Agenda for PhD supervision and chocolate

41: PhD highs and lows: Bärbel’s experiences

Want a look behind the scenes of Bärbel’s PhD experience? She shares with you her funniest, the proudest and the most dreadful moments. You’ll get to know why her PhD often was a sweet experience, but a hard one none the less. That in spite of the struggle it was absolutely worth it and has lifted her career and life to a completely different level.

>> Prefer listening to us? Here’s the audio of this blog post <<

Are you at the start of a PhD? Or maybe right in the thick of it? Have you completed recently, or some time ago? This blog-post is for all and any of the above! This is a special post because we wanted to share a different type of PhD experience with you – a personal one.

Today, we reflect on our own PhD experiences. As you know, we often ask you about your experiences during or after your PhD and in our courses we listen with interest to many of your stories and reports. Some are hilarious, some are unfortunate, and more often than not, they are deeply touching on a personal level! So with this post, we’ve decided to give back and share some of our personal PhD experiences with you. 

We’d like to help those who have started or are in the middle of their PhD and cannot see the green grass on the other side of the fence yet. We also would like to help those who have doubts whether they’ll ever finish or are in a phase where they’re thinking of abandoning their PhD projects. Think twice, because a PhD is totally worth it! We’ve also thought about what advice we could offer in retrospect to those still in the trenches. 

All too often, our focus is on the scientific experiments, the hard facts, the papers, the dissertation, and less on the fun things that are also part of the PhD! That’s different today! We want to provide valuable tips and advice gems throughout this post that we hope will lend you a hand.

We’ll take turns interviewing each other about our PhD experiences, and in this post, we start with my (Bärbel’s) experiences. Tune in to one of the following posts on the SMART ACADEMICS blog for Gunther’s experiences.

The interview flows along a string of interesting questions – things you’ve probably always wanted to ask about our PhD time, but didn’t think you could! Enjoy reading Bärbel’s journey, and if you do, please share your PhD story with us! Drop us a message at info@tressacademic.com!

Starting the PhD

Gunther: Let’s start with a bit of background information. How did we start on the PhD path?

Bärbel: Sure! After graduating with MSc degrees from Heidelberg University in Germany, we went straight on to do a PhD. We spent a few months over the summer applying for scholarships, organising funding, and preliminary literature-reviews to decide on the exact topics of our individual PhD projects. Then in the autumn, we enrolled and started working on our projects. 

Gunther: Yes, and then at the end of our first PhD year, we moved to Denmark for our field work and the fun part of our PhD started! The conditions for PhD students at Roskilde University were amazing, so we stayed there until the end of our PhDs, and even for postdoc positions afterwards. We started this journey together, but we’ve of course had very individual experiences. So let’s turn it over to Bärbel for her personal highs and lows! 

1. What was the funniest experience during your PhD time?

Gunther: Nowadays you often deal with the more serious experiences, challenges and problems of PhD students in your courses ‘Completing a PhD successfully on time’, which is why I would like to hear something more cheery from your own PhD. What was the funniest experience you had during your PhD time?

Bärbel: There’s one thing that definitely comes to mind here: it was during my PhD defence, so pretty much at the very end of my PhD. You all know a defence is quite a formal and serious occasion. So my main supervisor was the head of the examination committee. And he sat together with my two other examiners, both distinguished professors, one from Belgium, and one from Germany. My defence was public, so there were quite a lot of people in the room. And some time into giving my defence talk, I saw my supervisor pull out a chocolate bar and offer it to the other two examiners. 

Gunther: Wait, wait, you say that during your defence your supervisor offered chocolate to the other members of the committee?

Bärbel: Believe it or not! It was a comical situation. Yes I saw it like happening in slow-motion, like in a movie! The two professors looked at him with their pokerface mixture of surprise, irritation, and disbelief and politely declined. I cringed and had to bite my tongue not to laugh at the same time! 

