#114: PhD-journey with obstacles and happy end!

In this special post, Dr. Amandine Colson shares her PhD Success story. Her PhD was anything but easy, but she’s here to tell you what helped her persist, and what motivated her not to give up in spite of considering this as a very real option twice. You’ll learn why it is so important to have people that you trust and an inspiring community of fellow PhD candidates. Most of all, Amandine’s story is one that should inspire you to overcome your PhD difficulties, never give up on yourself, and believe that you can push through adversity and get that PhD degree.

For this special post of the SMART ACADEMICS BLOG, we have invited Dr. Amandine Colson, a conservator specialising in Archaeology to share her PhD story. Amandine is an amazing international scientist, with a professional track record and work experience in France, the Netherlands, the US, and Turkey prior to undertaking her PhD in Germany. She is a specialist in the conservation of ancient ships! 

Amandine’s PhD was not an easy one, but with exemplary persistence and an ability to clear the roadblocks that were in her way, Amandine managed to finish. We find that this makes her a great role model, and her amazing story can inspire every PhD candidate who is right in the thick of their PhD. So if you are doubting whether or not you will ever finish, this post is a must-read.

The cornerstones 

Amandine had a 5-year PhD journey which started in 2016 at a Research Institute and Museum in Germany, and ended in 2021. For the first three years of her PhD, she was a fully funded PhD candidate. But, because her French MA degree was not yet officially acknowledged at a German University, Amandine had no supervision for the entire first 2 years. She had to embark on the journey all on her own while awaiting  official registration of her PhD candidacy. After 3 years, when her PhD funding was running out, she started to work part-time, 3 days a week as a conservationist, working on her PhD just 2 days a week, plus evenings and weekends. 

We met Amandine in 2016, when she attended our courses offered to PhD candidates at her research institute, and we’ve been in touch with her ever since. In 2020 Amandine enrolled in the PhD Success Lab and that ultimately contributed to her finishing in 2021. 

When did it dawn on you that you had actually completed your PhD? 

Bärbel: Welcome Amandine! You just recently defended your PhD dissertation after five years of working very hard to reach this big, big goal. How did it feel when it dawned on you that you had made it–that you had successfully completed your PhD? What was the high point emotionally for you?

Amandine: I think my high point emotionally, as weird as it may sound, was actually before the defense. It was when I handed in my dissertation. The next day, I thought, It’s not real. It can’t be, I can’t be that far already. When I had the printed manuscript in my hands, all the copies, that made it real. Until then, it was all on a screen, and I couldn’t conceptualize how big it was. It was only when I held it in my hands that I realized the amount of work and effort that had gone into it. And I was so happy! So I think that moment, that was really emotionally the high point.

And now, after the defense, I feel it’s a much slower process to accept that it’s for real. It will take time to get to a point where it’s integrated in my brain and realise that I have the degree.

Bärbel: I get it! So it takes a while for you to fully grasp the magnitude of getting the PhD after this long journey. It’s more of a process than a one-off event! 

Have you ever thought about giving up? 

Bärbel: Can you talk a little bit about the moments when you thought, “Maybe this is not ever going to happen. It’s just too difficult or it’s not worth it. I won’t make it.” In all those years of ups and downs, what was the lowest point where you truly thought about giving up?

Amandine: From what I’ve heard from others, a PhD is never easy. But in my case, the challenge was that I was funded by a research institute and museum, but I was not directly affiliated with a university when I started. 

That meant I had to structure all the administration and scientific supervision which would allow me to get a PhD. I had to do this all by myself. I assumed that all of that was my responsibility. And I underestimated the amount of administration that I had to tackle parallel to the scientific tasks.

So when my funding ended, and with it my working contract, I thought, okay, now I need a job – I need to make a living. And that was the time when I was really asking myself, why should I continue the PhD here? Obviously no one is offering me any funding options to complete it. No one has offered any help or support. If there is no interest, if obviously no one wants me doing my PhD in this field why should I continue?

Bärbel: So this lack of willingness to support you, financially and otherwise, pushed you into doubting yourself and whether or not the PhD was a worthwhile pursuit?

Amandine: Yes,  there are obviously few job opportunities at a university in the field of maritime archaeology and conservation. So why should I even try and complete this PhD? And then when I found a part-time job as a Conservator in commercial Archaeology, I thought,  maybe I don’t need a PhD degree. So why not just give up? 

But like most of us, I think, I’ve been taught to give high performance and to never give up. We don’t do this. And I’m also a dedicated fencer. I have this in my head: “Never give up on anything, just go on. It’s gonna hurt, but just go on.”

At the same point I thought, maybe it’s not smart to think like this. Why is it that bad to give up? And I decided subconsciously to let it go and not to finish the PhD. Maybe this was not for me, so just let it go. Just try to stay healthy, take care of yourself, mentally and physically. That’s better. 

