Oct 3, 2016

PhD blog 10/16: New student orientation and getting started

This month, I thought I'd do my best to give you an impression of what it's like to get started as a new PhD student at the University of Helsinki, and what working on a PhD in the social sciences/humanities is like in general.

First of all, orientation for new PhD students at our university: there isn't any. It's just you.

This year, it's difficult to blame anyone. After a public assault on the universities and massive budget cuts, much of the university is in chaos. There have been extensive layoffs, and student counseling has been completely restructured. The unfortunate reality is that there aren't that many courses, seminars or events, and not everyone is going to be getting the kind of supervision they should. Many doctoral programmes and subjects are active in getting their new students involved; others are not. So I very much hope that the frankly disheartening start I've had to my postgraduate studies is because of this.

Having said that, though, at least in this part of the world, a doctorate in the humanities or social sciences is a bit of a solo project anyway. We don't really do research teams or stuff like that, so most of the actual work of doing your research and writing your thesis will be on your own. This leads to three really important imperatives for postgraduate study:

Learn to manage your work. You do have to be very strongly self-directing. You'll be the one planning your research and writing, and in charge of carrying out those plans, to a far greater extent than with any but the most exceptional previous theses or projects. For example, if you want to try writing a regular blog, it'd be a good idea to remember to actually do that! Putting together a multi-year study plan is a daunting task; carrying it through can seem overwhelming. In order to succeed, you have to develop your own way of working. Like so much else in academia, this isn't really something that anyone will teach you. You more or less have to work it out on your own.

Learn to manage your stress. For most people I know who've made their way as far as postgraduate studies, the problem is rarely that they're not working enough. Their problem tends to be the exact opposite. The trouble is that we're not great at detecting stress symptoms, and even when we do, we're brought up in a culture where many of us learn to glorify stress and "working through it". This is harmful and dangerous. A bad thing about working independently is that no-one's going to tell you that you need to take some time off. You need to be able to tell yourself that. As you're developing your own way of working, you also need to make it sustainable for yourself.

Learn to manage your time. Much of what this all boils down to is the clock and the calendar. Setting goals that you can achieve without burning yourself out and that add up to a PhD is hardly easy. Because, like I said, the kind of person who ends up in postgraduate studies tends to err on the side of overwork, a key skill here is free time. A huge, multi-year project like a dissertation can become all-consuming. You simply need time off, and again, no-one will tell you to take it. You need to be able to.

There's a lot of talk in Finland about how people with postgraduate degrees aren't valued in the marketplace. I can't help but think that one of the reasons for this is that the people doing the hiring don't understand what skillsets postgraduate study requires and develops. One of the most prominent ones is definitely managing ourselves. In my case at least, this has been pretty severely tested in the early going of my PhD project.

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