A few weeks ago, a KU Leuven-UU workshop was hosted that aimed at bringing together two research groups and discussing common dilemmas that PhD researchers face. Read the main takeaways here.
“Dilemmas as Bridges between Research Groups”
By Ksenia Anisimova, Katrina Cano, Cille Kaiser & Valeria Zambianchi
PhD researchers face common dilemmas: How does one navigate through the uncertainties and ambiguities of being a PhD researcher? Are we students or employees? What is PhD research and how do I organize and execute it? How do we balance academic output, learning and societal impact? And what is societal impact anyway? On Friday 3 March 2023, nine PhD researchers from BACKLASH, POLYCARBON and CONNECTIVITY projects and two supervisors from Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven (Dr. Katja Biedenkopf) and Utrecht University (UU) (Dr. James Patterson) gathered in Leuven, Belgium, to discuss commonly faced dilemmas as part of a wider effort to foster collaboration between the research groups.
While all attendees shared a broad research agenda in environmental social sciences, including climate governance and environmental policymaking, the inter-university organizing team, consisting of four PhD students, soon discovered that the researchers involved were, in fact, on very different research journeys. Confronted with a wide range of research topics, theories, methodologies, and types of PhD projects (that is, monograph-based vs. publication-based), it proved difficult to find a common theme to organize a joint workshop around. Upon further inquiry, however, we found that regardless of the differences in PhD projects, the researchers involved shared very similar dilemmas.
Dilemma 1: How do I put my methodological framework to work? How does data collection unfold in the real world?
Understanding how to use methods in research, and their role in a doctoral research project is challenging. This was evident after collective reflection when planning and conducting the workshop. Which methods, or tools, could I employ in my analysis? What ontological and epistemological assumptions will I make in my research, and what is ontology anyways?!
Suggestions from these questions included browsing summer school methods courses to learn about available methodological options and to conceptualize methods as individual tools in a toolbox, each best for answering different questions. Reading “how to” texts on doing a PhD and remembering that the real world does not align to sharply bound “disciplines”, was also suggested. Ensuring that your studies’ worldview, research approach and methods align (i.e., the ontology and methodology), was also suggested. Creating a “landscape” in which to put all this knew knowledge was also a shared strategy. Such a landscape could, for instance, organize theories, methods and information based on quantitative or qualitative properties, (lack of) coherence between theories and methods and more. Ultimately, Dr. James Patterson (UU) suggested approaching such dilemmas pragmatically – choose a method or theory you like enough and then go for it!
While putting together a research design and methodological framework is a task that takes time and patience – often amounting to the full first year of one’s PhD journey – putting it into practice is another challenge. And, like many other PhD challenges, it follows a non-linear process and timeline.
Attendees of our workshop were either about to, or had just begun to, embark on data collection – either in the field or through desk research. A common challenge proved to be not to lose sight of your research objectives by “getting lost” in the data. Researcher Ksenia Anisimova (UU) suggested to keep a post-it note with your research question(s) in view at all times: “Often check in to ask: does what I am doing right now help me answer my research question?”. What about getting lost whilst collecting data, especially from primary sources? PhD researcher Jasmin Logg-Scarvell (UU), who joined the discussion virtually from her “field” in Canada, reiterated the importance of keeping a pre- and post-interview journal to actively and deliberately reflect on one’s positionality as a researcher and to re-connect with how interview data links back to the broader research topic.
Dilemma 2: How do I balance academic output, societal impact, and personal goals and preferences?
The second dilemma in our workshop was how best to balance academic output, societal impact, and personal goals and preferences. PhD researchers wear different hats throughout their PhD journey, and it is often difficult to know which one to wear at what time. Researchers wore different hats before the PhD journey too, hence one’s approach to pursuing a PhD is likely influenced by this pre-PhD experience. What is more, the kinds of roles assigned to PhD researchers vary widely depending on what kind of funding they receive (if any), where they work now and where they aspire to work later.