Bärbel: You gave yourself permission to not make it. To not complete your PhD was ok, in order to protect yourself. And that probably helped you to succeed in the end. Does that sound weird?

Amandine: No, I think you’re right. I think when I somehow differentiated what was expected of me from the outside world and what I really wanted for myself, I could overcome this. I think when I could say, “Okay, if I complete this PhD, it’s for me, I will do it for just myself,” that made a difference. 

Bärbel: Were there points in time when it got very concrete and you decided, “Okay, next week I’m going to tell my supervisor that I will stop.”

Amandine: Yes, two times. 

First, at the end of my two-year initial contract, when I still wasn’t enrolled at a university. I thought I may never overcome this administrative hurdle, get my MA degree acknowledged and get registered as a PhD candidate. That was the first turning point when I thought, okay, it was a nice project. It was fun. I had great moments. That’s it!  

The second time was last year. After four years working on my PhD project, when I had been working more than a year part-time to make a living. I thought, I will call her, I will call my supervisor, I’ll tell her I’m not motivated at all, I won’t continue. My motivation was zero, maybe even in the negative, I don’t know, but I was so done–really done–and I thought, okay, that’s it now. I’ll give the lab coat back. Leave me alone. Thank you very much. Bye bye.

What made you continue anyway?

Bärbel: You thought “I’ll give that lab coat back,but you didn’t do it in the end. What made you pick yourself up every single day and find a way forward to continue on? 

Amandine: Trusting the people who believed in me. I thought, they are professionals, they are scientists themselves, they have a lot of experience. I can doubt myself and think that I’m not good enough, but I have no permission to say this about the other scientists who believe in me. I can degrade myself, but I cannot degrade others. And if these experienced professionals believe my PhD is worth it, I should trust them. 

Bärbel: And who were these supporters? Was it your supervisors or more senior colleagues, or friends or your partner?

Amandine: My partner, of course. My second supervisor, surprisingly,  also found the right words to encourage me. I thought he was a rather dry person, an engineer not really into emotions, but he supported me. And then it was the other students in the PhD Success Lab, and it was you.

Bärbel: I’m so proud that I could be one of your supporters. That’s so great to hear. And I think it’s very generous of you to credit other people who have helped you so much, but I think there must be something in you as a person, a particular characteristic, that had an important influence on that process of moving on and not giving up.

Amandine: I choose my battles very wisely. All my life I chose things that I believe in. I always do things that I can identify with 200%. I chose my PhD topic myself. I built it up all by myself, the ideas, everything was coming from me. I had a lot of help and support, absolutely, no doubts, but this project came from me. It’s like my blood running through it and I believed in it’s importance, scientifically. I could not have done this if someone gave me a random topic to work on.

It came from me and therefore, I was prepared to fight for it. If it’s personal then you are much more prepared to fight. If it were not, I think I would’ve been prone to giving up much earlier because then I would have thought, okay, it’s not mine anyways.

Bärbel: That’s a great point for other PhD candidates. What you talk about is this total identification with your topic so that you really own it and it’s yours. It was not just another project you have to do as a professional. So you would say this is really an important ingredient?

Amandine: Yes, definitely. That’s at the core, for me at least. 

How important was joining the PhD Success Lab for you?

Bärbel: You mentioned that you have joined my mentoring programme, the PhD Success Lab in your 4th and final year. At that point you were working part-time three full days a week as a conservator. So it was not exactly an easy situation. How important was it for you at that point to know that you were part of this online course with regular instructions, motivation, and inspiration?. To know that there will be someone to give you advice on a weekly basis? Also, how important was it that you could talk to me from time to time?

Amandine: That was exactly the moment in my PhD where I was absolutely not motivated anymore. I just said to myself, it’s not that bad to give up. Maybe society sees this as a failure, but it’s no big deal for me. I’ll just give up and that’s it. That was the point when I enrolled in the PhD Success Lab. It was important to me because I was so exhausted already that I didn’t know how to start anymore. To put it this way: I knew my horse, but I didn’t know how to get on my horse. I was so tired. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I thought, I’m only halfway up the mountain with my PhD. The summit is so far away, there’s no chance for me to climb it all.

But the weekly lessons in the PhD Success Lab gave me so much structure. I thought, okay, I have to try, I have to report, I have to at least show up in the course. And the power of the group was helping me out. I’m very sensitive to that. So it was helping me a lot. The live-video joint sessions were so nice. 

It helped me to realise that the other PhD candidates were struggling with things that I had been struggling with too. Being able to give them some advice was helpful to me, and I got strength from them. It was so valuable to talk to you from time to time about my writing problems, the difficult situation with my supervisors, how to structure my part-time work better, and so on. This was so insightful and very, very helpful.

