#48: Lessons learned from the PhD: Gunther’s story

Every PhD study offers fertile ground for once in a lifetime stories. If you want to hear some of ours, like how a PhD defence ended with a thunderstorm, why two PhD students and three professors drove through a rapidly flooding Copenhagen or the time an early PhD presentation turned into a political row at the institute, keep reading! This is the story of Gunther’s PhD journey with loads of lessons learned along the way- from what to avoid to what to look for.   

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Gunther Tress

Bärbel: Hi everybody, Gunther and Bärbel here. We’re going to mix things up a little by sharing experiences from our own PhDs, and today, it’s Gunther’s turn to open up the story box! So please tell us, Gunther, about the funniest experience you had during your PhD time.  

Gunther: Oh gosh, I can remember many funny things that happened at this time, what should I tell?

Bärbel: Well, give us the best of. 

Gunther: OK. The first episode that comes to mind is from the early stage of our PhD studies, you remember Bärbel, we were still at Heidelberg University in Germany. We both wanted our PhD studies to include some field work abroad. Our supervisor from Heidelberg, a nice elderly professor, had a contact in Denmark, a professor in Landscape Ecology at Roskilde University. We settled on the idea to visit and discuss with him the option of doing some of our research at his institute. So, we travelled to Denmark, I guess it was in July or August, during a pretty warm Danish summer. We had an appointment to meet him at Roskilde University outside of Copenhagen. Coming from an old, traditional university like Heidelberg, we both of course dressed well (I wore a jacket, but no tie). We walked into the professor’s office and were a bit surprised to see somebody sitting there in an old pair of sport shorts and a T-shirt. This couldn’t possibly be the professor we were supposed to meet! But it was him alright, do you remember? 

Bärbel: Oh yes, I do, we were totally overdressed and he was sitting there completely at ease and welcomed us to his office. No tie or jacket, but a big smile on his face! We then went altogether outside, where the university had some benches and tables and he went to the nearby cantina and bought us all ice-cream. We had known each other for 10 minutes but were already having ice-cream together like friends. It was amazing and totally different from the stiff conservative attitude we were used to from Heidelberg! 

Gunther: Yes, I guess it was our first lesson in understanding the benefit of flat hierarchies! And a little taste of the new culture at a foreign university. This guy later became your supervisor, right Bärbel? 

Bärbel: Yes, and he did very well. … So do you have any more memories like that from your PhD time? 

Gunther: Oh sure! I probably need to explain that we both had moved to Denmark and conducted each a PhD study at Roskilde University. Now, let’s jump forward in time to the end of my PhD. I will never forget the day we both completed our PhD defences. Our department had first organized a super nice reception for everyone, followed by a stylish dinner with just our supervisors and committee members. 

Bärbel: Oh yeah, it was at a posh restaurant directly at the beautiful Roskilde Fjord. We had never been there before and definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford it!

Gunther: Our PhD defences both took place on the same day, which was probably a bit unusual already. So, we were in a special and tense mood. On a day like this, no one bothered to check the weather forecast. 

Bärbel: Of course not! But we should have! 

Gunther: Yes! We were simply not aware that on the day of our defences, Denmark was expecting a very heavy storm. There was a severe storm warning for the evening of our defence. 

Bärbel: Oh yes, tell everyone what happened next!

Gunther: As I said already, our supervisor and two members of our committee, also professors, went out for dinner with us this evening. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were a bit surprised to see that we were their only guests, nobody else was dining there. But, we didn’t spend too much thought on it, it became clear to us later that nobody was in the mood to go out for dinner that night. But we were! 

Bärbel: I remember, the candles on our table were flickering all the time – it was so windy outside that the storm blew through the window.

Gunther: Yes, and only when we were half-way through the gorgeous dinner, we became aware of the weather outside: heavy rains, thunder and lightening, gale force winds, a real storm! Originally, the plan after dinner had been to say goodbye and everybody would go home or to their hotels where they were staying. Not this night. Buses and trains to Copenhagen were no longer running because of the dangerous storm. 

Bärbel: Right! Then the only option was to take all the professors home in our car. That was a special ride. Outside it was a very dark and stormy night with basically nobody on the street …

Gunther: … besides us two freshly-graduated PhD students and the three professors packed into our car, five researchers on the road to nowhere. We started from Roskilde and the first stop should have been five minutes later at the hotel where our German supervisor stayed. But … he didn’t want to leave the car yet. He suggested to stay onboard with us until we had delivered the other professors safely at home and their hotel. He was an expert in climatology and found driving in the storm extremely exciting. 

Bärbel: Yeah, he thought it was so fascinating to watch this bad weather outside up close and he wanted to join us for the entire ride and asked us to bring him to the hotel last! 

Gunther: What normally would have been a 40 minute ride through Copenhagen took us more than two hours! There were broken trees and branches on the road, electric wires hanging down and flashing when they touched the ground, but the scientists in our car enjoyed being together and experiencing the natural forces. It was crazy!

Bärbel: OK folks, here’s the message to be learned from this: If you put five scientists into one car, it can be a dangerous ride, because they all want to stay and observe, even when common sense tells you otherwise! … By the way, was this experience your most dreadful one? Were you scared? 

Gunther: Well, that was the funny thing, I don’t think that we realised how dangerous this stormy ride through Greater Copenhagen was. I guess, we only realised this in hindsight, when the damage of the storm was on the news! So, the most dreadful experience of my PhD was something else entirely. 

