The road to postdoc – FAQs
Two of the many “Anna’s” in the MoLeWe research collective, Anna R and Anna W, recently defended their theses and are now in the process of entering postdoc life. Here we share some of our thoughts and feelings about the final stages of our PhD journey, while we also reflect on and tackle some of the most frequently asked questions researchers (to be) are asked.
Writing the summary – “Aren’t you done yet?”
It was hard to believe that the question that has followed you on your doctoral journey since day 1 was about to have an answer! However, as with many writing assignments, one of the hardest tasks is to get started. How should the summary be structured? How long should it be? How much time does it take? No one had clear answers.
(W) After the mandatory angsting and complaining about it for a while, when I finally got started with my writing, I found that it was a rather positive experience. I enjoyed taking a step back and diving into the theory and previous empirical work, without time pressures or word limitations. While writing my articles, I felt that I was often (maybe too) focused on getting published, finishing within some set deadlines, and writing within certain guidelines. In that often hectic writing environment, it is easy to lose focus on the bigger picture, the meaning, and the contribution of your work. Therefore, writing the summary chapters felt like an important and rewarding step for me in my PhD journey.
It was scary and felt somewhat melancholy to give away the work that I had worked so hard on, for such a long time
(R) Yes, my experience was a little different. I had started to write my summary quite a lot earlier, then had to put it aside due to revision and publishing issues with my latter two articles, then pick it up again, put it aside, pick it up, etc. So when my third article was accepted, I had something like three quarters of the summary already there, but it had been written in sporadic patches over a lengthy period of time, and some of it no longer felt familiar or even valid. Like, there were parts where I thought, do I still think like this? Maybe not? Although then again, rewriting those parts helped to get me “inside” the content and the process again. I did a lot of worrying about how deep I should (and could) go with the theoretical background, whether it was way too shallow. But in the end, I feel it turned out okay! It doesn’t say “everything there is to be said” about my topic, but it says enough and amounts to a coherent whole without loose ends. And yes, I am proud of it :-D
(W) I experienced more challenges when it was time to turn in the summary. I remember postponing my own submission deadline many times, not because the summary was not finished, but mostly because I did not feel ready. Although I looked forward to this new chapter in my career, it was scary and felt somewhat melancholy to give away the work that I had worked so hard on, for such a long time. Being a PhD student also felt safe and familiar, and having someone (supervisors) validating your work felt reassuring. Was I really ready to stand on my own as a researcher?
(R) I work to deadlines :-D so I had decided the date when I would hand the thesis in for pre-examination (granted, I changed my mind twice, but that was because it just wasn’t ready) and then it was like, come what may, that’s when it will be handed in. And it was. And it felt like such a giant relief! Unreal, but a relief. (But “yes” to the “am I ready to stand on my own” issue!)
Defending the thesis – “How does it feel?!”
Not long to go now! Two minutes to the moment of truth…
Photo kindly taken by Prof. Auli Toom, Anna R.’s custos
(W) I must have gotten that question at least a hundred times during the month preceding my defense. As my foremost approach to preparing for the defense was avoiding the whole thing, I really did not like being reminded of how it felt on a daily basis (joking, I DO appreciate all of you ;) <3 ).
(R) Closest analogy I have been able to find is giving birth :-D No, seriously: you prepare for and expect IT for such a long time, IT occupies a lion’s share of your thoughts and existence, you have heard others describe what IT is like but you cannot really imagine yourself doing IT… and while it is happening, it is like an altered-state experience (“is this really happening? is this really me?”). But important, exciting, life-changing, and wonderful though defending the thesis (or giving birth, for that matter!) is, it is just a gateway, a beginning. The journey of the rest of your life is only starting.
Closest analogy I have been able to find is giving birth
(W) Yes! The thought about the defense being like the start of a new beginning did in many ways get me through the nerves while preparing for the defense. At this point, I was so ready to leave this chapter behind, and I was (and still am) soo excited for the new opportunities that lie ahead! And in the end, I really enjoyed the experience.