Bärbel: That’s so good to hear! Many participants tell me that the live sessions make them realise that other PhD candidates are struggling too, and they start seeing the struggle as part of the process. In the programme, I make everyone decide on their hand-in dates. What effect did that have for you?

Amandine: During PhD Success Lab, I started being much more honest with my two supervisors, mentioning my difficulties with the project and what I was going through. As a response to that, my second supervisor became very active. We then had meetings every four to six weeks, which we hadn’t before. And I told both supervisors that I had decided to hand-in the thesis in April, around my birthday. I told them that I will physically be able to make it until then with the amount of work that I had for my PhD and in earning money. I knew I could manage six months but no more. 

So I set this date and from that, I did a backwards project plan, just as we learned in the PhD Success Lab. I decided for myself what exactly I needed to work on for the dissertation and that’s it. Because I have to have an end to this. 

Get help with planning the remaining time of your PhD with the SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post #112: PhD project-planning quick-start

Bärbel: So you set a hand-in date and committed yourself to stick to it. 

Amandine: This was immensely motivating and helpful. It’s like preparing for a sports competition. Your body needs a deadline. You know, this is gonna hurt, I’ll come to the limit of what is physically possible, but it will be over by that date. 

I set myself that deadline and was very explicit about it with my supervisors, too. I said, “Guys, that’s it, there’s no more new analyses, no more new topics, now let’s get this dissertation done.” 

Bärbel: That’s such a brilliant insight! I think all PhD candidates need to hear that. At some point you just have to make up your mind on when you’ll finish, and communicate this to your supervisors. And the initiative has to come from you. 

Adapting a productive dissertation writing routine

Bärbel: Another topic that is a major challenge for most PhD candidates is dissertation writing. And I remember that we talked one morning and you told me that you were getting up early in the morning, listening to some classical music and then–still in your pajamas starting to write right away for 1h before leaving home to work at your day-job. You enjoyed this early morning-routine. And writing in short sessions every day is an approach we teach in the PhD Success Lab. So my question is, what influence has this adoption of a new writing-routine had on your progress with the dissertation?

SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post #86: How training the writing muscle became my early-morning ritual

Amandine: At that stage I had too much data, too many ideas, too much knowledge, and that was the problem. It became too much and I struggled to put it into any coherent kind of text. But this new writing routine helped me to get small steps done. There was only this one hour and no time for endless doubts or pointless editing. There was no time for those sorts of thoughts.

So I started preparing the paragraphs with bullet points beforehand, whenever I had time. And then in the early morning, the flow was effortless because I was still in a good state of mind. There was one hour to write, then breakfast, shower, and off to work. 

There was no time to re-read and be hypercritical of it. And then in the evening when I was reading what I had written in the morning, it appeared much better than I thought it would and I could go about editing in a productive way. 

Bärbel: Oh, that’s interesting. So actually the time distance over the day helped. You could come back and read your text, and it seemed a lot better because you were not so critical of yourself.

Amandine: Yeah, this time lapse meant that I could be effectively critical, so to speak. I was still critical of my writing, but in a constructive way. I was not emotionally beating myself up, telling myself oh, I’m so bad. I’m so bad. In the evenings I was emotionally distanced from what I wrote in the morning and then I could say, okay, one more word here, let’s put this sentence there, easy going. 

Bärbel: Wow, it’s really great to hear that. And did that accelerate your overall progress with the dissertation?

Amandine: Yes, it did. So I had these three mornings and the other two days when I was not working, plus the weekends.  But before I got into this routine, I would only start to work on my dissertation Thursdays. Then it would take me half a day to get into it, and that meant I would already beat myself up about how bad it was and how much work I still had to do. And it would be downwards from there.

But having this one-hour in the morning, and maybe 1-2 in the evenings every day meant that I could keep the ball rolling. And then when I had more time, I was already warmed up. I had the ball there and could just throw, throw, throw and continue. That made a huge difference! 

Bärbel: It makes me so proud to hear that this has worked out so well for you. And I assume you already felt good about yourself when you left for work after this one hour in the morning because you had achieved something important already.  

Biggest roadblocks: Administration and lack of supervision

Bärbel: Supervision and dealing with administration in order to get registered as a PhD candidate were difficulties for you. Maybe you can tell us why, and, in retrospect, what could have helped you in that situation?

Amandine: The major problem was that I spent two years without any supervision whatsoever at all. I started the research, defined the questions, set up everything completely alone. 

And there were issues with getting my MA degree from France recognised. I wanted to get enrolled, but it didn’t happen. I gave the university administration all my records, all ECTS-credit certificates, I had my BA degree, my MA degree in the same field, plus years of professional experience, but I could not get enrolled as a PhD candidate. 

