Guide for being a (better) PhD student

In this guide I provide you with some practical insights and tips I discovered while struggling with my Ph.D.. I will update it from time to time and welcome any comments and suggestions!

Staying updated 

  • as a PhD student it is really important to know what’s going on in your field. Here are a few tips.
  • If you don’t have already, create a non-university email address because you will not have it forever. Use it to register for academic newsletter from professional associations (ECPR, DVPW, DVD) but also from think tanks (SWP, Rand, Brookings) and most importantly email lists.
  • in all academic fields there are newsletter that inform you about call for papers (cfp) or call for conference applications (cfa). Select the option to group the delivery into one batch per day to avoid your mailbox from you exploding.
  • You can also get newsletters from most big journals.
  • Newsletter will spam your ready fill inbox so think about either a different mail account just for newsletter or create automatic sorting rules which most email clients support.Es
  • Use RSS reader. RSS was invented to get a notification when a website is updated. Most journals have an RSS News feed that you can receive so whenever a new issue is out your RSS reader informs you with some quick info.
  • Twitter is quite useful in academia because more and more people use it. Just follow academics, think tanks, organizations and universities to stay updated. Use it professionally and not for sharing pictures of your cat.
  • Other possibilities are academic social networks such as academia.edu and researchgate.com
  • Often there are academic blogs that collect CFP and interesting stuff (theorieblog, bretterblog, sipolblog). They also often look for contributors which is a great way to reach a wider audience below the journal threshold. Make it a habit to roam these blogs and institutional sites now and then.
  • Inform your colleagues about stuff you find that suits their field of interest. It’s just a nice thing to do.

Conferences 

  • go to conferences early and often, both internationally and locally, why?
    • Conferences allow you to get in touch with peers.
    • This gives you perspective on your own work. It also shows you the state of the art which is often helpful for literature reviews. It also helps you to test both quality and novelty of your ideas.
    • You meet the people behind the famous names and may network with them. You can meet academic crushes.
    • Presenting can be a great confidence boost when people come to you and admire your work
    • You can visit another country. It’s not just work but also a bit sightseeing and cultural stuff as well.
    • Other people will get to know you. It helps to show others (potential colleagues or collaborators) what you are doing.
    • You may find a collaborator for articles or people editing books looking for contributions.
    • You get fancy conference bags, books and pens (yay).
  • Most conferences are either in fall or in spring. The calls for them go out between one year (for the big ones) or a few months in advance.
  • Learn quite early on what the go-to conferences are. Use newsletter and Twitter. Here are a few for IR:
    • DVPW biannual Sektionstagung, who is who of German academia. Medium size.
    • ISA. One of the biggest polsci confer. Thousands of people. Big names.
    • Tagungen der IB Sektionsgruppen. Recht klein und informell.
    • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie Tagung.
  • Try to spread them out over the year, not all at once.
  • If possible go to different communities. Academic conferences are different from policy conferences. Even academic communities have different norms.
  • Don’t be afraid because:
    • All scientists cook with water
    • Standards vary greatly: there are brilliant and not so brilliant papers at each conference.
    • You don’t always need to prepare a paper. You can prepare ideas, sketches or just empirical findings from you research as well
    • Or you don’t need to present and just come as a guest or apply for a panel host or discussing role
  • Many conferences are quite cheap if you apply as a PhD student and get the early bird discount. Register early.
    • There are scholarships for conference trips, for example from DAAD. Many PHD scholarships include travel expenses
  • Preparing:
    • Print out important documents such as flight tickets and the agenda. Think about the panels you want to see and plan strategically. Generally avoid panels with general topics which often combine vastly different papers.
    • Download a Google Map of the place where you are going type ‘OK google’ in the maps search bar).
    • Learn how public transport from and to the airport works to avoid expensive taxis.
    • Check out what the top visits of the city are.
    • Airbnb is a great way to save Hotel costs.
    • Read the papers to the panels you want to see although many people cannot manage this in time. Most panelists will not have read the presenters paper.
    • Print out the booking receipts (hotel, transport, conference fee) for later money refund and keep all bus tickets etc.
    • bring something to read on the plane, train.
    • Check whether there is a dress code.
    • Check out how much time you have for presentations and plan accordingly. Remember 1 ppt slide per minute is the maximum so in 20 min panel you should not have more than 20 slides! Better less if there is a lot of stuff on the slides. Bring your ppt on a thumb drive or bring a computer with all needed adapters.
  • While at conferences ask questions and speak to as many people as possible during the breaks
    • Attend the social events for the same reason. Informal settings like icebreaker or conference dinner are nice to get in contact. Check the prices for the dinner though. Sometimes it’s quite expensive
    • Take notes and write down stuff that relates to you work a day go over your notes after the conference. A year later you will have forgotten the good stuff
    • Do not just speak to the big people but also PhD students to set your own works quality in perspective.
    • Many people leave before the last day of the conference so panels at the end are less visited (which socks if you present)