Gunther: Wow, this is surreal!

Bärbel: Totally! I knew my dear supervisor of course, he’s the most relaxed person on the planet and he had always a chocolate bar at hand. To eat one during my defence was totally in character, not attempted bribery. . . ! 

Gunther: I guess you have to explain this, why was it intuitive for him to offer chocolate? 

Bärbel: My supervisor would occasionally go to the supermarket and buy like 40-50 or more bars of chocolate and store them in his office. Whenever we had a meeting, it started with him opening and sharing a chocolate bar. It was a kind of ritual. So chocolate was all around also a ‘must’ for every supervisory meeting. The amount of chocolate we ate during my PhD is still to this day without equal.

Gunther: OK, guys, listen, you better speak to your supervisor about what he or she is planning on offering the committee members during your defence! 

2. What was the most dreadful experience?

Gunther: Since we now know your sweet chocolate experience, is there anything that you would say was the opposite? What was the most dreadful experience you had during your PhD? 

Bärbel: For me, that was when I was hunted by a bull while doing fieldwork in Jutland!

Gunther: Sounds daunting! Tell us more, please. 

Bärbel: I was doing research on organic farming practices and part of my empirical work consisted of fieldwork on agricultural areas in different Danish regions. I did this to validate information that I had extracted from aerial photographs. So I would drive out in the morning and then spend the entire day roaming fields, often without meeting a soul throughout the entire day. I had the permission of the farmers and land owners, of course. 

Gunther: This sounds like typical fieldwork for a PhD study, but what is about the bull? 

Bärbel: Well, one day I was mapping a huge meadow with patches of habitat. I had to enter the fenced area to map the ponds and hedges. I was totally focused on my work when I suddenly heard a noise behind me. I turned around and saw a big bull in full gallop running towards me! The scene is engrained on my brain forever. I grabbed my stuff and ran as fast as I could. In total panic, I reached the nearest fence, climbed over it, and jumped across a water-filled ditch into safety. The bull came to a halt on the other side, pawing the ground and snorting its nostrils! Believe me, I’ve had a great respect for bulls and cows since then! 

Gunther: Holy cow! Or I should say “holy bull!” Did you go back to fieldwork again after this? 

Bärbel: Well, I had to, but it took me a while. And to this day, when we’re hiking in the mountains and crossing a meadow I steer clear of bulls and cows . . .!

Gunther: OK, folks, what we’ve learned from this lesson is that doing a PhD is not only hard work but can also be dangerous! …. Watch out there! Well, let’s talk more about the things that were enlightening for you and valuable for our audience also. 

3. What was the biggest learning experience?

Gunther: What was the biggest learning experience during your PhD?

Bärbel: Good one! Well, my entire PhD was one massive learning experience! I learned new things every single day and that is also what – in hindsight – I enjoyed most. The learning happened in so many different ways: I acquired a lot of knowledge in my subject area and beyond! It was a total immersion in this super stimulating scientific environment at my department in Roskilde, which had a very flat hierarchy where everyone could say what they were thinking, and that was great. And there was also the international exchange with other PhD candidates and scholars from around the world, which taught me about all kinds of different backgrounds and experiences. We had a lot of philosophy-of-science type debates going about very fundamental issues and scientific approaches. 

There was also a huge difference between the scientific traditions and the way we did science at Heidelberg University and Roskilde University. We really got into debates about the normative vs. descriptive and positivistic scientific traditions. It was a complete game-changer which broadened my horizon and influenced my way of approaching and applying science for the rest of my career! 

Gunther: I remember those debates! It took us quite a while to grasp these different philosophy of science concepts, but once you got it, it was like passing through a secret door and there was completely new land on the other side. An epiphany! It fundamentally changed your point of view! It was an inspiring time!