Another important difference is the kind of output one is expected to produce in their PhD, dictated in part by choosing either a monograph or article-based thesis. Ultimately, while publishing has become a must in academia, pursuing a PhD entails more than that – learning, teaching and outreach are all vital (and almost inextricable) components of a PhD journey. This can spur a dilemma on prioritization, when teaching responsibilities or learning opportunities come peeking around the corner.
A general word of advice on this was to be deliberate, realistic and strategic about what you do. We found that one way of turning this dilemma into an opportunity was to think carefully about your personal goals and preferences for life during and after the PhD. This could include reflection on preferred career pathways after the PhD and what you would like to learn during the PhD process itself. Indeed, those seeking careers outside of academia preferred prioritizing societal impact over academic output, while others believed academic publications were the best way forward.
The challenge of “measuring” societal impact was also discussed, and some suggested metrics included paper downloads, Almetric Attention Scores or noting events organized for the community, policymakers or activists in your CV. The politics of “impact” and the distinction between “impact” versus “engagement” was also considered, suggesting the need for thoughtful reflection on the relationship between one’s research and society. The takeaway: You cannot do everything, but you should be purposeful with the choices you make and the ways in which you decide to do them.
Dilemma 3: How do I balance delivering (e.g., research output, teaching) with learning (e.g., coursework, reading literature)? And beyond that, how do I manage work and life?
Our third and final dilemma also spoke to those different hats that we as PhD researchers are expected to wear. “A lot of what makes a PhD an enriching experience actually happens ‘beyond the books’, or ‘beyond the screens’”, explained KU Leuven researcher Coralie Boulard. “It matters to look at other ways of learning and other ways of engaging: taking courses on the side, for example, or participating and working with societal actors, attending non-academic conferences, or going on writing retreats.”
A lot of what makes a PhD an enriching experience actually happens ‘beyond the books’, or ‘beyond the screens’
Attending a non-academic conference could clash with your teaching responsibilities, and taking a methods course could delay the delivery of an important paper draft. Attendees agreed that while it is difficult to know what’s best between these choices, a singular solution does not exist. Instead, as discussion on the two above dilemmas suggest, one needs to decide the best path for their PhD, based on what is expected of them from their university and the way the PhD experience fits into one’s current and future goals. This discussion quickly took us to the final and perhaps most urgent topic of discussion: How do I manage work and life as a PhD researcher?
An exercise involving an anonymous, virtual quiz proved a fun and insightful way to find out how the present PhD researchers manage their work-life balance – something that tends to be underappreciated in academia. Most researchers indicated that they don’t have a strict nine-to-five mentality, many, in fact, try to restrict their working hours within reason and proportion. Still, reflected researcher Valeria Zambianchi (KUL/UU), “we exist in a society where productivity and being busy are prioritized and romanticized, and we need to acknowledge this when finding balance.” Fortunately, in indicating what they usually do to unwind from work, attendees did not fail to inspire: Do yoga, draw, walk a dog, read a biography on some inspiring person, water your plants, talk to them, talk to a friend, attend therapy, do a handstand, ride a bike, go for a swim, cry, vent, laugh, connect, feed yourself good food, live.
Turning dilemmas into opportunities
The same dilemmas that had structured our discussion prevailed when we wrapped up our workshop. The point is that there is not a universal silver bullet for overcoming these dilemmas, but that sometimes, friction from dilemmas can lead to synergies.
When having to choose between writing a peer-reviewed article or a project that you expect creates societal impact, don’t ask yourself what is expected of you, but ask yourself: What do I want to learn in this process, what are my responsibilities for this position, what do I want to do “after” the PhD, and what next step will most likely take me there? It is in your capacity to turn a challenge into a growth zone. Therefore, the ultimate advice would be to shape your PhD journey not only according to academic needs and standards (which are of course, important) but to your personal interests and professional aspirations.