Academic work: observations from empirical and theoretical work phases 

  • in a PhD project there are different phases and each requires a slightly different modus operandi and working mindset. One important aspect is to know when you switch.
    • For example, during the early stages (1-2 year) you should be relatively open-minded and absorbent about everything you encounter. You are searching for theories, cases, hypotheses and research questions and should have an of n mind. This does not mean to be completely random of course. You should have some sense of direction, Rome, but being aware that there are many roads to Rome.
    • The second phase begins when you have your research question and or puzzle identified and look for theoretical explanations. Working with theory can be fun. It requires a different mode of research because you will focus mostly on logical arguments and less on empirical cases. Read journals accordingly. There is a lot of stuff out there and you will probably find that polsci is incomplete and that you need to look elsewhere like sociology. It also might be necessary to go back to the original like Max Weber and Co. However, do not get lost in theory. You don’t have to read Weber entire work if you are not writing your thesis on Weber. You just need his most important concepts and secondary literature often gives you exactly that. Of course it is always good to read the original but you probably do not need everything. Also, try not to theorize everything. Sounds counterintuitive but be aware that theory is always incomplete. It is a more simplified version of reality that should make the empirical world intelligible, predictable. That means a loss of complexity. Often, the empiricial reality behaves differently than theory assumes but this is normal (unless your theory is bad).
    • The third phase probably is the empirical phase. Here you gets your hands dirty collecting data, reading speeches or crunching numbers. One also can get lost in this phase. One often has the tendency to add more and more stuff because the empirical reality is highly complex. Again, this is neither possible nor feasible. Your thesis should explain reality, not represent it 1 to 1. The tricky part is to know what to leave out. Secondary readers and conferences are helpful here. They tell you what is essential and what is just nice to know.
    • The final phase is editing and wrapping up, summarizing and condensing you  text.

Work-Work and Work-Life Balance

  • during my PhD I was a research assistant at the University which means I had to do a lot of administrative stuff to do. The following section therefore does not necessarily apply to Graduate Schools or Scholarship students.
  • Working at the University has its charms but also nasty sides.
    • The good things are a diverse working environment, especially with larger departments which exposes you to different ideas (theoretically at least because the differences between polsci disciplines can be greater than expected).
    • Another good thing is that you can use the Universities resources like rooms, copy machines, library and such. Often there are student assistants that might do stuff for you like picking up books or copying material.
    • The downside is that all that administrative stuff like supervising BA students, reading their papers and theses, holding seminars etc. takes a lot of time. Often to much. Most research assistants work 50% or more for the department and only 50% on their thesis. In days this means 3 days University, 3 days PhD, often including Saturdays and Sundays or night-shifts. Prioritize! Your PhD is what counts in the end! Your university work is important too but not that important. Of course, do the tasks that are required of you but ask yourself if you always need to give 110% for each administrative task. Not everything must be perfect. Some things just need to be good enough! I for example was editing the departments website. Sometimes I spend hours of redesigning html elements just to make them look nicer. It looked nice in the end but it was really not that important after all. This is what I mean by Work-Work balance. Focusing on the important stuff first. Be aware that this is a constant struggle and a defining feature of being a PhD while working somewhere.
    • The math-skilled observer might have noted that the week has 7 days. This brings me to my next point. PhD students life in a constant stress-inducing environment. You could call it a self-inflicted mechanism of disciplinary power (to use Foucault). Stress stems from the fact that you should (or at least think you should) use every piece of spare time for your thesis. There is always a new article or book coming out that seems to deal with your topic and must be read. Peer pressure and an uncertain job markets with the constant pressure of of impact factors and grant-applications do their part. Theoretically this means that there is always something you could be doing in your free time. The question is whether you should. This constant reminder (‘I must read that article!’) quadruples over time the more progress you make (‘After reading that article I must redraft my charts, gather more data, fix the argument in chapter two, interview that person, write that journal articles, read that BA thesis that is overdue ….’). This is the best environment for burnout! Long story short. You need breaks and lazy days. That is the reason why I sometimes take the Sunday off. I’ll bet most academics enjoy their lazy days but probably will not speak about it in front of their peers or supervisor for not appearing to be lazy. If you have a partner or children they too want to have some of your time. If you work 24/7 you probably will not do it for long.
    • This self induced stress often is hard for non-academics to comprehend. Your friends might wonder why you seemed so stressed out because all you do, from their perspective, is sitting at the desk reading and writing. Often your working friends will have the classic work week and want to do stuff during the weekends where you write your thesis. This might lead to conflicts that can result in isolation. Try to avoid that. You need distance from your project every now and then. Go out with you friends!
    • When you relax, relax. This Zen-wisdom should counter the tendency to bring your work into your relaxing and regenerating time. For example, maybe try avoiding bringing your statistics books on your holliday trip but maybe a fiction book.
    • Taking of books. Many fellow PhD students mention that they do not read for entertainment anymore while doing a PhD. This has to do with the fact that social science students read all day for the thesis. Most folks are simply to tired to read a book after reading the entire Max Weber collection all day. That is definitely a pity that some people might encounter.