Staring at the Ocean – When Work Is Overwhelming

One of the difficulties of PhD research is the magnitude and scope of it. The end product, the thesis, reflects your work of four years (or a bit more if you’re unlucky): how on earth to design and define such a project? What to include, what to exclude? So much material that may be relevant. Which angle to take? Where to start? How to reconcile all the findings? How in-depth to discuss different strands of the literature? If you’re in the middle of it it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. You may end up in […]

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Getting Unstuck, Without the Struggle

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I was invited to dinner with an old professor last week. When I introduced myself and said I worked with PhD students he said: ‘Ah, how useful! Every PhD student gets stuck, that’s what I have always told my students. It’s normal. A PhD is an endeavor where you will get stuck, and there is no one who will be able to solve your problem. You know more about your subject matter than anyone else. You have to do it yourself, it is a test of character. Dead ends, and walking into walls are part of the process.’ He’s right: […]

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Choosing the Right Supervisor

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One factor I underestimated when I started my PhD was supervision. I was thrilled about getting into a PhD programme, in Florence no less, and supervision seemed a matter of secondary importance. Oh, how wrong I was. The way I look at it now is that supervision is the single most important thing to get ‘right’ to have a positive PhD experience, and to set you up for further success down the line. A supervisor is a pivotal player, far more than a mentor or supervisor will have been during your earlier studies. It may be difficult to predict how […]

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Back to Basics: Relax to Achieve

Relaxation may be the missing link when it comes to your academic performance. I’m interested in this phenomenon: how we sometimes work against ourselves by trying too hard, pushing too much. By internalising a work culture that says working endless hours is the key to success. When everyone is working all the time, or at the very least seems to be working all the time, how to not worry you aren’t keeping up? We lean towards overwork to compensate and somehow make things better. But does it work? (Answer: no) Then how to undo this? What’s the alternative? Sometimes the […]

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Your Best Shot at Staying in Academia: Tips from an Economist

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I spent a good week in San Francisco earlier this year, travelling with my boyfriend who, with two colleagues, was to recruit some potential assistant professors for his department. My boyfriend is an economist. If you are not familiar with the academic job market in the economics field picture this: the job market is an actual physical market where demand and supply meet. In this case the venue was a suite in a swank hotel in the financial heart of San Francisco (picked by yours truly) where three young(ish) professors spent three long days interviewing job candidates. As was happening […]

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Going Offline: The Plan

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Imagine yourself working without interruptions, without distraction, without being sucked into mind-numbing information overload. Imagine focus. Imagine creative thought and analysis happening. Now imagine such sustained focus happening for a couple of hours a day, at least five days a week. Imagine what that might mean in terms of output. Think chapters, articles, publications. Imagine what it (both the doing and the results) might mean in terms of satisfaction. Ah satisfaction! Interesting concept. The paradox of satisfaction: we have to give up more superficial satisfaction-seeking behaviour in order to be able to do or achieve those things that indeed satisfy. […]

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Freedom from the Internet

HappyPhD to read

When I was writing my PhD the internet was my nemesis. It was the beginning of the blogging era then, and I spent so many hours reading posts and commenting and being distracted in general. Now, I’d say the worst offender is my phone! I’m not even sure what I’m doing on there. So. Freedom to the rescue. This is the app I used to go offline with when I was finishing my PhD. At one point I realised I wanted to get work done, and the surfing and daydreaming was making me a bit sick of myself. Nothing as […]

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The Lonely Academic

“Engagement predicts wellbeing above and beyond anything else.” A quote from one of Emma Seppälä’s recent articles on work cultures and wellbeing. She is the science director of the Stanford Compassion Center, and if you’re interested in the science of happiness I highly suggest you follow her. It doesn’t surprise me in the least and it supports what I have experienced myself, and what I now observe in others’ situations. Academia tends to be awfully bad when it comes to engagement. Truly, awfully bad. And I have come to the conclusion it’s one of the worst stressors for researchers, far […]

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The Inner Compass (or: Feeling Better When Academia Disappoints)

HappyPhD articles

We tend to rely on external events to determine how we are doing: we publish an article and we are up; the article gets rejected and we are down. The meeting with the boss goes well and we are up; they push all our buttons and can’t see our point of view and we are down. We have a productive day and we are up; we have an unproductive day, our computer freezes on us, the data don’t cooperate, nor does the photocopier, we are late for our meeting and down we go. In terms of happiness it isn’t the […]

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Past the Breaking Point: The Myth of Competition and Performance in Academia

HappyPhD articles

A few weeks ago a to-remain-unnamed director of graduate studies uttered the following statement: “Unless about 25% of your PhDs drop out, your PhD programme isn’t competitive enough.” What? Did I hear that correctly? What did he say?! It wasn’t a mistake. When asked again, and given a chance to perhaps come up with some nuance or disclaimers, he said: “I stand by that. I mean it! If you can’t handle it you shouldn’t be in academia.” Right. This is a problem in academia: people in charge talk ‘excellence’ and ‘performance’ and ‘competition’ but they don’t think it through. Instead […]

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