The PhD trajectory is a bit of a black box, and the way academia is set up, it often stays that way: stumbling around in the dark. This week I’m talking to dr. Eva Lantsoght, who has just published a book that aims to demystify the PhD process. A good idea, if you ask me! For many of us the academic world is a foreign one when we start a PhD, and for most of us it takes a long time before we ‘get’ how it all works, how to play the academic game.
I have come across one book before explicitly aimed at explaining the inner workings of academia to PhDs: ‘The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research‘ by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg. I recommend it. In the preface they explain the book is aimed at reducing their ‘caffeine overload’, that is the time they spend explaining the basic concepts of research and what they call “the ground rules of the academic world” to PhDs over a cup of coffee. It is often assumed PhDs have this knowledge already, partly because supervisors don’t realise what the gaps in their inside knowledge are: it has all become so familiar to them over the years. I’d add to that that a great many academics are overworked and busy and — difficult truth– too often not particularly interested or well equipped when it comes to the supervision part of their jobs. This book is written from a supervisor’s perspective: it is indeed a bit like a candid chat with a supervisor (many chats!), which in real life would cover a great many coffees!
Dr. Lantsoght’s book has the same goal, but a different perspective: this book is like having an experienced colleague telling you about all the ins and outs of PhD life. It feels more like a pal or a companion, less like a lecture (nothing wrong with lectures, they are useful too!)
Some Q & A’s
Why did you decide to write the book, what is its purpose?
I wanted to combine the most important information that is available on my blog to bring everything together in a book. When I was a PhD student, I read a number of books about the PhD trajectory. Most contained some important information, but since many of these were more aimed at students in social sciences, I always felt there was something missing for people in STEM. I also came across books that seem to present the PhD trajectory as something you can “hack” or that you can complete by follow a step-by-step procedure. In my experience, all research is messy, contains setbacks, and requires you to dig deep – I wanted to share that perspective, and teach students that the PhD trajectory is a deeply personal journey, and that writing and learning to write, which is such an important part of of the PhD trajectory, is an academic coming-of-age.
Which topics did you know you had to cover, from your own experience?
I had to talk about planning, and I talk about planning throughout the book – and I try to show that, while research is a messy convoluted process that is hard to plan, it can be very helpful to know what you need to be working on when, rather than finding yourself surfing the internet or staring out of the window.
Since most available books on the PhD trajectory are written from the perspective of the social sciences, I also wanted to dedicate a chapter to experimental work. I wanted to show you need to be prepared for your experiments, but at the same time, know that things always go wrong in the lab, and that you need to learn to roll with the punches. I also wanted to mention how physically exhausting laboratory work can be.
I like your focus on self-care. Could you share your thoughts on self-care in academia?
In terms of planning, I call self-care a non-negotiable meeting with yourself. I recommend students to plan time in their weekly template for fun activities (and sufficient sleep!). It’s important to keep functioning in the long run. On the other hand, it is so tempting to go into survival mode for “just a few more weeks” trying to finish a project. I know it all too well – I just returned to work full-time after a year of working a shorter workday to take care of my baby daughter. I’m still figuring out how to organize my days now and find some time for myself…
How did you come up with the idea for the glossary of the book? (It is great. It goes into great detail explaining a wide range of PhD life related topics)
From the beginning of writing this book, I wanted it to become a practical tool. For that reason, the book is organized as a coursetext, so that it can be used in a formal classroom setting throughout the study trajectory of PhD students. As I was brainstorming ideas on how to make this book a practical tool, I wondered what I could offer somebody who finished reading the book. A glossary of terms, in which you can dip when you need some inspiration, was what came to my mind. It seemed a bit of a daunting task and I wondered if I could “cover everything” in the glossary. I decided to shake off that voice, and opened a blank Word sheet in which I started to type all the letters of the alphabet. Bit by bit, I added terms to the list – and the result is the glossary you can find in the published book.
The book is written from a STEM background, which is decidedly different from doing a humanities/ social sciences PhD. It is also quite ambitious and gung-ho, in that it assumes you can handle a really full-on schedule. This may not be the case for you right now. But if you are full of energy, raring to go, or if you are willing and able to take what works and leave the rest (always a good idea), without being discouraged by the full-on schedules it comes highly recommended! There is also Eva’s blog PhDtalk, which she started in the second year of her PhD, and is an excellent resource for PhD students.