Bärbel: Well, now I am curious to hear it! 

Gunther: I was probably halfway through my PhD when my supervisor asked me to present my work at the next research seminar at our institute. 

Bärbel: What’s so dreadful about that? 

Gunther: I had no idea how these research seminars worked. The idea I had, was that from time to time everybody at the department was supposed to present his/her work to all other staff members. 

Bärbel: Sounds like a good idea. 

Gunther: Yes, it sounds, but … I was probably a bit naive and just prepared a talk about the content and status of my PhD project. After I had completed my presentation, it was time for questions and discussion. And this is when I got “grilled” and I mean that – dragged over the hot coals like some unsuspecting vegetable! I got a whole bunch of nasty, critical and, -as I felt- just unfair questions and comments from members of the department. It goes without saying that these comments made me feel very uncomfortable. Some of the people commenting were from a total different field and some of the criticism was, in my view, simply pointless. 

Bärbel: Why do you think these colleagues did this? 

Gunther: At the time, I was indeed scared that my work was so bad that these established researchers criticized me because its lacking quality. However, after having talked to my supervisor and later attending some other seminars, I learned that this was all an extension of an academic fight between several groups inside our own department. People were criticised depending on which group they belonged to by members of the other group. 

Bärbel: So, it was a political game? 

Gunther: Yes, and I must say this was when I learned how animosities and territories were played out and defined at a department and what a ridiculous impact it had on the overall atmosphere. It was not helpful at all. 

Bärbel: Oh boy, this is probably something that quite a few PhD students have experienced: Becoming a play-thing of institutional politics. But it is important to realise and recognise it as such and not start doubting the quality of your own work! This was for sure a big learning experience for you! Was there any other moment you learned a lot from, but maybe not such a negative one? 

Gunther: Of course, one I would love to mention …

Bärbel: Great, go ahead. 

Gunther: A great experience was being able to get in touch with and listen to many of the big names, and internationally very well respected professors in my field. I had the chance to meet them at conferences and PhD courses and could talk to them, that was exceptional! 

Bärbel: What was so special about these big names? What did you learn from them? 

Gunther: Well, I particularly remember meeting three professors which I did not know at all beforehand. I came in contact with them through my PhD research at Roskilde and got to know them personally. 

Bärbel: What excited you about these guys?

Gunther: The first one I met was an elderly, retired professor from Israel. He was quite a character. First time I saw him, I thought “What a strange person! What is he doing here?” He constantly asked questions, even when nobody else was asking anything. He was intense and engaging in his comments. But my first impression was “This guy is rather irritating!” However, I met him many times afterwards and I learned that he was just very passionate about his work, and about the work of others. He was keen on solving real-world problems that we as academics can sometimes forget in all the details of our research. The great thing about him was he was always open to speak with anybody, even with me, a junior researcher. To experience this passion in a person was amazing to see. I was impressed! 

Bärbel: You said there were two more people like him that impressed you?

Gunther: Yes, one was a professor from Belgium, who often gave keynote lectures at conferences. For me, he was kind of a prototype for a great professor, because of his incredible knowledge and his outstanding ability to communicate it to others. His talks were always very well-prepared, super informative and he managed to tell a fascinating new story, every time. Everybody was captured by his storytelling and when listening to him, you always felt he could spell-bind an audience forever. I met him many times and it was enriching, each time I learned something new! He eventually became one of the examiner’s of my PhD!

Bärbel: And number three? 

Gunther: Also a professor, but from Norway, a person who later became a very good friend of mine. He was extremely skilled in communicating and interacting with PhD students. We both met him, you will remember, the first time we went on a PhD course in Sweden and later at many conferences and PhD courses. Every time I enjoyed how engaging his contributions were. He addressed us personally and the way he taught and lectured was just super-educational. He was interested in getting his message across and put a lot of effort into making us understand him. He became one of the key mentors I, (we), had in our academic life, far beyond the PhD study. 

Bärbel: Well, of course, I recognise all three characters – great choice, good guys, I agree. 

Gunther: Yes, and I think we learned a lot from those three: From the first, it was the passion and enthusiasm that you need to show in your work, that keeps you and get others interested. From the second, it was the detail and precision in his scientific work and the amount of work you need to put into something to tell a good story. From the third, it was understanding how important engagement, mentorship and support are and how keeping hierarchies flat can really help academics to do better research. From all three of them, it was just great to see how they communicated with people and how well respected you were as a PhD student.

Bärbel: So would you say you saw them as role models?

Gunther: Definitely! Particularly, the last two had a huge influence on my career, even today in what I do and how I do it. The way they conducted research, the way they taught, the way they communicated, I wanted to do it the same way! 

Bärbel: If you could summarise a bit, what was the greatest learning experience for you?

Gunther: What I discovered is that you need good people around you if you want to learn something. The greatest gift you can have during your PhD – probably in any educational situation – is a good teacher. You need somebody who is not only skilled in his or her academic field, but also is a great mentor, and interested in your success. 

Bärbel: So true! 

That about wraps up our time here. Hope you’ve enjoyed the tales from our own PhD. Everyone will have some highlights and lowlights by the end, and all of those learning experiences will stay with you long after you’ve hung your Doctorate on the wall. Remember, learning experiences come in all shapes and forms, so if you are struggling right now with something difficult, try to find the lesson you can take away to ensure you know a better way forward next time! Do you have a unique story you’d love to share? We are always interested in hearing from our TRESS ACADEMIC members so we can serve you better in the future!

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