product looks quite nice. A disadvantage is that it does not provide a nice track changes function like Word. My proofreaders wanted to work in Word, so I had to copy back from a Word document to my LaTeX files, which took a lot of time. But you also have to keep in mind that even if your proofreaders use track changes, you have to check all the document again, which might be very time-consuming.

Finishing

The finishing might be the hardest part. You are really stressed and see that things did not make that much sense as you thought at the beginning. There are also a lot of distractions out there and your funding might run out. My last phase of the PhD was not normal, since I did it during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Stop other stuff

The good thing is science is that many people you work with went through a PhD. So they will know that you are really busy at your finishing phase and hopefully leave you alone in that time. I was really shocked when I recognized how much more productive I was when I did not have any meetings at a given day. One good way is to move all the meetings you have to one day, so you won‘t be very productive that day, but all the other days.

Get a routine

As soon as you managed to be free from other day-to-day work, you might want to enjoy your free time. Of course, this makes it harder. During Covid-19, I learned to be way more organized, therefore this was relatively easy for me. Also, a lot of distractions were not possible, so I focused on the thesis. It also helps to have a plan and some milestones, so you keep track what you have finished and what is left to do.

Schedule breaks

If you created a plan, do not be too hard to yourself. You need breaks. For a certain time (this might be shorter than you think) you can work day and night without breaks. But if you are sick afterwards, your productivity drops. My approach therefore was to have a strict plan from the beginning where I can get easier and also have some time a the end for unknown events. So I had a relaxed time finishing my first draft. However, I was really stressed four weeks before in order to get the first draft done for some friends to read over it

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