Bärbel: But that should be part of the Bologna-treaty, that you can move from one country to another in the European Union and take your studies to the next level. 

Amandine: Yes, but there was one excuse after the other! I think in the end, the university where I wanted to enroll had never had a student from a foreign university in my field. They didn’t know how to deal with me.

Then I got the opportunity to enroll at Bamberg University, two years into my PhD. That changed everything because for the first time, I had supervision and the administration was very welcoming. They were so kind to me. They just said, “Okay, sit tight, it’ll take us a while to process all your records, but we’ll sort it out for you. We’ll get you in here as a PhD,” and that’s what they did. And just like the administration, my supervisor at Bamberg University was also very supportive – they worked together very nicely. 

I had geared everything towards a cumulative dissertation in the first years of my PhD because that’s what everyone around me did as well. But when I enrolled at Bamberg University, it was decided that no, your dissertation is not going to be cumulative, you’re going to write a monograph because that’s what all our PhDs here do, even though I had everything in the pipeline already for a cumulative dissertation. During my fellowship I published 6 peer-reviewed articles and wrote 2 book chapters. Then I had one year to write a monograph. Basically I feel I did two PhDs because I did all the papers that were required plus a monograph. 

Bärbel: I think that a funded and employed PhD candidate should never go without supervision for such a long time, and then there are these administrative problems. What could have helped you to avoid these massive obstacles?

Amandine: The administration at my first university realised that my case was going to be a bit complicated and they became defensive. As if it was my mistake–like if I had done something wrong. So I just wish I would have had one person, someone neutral in a senior position at the university, who acted on my behalf. That would have helped a lot. 

Bärbel: That must have taken a toll on you, to fight for so many months.

Amandine: I felt personally attacked when my first university told me that they would not enroll me because I did not tick the usual boxes. It was a big blow to my confidence. If anyone is in a similar situation, my advice is: pack it up and go somewhere else where you’ll get more understanding and support. 

Having completed the degree in the end is so important to me because of all these struggles, and now I feel like no one can ever attack me again. I have this PhD degree from a well-recognized German public university in my scientific field. End of discussion. 

What advice would you give to PhD candidates who’re still in the thick of it? 

Bärbel:  It’s so impressive to hear you talking about your experiences and to know that you made it against all odds. I hope that everyone out there who is having a difficult time understands this: She has made it. I can do that as well. No matter what comes, I can get my PhD degree. 

What advice would you give to PhD candidates who are still in the tick of their PhD right now?

Amandine: If you’re in the middle of it now and you still have a lot of ideas, start to reduce. Reduce your scope, reduce the topic, narrow down, down, down. From that point onwards, when you have real focus, you can start and prepare to wrap it up. And it will take longer than you think. It’s not a few weeks–it’s six months, maybe eight, maybe more. And no one is going to tell you this, because your professors may want you to do even more. Even if you have no ‘juice’ anymore to go on, they might not see that. So reduce everything. 

My second piece of advice is this: From the first day of your project, go out, go to conferences, and present what you plan to do. Even if you think you have no results, nothing to show yet, get out there. 

See the SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post no. 44: What to present from your PhD study when you don’t have a lot to show yet?

You’ll meet people, you’ll get positive feedback. You’ll get input and ideas from other researchers, and then you can use this to improve your work. This way, you’re much more proactive and less passive and you’ll gain confidence.

You’ll meet amazing people out there and you can build a network of people that you can work with and who support you, who may even become your friends. I think that’s very important because that is what remains. 

Bärbel: Thank you Amandine! I think this is wonderful advice for everyone! Thanks for taking the time and sharing your truly amazing PhD story with us! 

About Amandine Colson:

M.A. Conservator of Archaeological Objects; Guest Researcher at the Chair for Digital Technologies in Heritage Conservation, University of Bamberg, Germany; Head of department at DENKMAL3D, Vechta, Germany.

Amandine is a conservator of archaeological objects, researcher, and educator who is dedicated to protecting cultural heritage and enhancing its importance in society. Her research focused on the implementation of 3D technologies and surveying tools into the conservation of archaeological ships in a museum context. Alongside her PhD Fellowship, she founded the European working group “Monitoring of Preserved Ships” (MoPS), and was invited as a scientific expert to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC (USA), and the Museum of Cultural History, Oslo University (Norway).

Since 2019, she leads the department of Conservation-Restoration at DENKMAL3D, a German SME based in Vechta (Lower-Saxony), offering services in Archaeology, Surveying, Digitization of Cultural Heritage, and Conservation-Restoration. Read more about Amandine Colson at LinkedIn.

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Photographs: Title photograph by pexels, photograph of Amandine Colson by Henryk Furs 

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