We spent quite a bit of time dwelling on the sticking points of PhDs now, but don’t forget, this is a period of learning unlike any other, where you are surrounded by people with the same thirst for knowledge and desire for exploration! Not everything you discover during this time will end up in your dissertation, but it will change your perspective and probably bring you a few friendships. The pride you feel in your accomplishments shine especially bright because for many of us, it’s the first major project you’ve taken charge of! 

4. What was your proudest moment?

Gunther: So, Bärbel, will you share your proudest moment with us?

Bärbel: Yes, sure! One day I was invited by the Danish Ministry of Agriculture. The Minister had organised a kind of round-table-discussion with a few experts to advise on measures to mitigate the negative impacts of farming on the environment, and I was one of them! I got this formal letter of invitation and nothing could have lifted my self-esteem more in this moment …

Gunther: I mean sure, that’s great for everyone to be invited by the government, but what exactly made you so proud of that?

Bärbel: I think this was the first time ever that my professional advice was requested and valued. It was a superb feeling of acknowledgement and gave me a huge boost in motivation to go on with my PhD. I could finally see that my results would have some effect in the end – what I was doing would matter! 

Gunther: Good point! And I know this is often something young researchers quite understandably long for: To see that one’s work has value beyond the academic environment. It’s not just results published on paper – sorry- but knowing that someone is tangibly benefitting from your results and expertise!

5. What was the toughest time during your PhD?

Gunther: But I guess it was not always sunshine and fancy lunches with government officials in your PhD, right? There were some hard times as well… Thinking back, what would you say was the toughest time you had during your PhD?

Bärbel: Well, in spite of all the fun we were having, I was working very hard all the time for really long hours. So it felt like the going always was tough. I remember during the sunny summer days I would never let myself take a break or go swimming at the beach or do anything else ‘just for fun’. Sometimes I looked out of the window and felt a bit sad, missing out on so much ‘sunshine’! Like so many PhD students, work is great and exciting and then you slide into that habit of just working . . . . and not doing much else. 

And, I think this should be added as a little warning, I really had to alter these working habits later when I had worked a couple of years as a researcher and suffered from burn-out . . .! So by then it was definitely getting too much … 

Gunther: So there’s quite a lesson to be learned here, right?

Bärbel: Yes, definitely. Today, when I speak with PhD candidates about their working habits, I very consciously point out that you need to take care of yourself as well, you need to take breaks and holidays! There’s a lot more awareness for managing mental health today (see Levecque et al. 2017, Hasgall/EUA-CDE 20Nature 2019Scott & Takarangi 2019, Hnatkova/Eurodoc 2019), but that does not mean that a PhD today is any less stressful. 

Gunther: But on the plus side, you didn’t have a complete breakdown or crisis, right?

Bärbel: Nope! But I remember that the final months were very intense. I was under a high amount of pressure to complete on time because my stipend would end and I would simply run out of money. So I knew I had to be finished, no excuses, no extension! But I also remember wanting to finish the PhD so I could move on with my life. I was ready for the next level …

6. How would you rate your supervision?

Gunther: Well, change was right around the corner, because in the final months of your PhD you also worked on a research proposal that then secured yourself a postdoc position. So that may have also added to the stress. But let me get back to your supervision once more, that’s something our audience is curious to hear about I’m sure. You’ve written a blog post a while a go, called ‘Good PhD supervision: What you can expect?’ in which you point out the main pillars of high quality supervision. Now I am curious: How good was your PhD supervision, how did it influence you or your PhD? 

Bärbel: Well for me it was two-fold. First I had my main supervisor at Heidelberg University. He was a very experienced scholar, very knowledgable, he’d been involved in the development of first models predicting climate change, which was brilliant, but he was extremely distant. Like, I would meticulously prepare for every meeting with him and still be hyper nervous to say anything wrong or anything that would not please him (yikes!). Having a supervisory meeting with this professor felt a bit like being granted an audience with the Queen! Seriously, it had the same aura! I mean there were no discussions, you would simply do what he said. Or, to be more precise: you would try to understand what he might have meant to say – because you’d definitely not dared to ask back! I would rather spend hours trying to figure out than ask for clarification- weird!