(R) Indeed! Beforehand, people tell you, “remember to enjoy it!” And you’re like, yeah right, we seem to have different definitions for “enjoyment”. But, well. Yes. I did, in the end, really enjoy it! And I doubt I have ever been as focused in all my life. At some point I remember thinking, I’d best take a look at what I wrote in the thesis, to back my reply a bit with the text. But I found I couldn’t read properly, because it felt like it was interfering with my concentration…
Moments after the defense. Oh the relief!! In the back (also looking quite relieved), custos and supervisor, Associate Professor Johan Korhonen.
Photo courtesy of Ida Rebers
Entering postdoc – “What are you going to do now?”
(R) It was always clear to me, from the Uni entrance exam onwards, that I wanted to research. I have come into academia “as a grown-up” – I have already had a family and a career in the grassroots of education, and I knew that if I wanted to “do science”, I don’t have time for gap years. So, hopefully, what I am going to do now is research. But although defending your thesis and finally acquiring your PhD does (at least in theory) open many doors, in some ways being a PhD researcher was still easy-going. You knew very well what you had to achieve, what you needed to do, even what the requirements were. Now, it is all up in the air, shapeless, and the responsibility to make something of it is your own.
It feels a bit lonely, what do you think, W?
(W) I never considered becoming a researcher until I started writing my master’s five years ago. Now I can’t see myself doing anything else, and I really feel like I have found my place. Still, I find myself at a crossroads as I try to navigate my way forward. Where do I want to work? With whom? What should my future research focus on? Are my ideas just stupid? These questions do make me feel a bit lonely, at times. Like R mentions, although the opportunities may seem many, I am also reminded of my own limitations as I write down my three publications under the “10 most important publications”-list in the university portfolio. My CV seems to echo with emptiness, I am back on square one, a newbie. On the other hand, that is also some of the best things about this job, that you are never done, or finished. There are always going to be new challenges and opportunities for growth.
It is a relief to have colleagues who are also friends.
(R) Yes absolutely! It came to me already when I was writing the summary of my thesis and the lectio: I have no idea how to do this, I am a beginner again, I know nothing… but it is also beautiful to have this opportunity to continue to grow, never to be “ready”, rather than to “calcify” and become set in your ways. Also, it is such a stroke of good fortune to be part of this particular research collective. Having just said that this thing feels a bit lonely, we do have a peer group of colleagues at various stages of their respective careers, with whom to talk, wonder, worry, complain, sometimes cry and wail or swear, and – very important, this! – to laugh a lot. There are aspects of the research profession that people outside it just cannot quite get. It is a relief to have colleagues who are also friends. Oh, and a wonderful thing was the way colleagues – not just those closest to me, but many others, too – sent encouraging and congratulating messages on the last days before the defence as well as after it. It felt like the academic community opened their collective arms to welcome me to the other side of this rite of passage. I will always remember it, and will make sure to pass it on, too.
(W) Absolutely! If I would have to give advice to aspiring researchers or PhD students out there, surrounding yourself with a supportive network of researchers, colleagues, and mentors would be at the top of that list! Going through this journey - and doing research in general - should (and could) not be done alone.
A dazed and happy Doctor-in-spe (i.e., “Doctor in hope”, a person who has defended her thesis – Anna R., centre – but whose defence has not yet been formally acknowledged by the Faculty board), flanked by supervisors Prof. Markku Niemivirta and Dr. Anna Tapola, and custos Prof. Auli Toom on the left, and opponent Prof. Jaana Viljaranta on the right.
Photo courtesy of Riikka Mononen
Happy colleagues celebrating! In front, PhD students Pinja Jylänki and Terhi Vessonen from the Active Numeracy research network, and in the back MoLeWe colleagues, Dr. Anna Tapola, supervisor Dr. Heta Tuominen, W herself, and Professor Markku Niemivirta.
Photo courtesy of Heidi Höglund