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Career Advice

A useful guide for anyone considering a PhD

Envisioning the PhD journey as three distinct stages: the marathon, the discourse and the compass.

BY MARCO ROMAGNOLI | JAN 24 2024

Listening to jazz and deep in the postdoctoral blues, I am writing a few lines about my recently completed PhD journey. My goal is to create a “PhD students’ toolkit,” grounded in my own experience to help fellow sailors navigate the high seas of doctoral studies.

Research work teaches us to be concise, so I’ve condensed my plethora of thoughts into three sections, each set to metaphors: the marathon leading up to a PhD, discourse for the PhD itself, and the compass for the postdoctoral phase. There will be no one-size-fits-all answers, just food for reflection.

The marathon

To run the Boston Marathon, you have to meet minimum qualification criteria for age, sex and gender. For example, women aged 18 to 34 must have already run a full marathon in three hours and 30 minutes or less. Obviously, marathons take preparation. Similarly, anyone who wants to start a doctorate should first ask themselves why.. In my case, I liked studying and learning, but had no idea what “doing research” meant. Yet I was clear on where I wanted to land professionally: a doctorate in ethnology and heritage at Université Laval would be my gateway to Canada, where I had wanted to live since childhood.

To find your own “why,” you should ask yourself questions such as: what is driving me to start a PhD? Will that motivation stand the test of time and hardship? What will a doctorate do for me professionally and personally? What is my goal? Am I doing this to become a professor, purely for the challenge, or to discover a new country, language or culture? Like the Fool in a deck of Tarot cards, feel free to leave some room for adventure. Once you have at least the broad strokes of an answer to these first questions, keep moving through the questionnaire: how will I fund my studies (a part-time job, bursaries, contracts through the university, savings…)? How should I organize the various areas of my life (professional, personal, familial)? Who can I turn to for advice, support, or both at once?

A PhD isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. You can be well prepared and still run into difficulties; you can be unsure and still end up on the podium, and let’s be clear: the risk of psychological injury is real. But if you have decided to train for and run the marathon, I will see you in the second phase, where the starting pistol has already been fired and the 42-kilometre run is underway.

Discourse

We are in the belly of the doctorate, when, after an average five years and 10 months, a thesis will emerge. This thesis should be the priority during gestation, but anyone who’s been there knows that isn’t always the case. You rarely get to focus entirely on writing your thesis, even if you get funding. Distractions and commitments abound. My PhD took six years: 75 lunar cycles marked by a series of both pleasant and unpleasant surprises: having to work Sunday mornings, receiving a prestigious Vanier scholarship, the COVID-19 global health crisis and exploring new landscapes during my field research in the Mediterranean.

It’s time to think of the “how”: how do you best tackle this journey? Academically, you should develop a work plan with concrete goals and deadlines for achieving them. Map out the required courses and leave time for research, rest, thesis drafting and projects like scientific papers and other publications. Insist that your doctoral supervisor(s) also make a plan. Keep your eyes on the prize, but don’t lose sight of your surroundings: you’ll need to know both how to zoom in and zoom out to complete a thesis. Discuss your progress (or lack thereof) with your supervisor(s) as well as outsiders – they’re more likely to see the blind spots while you’re busy running.


Read also: 7 tips for efficient thesis writing


On the personal front, rest assuredyou are not alone, even though you will often feel that way. Use your words: talk with fellow doctoral students and have casual conversations to distract you from the complexity of the thesis content. Knock on different doors for advice and help. Savour friendly get-togethers and leisurely coffee dates. But most importantly, don’t forget to appreciate yourself: not only are you fantastic, but you are also acquiring the skills that will make you a researcher.

A PhD is not done in secret; it’s an act of sharing. It is a sentence written and perfected, an academic chronicle, a victory over imposter syndrome. Along the way, doctoral studies teach you to articulate your thoughts, defend your ideas and question yourself and your assumptions.

Now let’s move on to the third phase.

The compass

Once your doctorate is complete, the usual route for those who want a tenure-track position is to do a postdoc, then another, and possibly even a third, and hope a professorship opens up and you get hired. Sometimes, I’m buoyed by the belief that I’ll be part of the minority and become a full professor. Other times, I realize this optimism is nothing more than a wig perched on fear or a veil hiding the nagging doubt of whether I will make it. Some days, I put on the wig, and other days, I wear the veil. But thinking that a university career is the only option available, and not having plans B, C and D is not unusual.

Now comes the “what”: what do I want to do now that I have completed my (post)doctorate? How can I put the skills I have developed (for example, critical thinking) into practice? How can I do what I love and become that version of myself? We need a compass, and that compass is driven by self-awareness, deep listening and (yet again) a healthy dose of motivation and openness to different possibilities. I recently started a two-year postdoc at Université du Québec à Montréal, and I am already planning a second at Harvard University. But I actually don’t know exactly what I will do if – once I have completed the postdoctoral saga – no jobs open up in Quebec, where I live and I don’t get tenure. What I know for now is that professorial work has all the ingredients I like: teaching, research and working with students.

Resources

The following non-exhaustive references for before, during and after the doctorate helped me and gave me food for thought. I hope they will do the same for you:

 

 

Of course, a simple search on Google or through your trusted (university) bookstore can turn up other, equally valid ideas, based on equally valid experiences.

You are not your PhD. A doctorate is a direction that can put you on the path to more spheres of life that you can imagine. It teaches you how much you don’t know and makes you a skilled manager of time, procrastination and stress. In short, it is a mirror to see and know yourself better. It is also a passion, in both senses of the term: physical and spiritual suffering, but also intense love. Don’t be afraid to give in to that passion.

In closing, let me cite a brilliant Italian farmer and writer. When asked how long it takes to make bread, her poetic yet pragmatic answer was 12 months: “Autumn to sow the wheat, winter to watch it grow, spring to see it tall and swept by the wind, summer to harvest and thresh it.” And so it goes, for all the seasons and years to come. Bread is a rosary, a mantra, a cycle. What a wonderful example of hard work, discipline and perseverance offered by Francesca Pachetti. Similarly, a doctorate in research comes with its own stages: a marathon to sow the seeds, discourse to grow them, and a compass to guide the harvest. I have shared the recipe for my bread, which is not the only one out there, but it is the loaf that sustained me for six years. My wish is that you all become wonderful bakers.

Happy travels!

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  1. Lisa / February 1, 2024 at 17:38

    Beautifully written, thank you!

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