Then at Roskilde University, my supervisor was quite the opposite. He was so laid-back and very supportive, just fantastic. 

Gunther: And he had a lot of chocolate!

Bärbel: Not only that! Whenever I had a problem, I could come to him and he would help me fix it. Also with personal things, he was always ready to lend a hand!

Gunther: That is so true: Remember when we needed some furniture for our tiny apartment? We had just moved to Denmark, rented an apartment, but it was empty! So we needed some furniture.

Bärbel: ’Some’ is an understatement because we had nothing! My supervisor would speak to the janitor at the university so we could get some old stuff from the repository! Hilarious! Our ‘home’ looked like a classroom – we had the same tables and chairs like at the university, But back to my supervisor …

He felt more like an older (and wiser) friend! With him I could discuss, argue, disagree and speak my mind! That enabled me to develop my own ‘scientist personality’ – you need that kind freedom to get there! 

He was also great in the sense that he had a huge international network of influential scientists around the world that he happily introduced me to, and encouraged me to attend scientific meetings and PhD courses. We had a very close relationship and I owe him a lot. We’re still in touch and I am so grateful that he was such a fantastic role model for me! So later on, when I had my own students at the university, I would always try to treat them as good as he was to me! 

Gunther: Ok, folks – and supervisors: Be good to your PhD students and they’ll pass the ‘Good-supervision-gene’ onto the next generation! That’s PhDenetics for beginners …!

7. What advice would you give to PhD candidates?

Gunther: Well, Bärbel, what advice would you give to PhD candidates who are doing a PhD right now?

Bärbel: I’ve a ton of advice here! Focus on (just) your PhD and have a clear goal. I think you’ve got to be very focused on just this one major ‘project’ for the time during your PhD. Also, have a very specific goal for your PhD project. I think that makes it easier to distinguish unimportant stuff from what really matters for your PhD in the end. You need to be committed too. You’ve got to put yourself 100% behind the goal of getting the PhD and then walk the talk and crack down on your PhD tasks every single day! That’s when you’ll realise that great things are happening, like valuable insights, new discoveries, and you make huge progress! 

Oh yes, and one more: be wary of the time! It flies and faster than you think and runs down when you’re not paying close attention …

Gunther: Ok, get your notepads out: It takes focus, clear and specific goals, total commitment, and keeping an eye on the time! 

Bärbel: Or instead grab our SMART ACADEMICS blog post no. 2: So you want to finish your PhD on time? – where you can read it all in more detail and great tips to get started yourself!

8. Conclusion: Was it worth it? Would you do it again?

Gunther: So we come to the last question here, Bärbel. In the end, do you think it was worthwhile putting in all that effort to get a PhD?

Bärbel: That’s definitely a 10 out of 10 from me! The PhD has put my life and my professional career on a totally different level. All in all, I worked 12 years as a scientist (my PhD included) in four different countries and at four different universities and research institutes and this has enriched my life in countless ways. I’ve got friends and colleagues in many different countries and I still benefit from this network! Believe it or not, I am still in contact with people who I met during my PhD courses – imagine what it will do for you! 

I also think scientists are a special breed, they always connect over shared scientific interest and can put all other differences aside and that is great! I feel totally at home in this environment – this is my tribe! 

Also, you forever adopt the mindset and scientific way of thinking. You apply your scientific and analytic skills to everyday life! After your PhD you are a scientist – once and forever! 

Gunther: So true! Nothing I would change about that! 

Now, have you enjoyed listening to Bärbels PhD experiences? Have you a hilarious story to tell about your supervisor, fieldwork, or anything else in your PhD? We’d love to hear from you – send us an e-mail and share your story with us. You can reach us at info@tressacademic.com . THANK YOU SO MUCH!

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