‘How to write a PhD’ with Jørgen Møller

Fotograf_Ove_Smedegaard__5_-1Dr. Jørgen Møller, associate professor in political science at Aarhus University, Denmark shares his PhD experience, and strategies on writing and getting published.

Jørgen was the first of our PhD cohort at the EUI to defend his PhD, after a very short three years. He was the first to finish his PhD, while I was the last!* What I remember from our time at the EUI is that Jørgen seemed to have his PhD under control from the very start, something I didn’t quite manage until the latter stages of the PhD. He worked and published steadily, and I remember being quite envious of his (apparently) steady state, when my work felt unruly at best. I finally had the chance to ask him how he did it all. In our interview he shares how he managed to finish his PhD in three years, how writing and publishing on the side can keep your PhD on track, and how to go about publishing your papers and dealing with rejection along the way.

Jørgen’s top 10 tips for writing a PhD:

  1. Work expands to the time allotted. Finishing a PhD in three years was possible because I had to. Much more work could have gone into it, but then, more work can always go into it.
  2. Work on your thesis first thing in the morning. Then read and take care of other commitments the rest of the day.
  3. Work on other smaller projects besides your thesis. Finishing shorter articles, for a newspaper or a periodical provides the sort of short-term satisfaction that is lacking in a slow-moving project like a PhD.
  4. Slice your thesis into manageable parts that can be worked on, completed and published independently.
  5. Flesh out a tentative structure for your thesis from the beginning. Find out what a defendable thesis consists of and looks like.
  6. Getting published is part luck, part thorough preparation. Get plenty of feedback on your paper from peers before sending it in for publication. Make sure your paper follows the standards in your field when it comes to structure, theorizing, methods etc.
  7. Do not panic when your paper gets rejected. Most papers get rejected most of the time.
  8. Don’t view a rejection as a defeat or of evidence of lack of quality. See it as a part of the process, and use rejections constructively to further develop your paper.
  9. The first step to getting published is to write a paper. No paper means no published paper. Submitting your paper to journals also helps.
  10. Quality over quantity. Write really interesting stuff.

AD: Jørgen, You were the only one in our PhD cohort at the EUI who managed to finish your PhD in 3 years. How did you do it?
JM: This was partly dictated by circumstances. My wife was eager to return home after the second year. Right after that she got pregnant and we wanted to get settled back in Denmark before she gave birth. So, I had to speed up the process. In a way I think it was a blessing as it made me accept that the thesis should be handed in, even if much more work could have gone into it. In hindsight, that was a correct move, not least because I had plenty of time to revise it for publication later. However, I was also so lucky as to have a supportive supervisor who accepted that speed was of the essence in my situation.
I had my research question relatively clear from the beginning. That also helped. It was a very broad question, which was refined and narrowed down over the years. Once you are clear on what to research, the process becomes much easier.

AD: What were your working habits during the PhD?
JM: I would write in the mornings (say from 8:00-11:00) and then read and take care of other stuff the rest of the day. I also recall working most Saturdays. But I made sure to work on other things than my thesis. For instance, I did a lot of journalism on the side, which meant that I had small products which would be quickly finished. That was a kind of mental valve that made me feel that I had got something done, even when things were not moving much with the thesis. This was especially important at the EUI, where one does not teach as a PhD student, meaning that the thesis really dominates the working day.

AD: What factors are essential to get ‘right’, to write a PhD smoothly?
JM: I think it is important to be able to ‘slice’ the thesis into manageable parts. Nowadays, this is often done via the so-called ‘paper model’, where the thesis is comprised of a series of papers that (ideally) address aspects of one common research question. Without thinking so much about it, I organized my monograph in a relatively similar way. Another advantage of this model is that it allows you to start working on the first paper early on in the process.

AD: Were there any things you wish you’d known that you know now, when you were writing your PhD?
JM: When I began at the EUI in the summer of 2004, things were less structured than they are in our PhD school in Aarhus. I am not sure I completely understood what a thesis was until I got about a year into the process. It would have been good to have been forced to flesh out a tentative structure from the beginning.

AD: You published your first paper quite some time before you finished the PhD. How did you go about getting published, and what is your advice for PhD students who don’t have a publication to their name yet?
JM: I had my first article accepted a year into the PhD in ‘East European Politics and Society’. I don’t remember why I choose that outlet. I think I was somewhat lucky that the paper was accepted. My advice would be not to panic and to recall that everyone gets rejects along the way. Other than that, it is a very good idea to circulate one’s paper to relevant peers and get pre-reviews which one tackles. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you will convince the reviewers (who might incidentally be the same people). Also, it is of course important to follow industry standards with respect to structure, theorizing and methods. One way of doing this is simply to scan good papers in the journal that one wishes to submit to and get inspired with respect to the structure. Find out how to phrase the research question and how to present expectations, discuss the methodology, interpret the findings and so on. It is stupid to be rejected based on form.

AD: What are your thoughts on the process of getting published and the reviews and rejections that come with it? What is the right way to approach this process?
JM: One should see the rejections (or, more particularly, the reviews) as an opportunity to further develop the paper. As such, this is really a part of the working process. And, again, everyone gets rejected some of the time (and most get rejected most of the time). This also goes for top researchers from the best Universities in the States. I have met top researchers telling me that this or that paper was rejected in four, five or six journals before finally being accepted. So, it is important not to view rejections as defeats or evidence of lack of quality – but instead to use them constructively.

AD: You are very prolific, and seem to effortlessly produce a steady stream of publications. How do you do it? Any tips?
JM: Though it is a trivial point, one needs to write up the articles and submit them, to get them accepted. It is important not to be afraid of the paper, or of rejections. Cooperation with other scholars is really good as it both tends to strengthen the quality and to ensure one’s own commitment. Also, having things accepted is more fun where you have someone to share the satisfaction with, and rejections are easier to swallow when not getting them alone. As mentioned above, one also benefits from presenting and circulating the papers, something that tends to give a good flow to the working process as new comments have to be taken into consideration. But there is also a danger of quantity crowding out quality. I would not necessarily recommend being very prolific, not if it happens at the expense of making really interesting stuff.

AD: You also published in newspapers when you were at the EUI. What are your thoughts on PhD students publishing in the mainstream media?
JM: As mentioned above, that worked as a kind of mental valve for me. What I did was mostly to communicate the finding of new research in a weekly newspaper. I think that is an obvious thing to do for a PhD student, who would like to finish something and to sharpen his/her writing and presentation.

Thanks Jørgen!

*I grudgingly report that Jørgen wasn’t just faster than me, he was also better; though, and I emphasise this point, by only the narrowest of margins. Both our PhDs were selected as being the best EUI political science thesis in the year we defended, and were submitted for the ECPR Jean Blondel prize. Neither of us won the prize (obvious mistakes by the jury). His was the best out of 36, mine out of 34. It’s a sad life. I don’t think I am ever going to beat Jørgen at anything.