6 Tips to Improve your Phd Outcome

University castle of Münster at night

University castle of Münster at night

The phd journey is certainly an experience that is uniquely challenging and requires a different mind and skill set than any other job out there. While doing my phd I always thought about how to get the most out of this special time. In this article I wrote down my six key learnings that I gathered during this journey in social science. Your individual key learnings obviously depend on what your discipline is, but there are certain general rules that may work for everyone.

1 Improve your academic English

During your studies, you mentally prepare yourself for the industry by doing internships where you learn how to communicate yourself efficiently in a business context. Although work ethics and business skills may help you to perform well, the phd requires certain skills that may be new to you when starting your academic adventure. One of these skills is writing. Since I always loved the arts of writing, I assumed that finding the right words would be no problem at all. God, was I wrong! At first, I was excited to apply my skills (that I will later learn did not exist) and got disappointed at the moment I first read my words on paper and compared them to my peers. This has been my first shock as a phd student. How may I be able to write top academic English in order to get published? One thing I did, was writing, writing and writing. I wrote several papers, none of them would make it into a journal any time soon (most of them probably never will). But at that time I started writing just for the sake of it. I knew that getting the writing right early, would help me later. If you are a non-native speaker like me, I recommend to first focus on your academic writing. In another article I summed up five things you can do to improve your academic writing

2 Quantitative research is "easier" than qualitative research

I first thought that in social science qualitative research is easier than quantitative research: Quantitative methods seemed to be more complicated in terms of the software language I had to learn or the numerous tests I had to do. During the course of my phd, I found this to be very wrong. Indeed, it is much more difficult to excel in qualitative research than in quantitative research and I will explain you why. Evidence-based qualitative research outcomes are harder to generate and need more experience than you might be able to gather through your phd years. Doing qualitative research requires you to be an expert of your field since you have to understand and be able to observe, investigate and generalize your construct referring to only one subject. Don't get me wrong qualitative research is maybe more important for social science than quantitative research, but being able to make others understand what you found out and generalize it using a very low sample size is very difficult if you are not an expert. Instead, during your phd you might have the chance to explore one quantitative methodology and become an expert of this technique. This way you might have the chance to contribute to a classic research group including several senior researchers and you: the phd student. Your limited knowledge of the literature might not be an issue anymore since you contribute to the groups with your methodological skill. Becoming an expert of your chosen quantitative method might guarantee you a save seat on a strong scientific paper. 

3 Think of your phd as a pipeline

When I first got the fabulous news from my professor via mail, that he would like to hire me, I was sitting in Moscow in a glass office looking over files of an ongoing bank project. I have been trained (and I am thankful about that) in project management, lean management and data analysis during my time working as an consultant, which has definitely helped me getting my phd on track.  But I was not aware what I got myself into at this point of time. If you think of your phd as a lean project (what I tried to do), you will quickly find yourself in trouble since you create more waste than you planned. Creating waste is part of the learning process to improve your writing or your methodological skills. Maybe only 20% of what you write might get published in the end if you are very efficient. 80% of what you write may be just not good enough, but helped getting your perspective on the literature right. However, if you think of your phd as a project funnel, each article that you are writing as a project with a timeline and deadlines, you might have the advantage to rely yourself on several projects instead of only relying on one project to receive you phd. Each paper, however, should serve a purpose, and if it's only to get familiar with a sub theory of your literature or to attain a special methodological skill.

4 Expect the unexpected

One thing you should never loose of sight is flexibility. There are two things you can do to prepare yourself for unexpected things. One thing is visualization. This technique allows you go through different scenarios and mentally work different answers or alternative plans that may help you find confidence if something good or bad is happening. Ottmar Hitzfeld (a famous German soccer coach) always used to prepare for difficult PR meetings, e.g. after having lost a game. The other thing is Diversification. Diversification is a huge word that I find very helpful in life. It means to build up different expertise and modes of success, be it your hobby, your friends, your wife, your son or any other talent you might have, having success at these things may be as important as having success during your phd or any other job. Diversifying your success is important since it may be your main driver of motivation. The phd is not like an industry job where you receive direct feedback for what you do. Revisions may take several months and you will have to wait and while waiting follow your other projects or hobbies.

5 It's 80% hard work and just 20% brain

In my first phd course, I was sitting together with twenty other smart individuals from different economic disciplines and I told myself: How may I be able to compete with these genius? Several have been best of their class and I graduated with good grades, but I have never been top notch. I said to myself that there is no chance I could eventually compete with these people. The first slide at this course just showed a brain and a working helmet. Professor Houston from Texas explained: "Everyone of you have the brain. You have just shown that because you are sitting here. But where most phd students struggle is the working helmet. They just don't work hard enough." I understood: If you want to succeed, there are times where you have to visualize yourself as a worker, just chopping wood or building a house. Actually this advice has been the best I got because he has been absolutely right. Writing your phd can be sometimes a very repetitive thing. It means rewrite, rewrite, rewrite... And when I asked myself, what am I doing here, I just said to myself "chopping wood", nothing more. This thinking often helped me getting through the hard times of writing.

6 Collaborate with your peers, but also with your supervisor

Your phd is a journey and it is only as fun as the people you share your time with. The good thing of your phd is that you perhaps will never ever have the same freedom to choose with whom to work. Look at your colleagues and think of them as your best helpers in line. Give them advice if they ask and you will receive advice in return. They are your peers, learn from them and acknowledge if they do something you like. They do struggle or have struggled with the same problems and may give you good advice. You might even end up in doing a research project together, which is definitely a great experience. The most fun I had when I was writing a paper where I had been completely fcoused on an article I wrote with a colleague over two weeks. Every morning we sat together and discussed what we could do to improve our script. Of course, if you have the opportunity to collaborate internationally, you should do so. There are so many things that you can learn from international team members such as cultural and linguistic skills that may help you to improve your script. Finally and most importantly your supervisor should, if possible, be your main collaborator. Keep this in mind since you as a phd student have a high dependency towards him. If you feel that this may be different, than try to change it, integrate him in your research from design to revision. Keep him on track with smart project plans. Give your best in only communicating the key messages of where you are, but also ask him for his opinion and what he expects from you. This is one way to avoid the trouble of not addressing what your supervisor needs. 

I am about to finish my phd and it's time to look back at three years working in the academics. There have been ups and downs and I found some advice very helpful that I decided to write down. I hope that you enjoyed reading it and I would be really curious what are the things that you learned to be helpful to excel in your phd. I am looking forward to comments. Check also my other articles, where I write about what makes a happy academic career.