With the very last steps of my PhD journey on their way (yes, deciding on the paper thickness for the final print deserves a PhD on its own with new terms such as opacity, basically being the level of ‘shine through-ness’ of paper, added to my vocabulary), I found an old digital note file entitled “Live lessons learned during my PhD”. It was one of those rare instances, where your past self can surprise your present self. I completely forgot that I ever created these notes, but after having read them now, some ideas seem worth sharing. I decided to edit it as little as possible and only occasionally add my ex-post perspective to the ‘in the midst of the ride’ perspective from mid-2019. So, please forgive that some lines may have a pessimistic touch, but than again a PhD has its ups and downs.
1. There are moments where you will be completely lost and drowning — the only solution is to keep on going
At an early phase of my PhD, a senior colleague once told me that a PhD is like those crazy people swimming through the English Channel. Apparently, there is a position during this journey where you can neither see England behind you anymore (“Yeah! I have made it a long way”) nor France in front of you (“Holy ****! Where am I going?”). I have never actually fact-checked this, so mathematician go crazy, take your distances and earth’s curvature and let’s see whether this story is based on scientific ground. Talking about ground: So, you are in the middle of the North Sea, swimming by yourself, with no sight of the aforementioned solid ground and you feel completely lost. A rather scary thought. However, senior researchers do not only draw horribly, yet shockingly accurate scenarios, but also give advice: “The only solution is to just keep on swimming”. Back in the days, I did not really understand what he tried to tell me. Until one day, I realized that I am in the middle of the North Sea right now. In contrast to his story however, I was not alone. I had a gigantic stone wrapped around both my legs — a stone called work-in-progress PhD. So “just keep on swimming” turned out to be very hard work. Quitting seemed so much easier. Going back to consulting full time, with its rewardingly quick feedback loops and enjoying life at its fullest. Spending Sundays with a hangover brunch and my fiancée in bed after a crazy party night with friends rather than getting up at 07 am (that’s what ‘sleeping in’ meant for me as a PhD). There were days, where I entered the office at six in the morning in desperate attempts to fight the deep uncertainty with a lot of work. So, I sat down at my desk and literally did not know what to do next. Nothing seemed to fit. However, I kept on going. Reading articles and books, going back to my data, drawing sketches on post-its, doing one-man reflexive D-Thinking sessions (Man, I was desperate…). However, after these days of pure frustration, little things started to add up again — little by little. There was no magical moment of epiphany with everything afterwards being downhill. Every day was hard and often frustrating work, but things kept on coming together, and eventually I entered the holy grail of flow, where I produced high quality (although that’s on others to judge) pages like a printing machine. Importantly, I never knew for sure that things would get better, the only thing I knew and could do was keep going. In this respect, I recently talked to an executive about the lessons learned from the Financial crisis of 2008/09 for the current Covid-19 economic downturn. Besides many practical things, he said “probably the most important thing is the experience that things will get better eventually. Knowing that you have been through something like this before, lets you sleep at night” — wise words…
2. Draft, rework, DELETE
My very final PhD document contains 51,504 words. While one hard drive breakdown, two laptop changes, and one digital move from one cloud provider to another have done their fair share of deleting earlier versions, I quickly calculated (based on file sizes) the amount of actual text I have created in earlier versions. In total I have produced around 6,800,000 words in all earlier versions, which is a factor of around 130. So, on average, for every word in the final dissertation, I needed 130 additional words going to the digital trash can. Obviously, this is a very theoretical calculation, but it has a true core. I am absolutely convinced that the final product is what it is now because of the countless earlier iterations. Sketching a paragraph or even a few pages, realizing that it does not help the overall project and letting it go again, enables countless cognitive processes that make the final product more robust. Interestingly, the drafting and continuous reworking is not the most difficult part. The most challenging part is pushing the “CRTL+A”-“DEL” combination on your keyboard as it feels like literally destroying your own work (which it is). It took me an immense self-control not to feel like I have wasted the past days or weeks, but to see the value in this detour and pivoting because it only improves the final product. In addition, the further you progress, the harder it gets to say goodbye to certain parts. In my final weeks, I had to delete segments that have accompanied me for more than two years. I received good feedback for these parts, and they felt like little children. However, admitting that (regardless of the quality) a certain part does not add value to the final product, because it blurs the red throat or opens up a field you should not open up, is extremely hard. To mitigate the pain of losing a beloved paragraph, I started to have a “graveyard document” where I copied all these parts. At some point I will return to this document and see whether any of the ideas might be worthwhile to pick up again. So, while they are gone, they never fully disappeared.
3. Just because you do not see any progress, does not mean that you are not progressing
I am equally impressed and scared if people tell me that they have a quantitative plan for how to write their PhD / Master Thesis: “2 pages a day and I am done in X days”. Let me know if that ever worked for anybody! Progress in such projects is less predictable (as the planning fallacy and projects like the BER airport repeatedly show us) and even less observable. In hindsight, progress on large scale projects is hard to grasp because it usually happens extremely incrementally. Finding the right time frame for looking back can support you in avoiding the feeling that you made no progress. I used an almost meticulous versioning logic of my PhD work-in-progress document that allowed me to take me back to any status quo of previous versions. Occasionally, when the frustration kicked in again, it helped to go back to your own work from a few months ago and see that you did make a lot of progress. And in rare occasions, old work may also provide an answer to a problem you are currently struggling with — your past self can be a good inspirational source. Another idea to increase your own emotional stability during such long and energy-sucking projects, is to engage with Juniors. Not only can you provide some advice that may help your colleague, but you also start to realize that the concerns you once had (at earlier stages) have disappeared. While they are replaced with different concerns, I sometimes left such informal exchanges with a “God, I am happy that I don’t have to worry about that anymore”-feeling which is a good indicator of progress.
To wrap this up…obviously a PhD is a highly renown qualification supposedly showing academic masterclass. That is often also what it does. But much more importantly (and I only learned that in partial hindsight) it forces upon you a set of qualities I now highly value: unprecedented endurance — a true ‘never quit’ attitude, self-management — including the often overlooked emotional aspect of it, reflexivity — the ability to step away from one’s own actions und critically understand what they are and what they mean are just the most obvious one.
So, if you asked me, would I do it again? Yes, I would.