Doctoral Students’ Stories – Reasons to Undertake the Journey

This spring we brought you some stories from various (mostly financial) challenges doctoral students face every day. Despite all that, each year hundreds of young researchers both start and carry on with their doctoral studies. It is reasonable to ask what is the motivation?

Full disclosure: gathering positive stories turned out to be a much more difficult task than finding negative ones. This might be attributed to anything, be it potential participants’ time-consuming outdoor activities in the summer, busy attention period, or just the stereotypical Estonian tradition of avoiding praise. There were many who turned us down, as they thought they had no merry tales to tell.

“The system doesn’t really work at the institute level, the communication is lacking, as well as support… It’s hard to manage with a professional career and kids… I’m just such a wuss myself…”

This would be a brief anonymous summary of our participants’ woes. Most definitely there is a lot of variety between all the different institutes and many work groups. Some of them are planning to cancel doctoral studies altogether, while one has already done it. But this story was supposed to be about positive experiences…

Reasons to Undertake the Journey. Author/Source: PhD Comics

The first good news comes straight from the University of Tartu. Following the Senate’s decision, doctoral students who have positively attended and fit into the nominal schedule will receive an additional grant of 400 euros each month, starting from 1 September. This means that a doctoral student’s grant would approximate the average salary in Estonia. Not bad at all!

Throughout the recent past, there have been times when a doctoral student’s scholarship has amounted to a great income, but sometimes it has been rather poor as well. The grant of 6,000 kroons, established 20 years ago, was a really nice sum at the time, exceeding the salaries of many scientific workers. It was still 6,000 kroons in 2008 when I began with my own doctoral studies, but the actual value of this amount of money wasn’t even comparable by then. Changes have been slow, so after some time passes, the fresh increase might also seem much more modest than right now, when it makes a doctoral student’s salary larger than what the lecturers earn in some institutes of the University of Tartu.

Still, throughout history, being a student and attending a university has seldom been associated with any kind of significant prosperity. Instead, students have valued their status and all the possibilities and freedoms it brings, using their creativity to get maximum positive impact from those. So, back when I was studying to be a zoologist, I considered the moments in fieldwork on the inhabited islets of Estonia, the chance to research something no one had researched before me, the feeling that by doing  that you can really change world for the better, which is more important than great salary, mawkish as it may sound. Well, what do today’s doctoral students think about it?

Maarja Kõrkjas describes (a first-year doctoral student of zoology and ecology)

One thing that comes to mind right away is relationships. For me it’s always been really important to get along well with people, to have a feeling of unity, and my workgroup has offered me all this. Right from the beginning, each one of them has been there, offering their smiling support. Often I have returned home from the lab or office much happier and better motivated than when I went there. This has a lot to do with the fact that in addition to professional matters, we have shared our everyday ups and downs, and it has created a more secure-feeling and less constrained environment.

Another positive aspect of doctoral studies has been the chance to learn and develop – it’s actually one of the main reasons why I chose to pursue the degree. In the best case, there is some variation in what you do. I remember how at first I couldn’t wait for field work, as my head was spinning after working with a computer all the time. Then again, after field work, I really enjoyed reading scientific articles again. I’m not very good at being in a rut (although, surprisingly, sometimes I do enjoy “working at the conveyor belt”), and this far, there has been a lot of variation. On the other hand, more variation means lots of work and half-commitments, and it took some time to get used to it. By now I have discovered that it has allowed me to do the very thing that my body and mind have been more effectively inclined to do at the moment – of course, when the deadlines make it possible.

I really must mention another very important part, as well – the privilege of planning your time. It’s really nice that your work time is quite flexible and no one expects you to spend all day in the office. The opportunity to change your working environment is wonderful as well – sometimes you do the work at home, then at the office. It all helps to keep your mind fresh. Often I get so carried away that I spend my days working, pausing only to eat (if I remember to, of course), but after that I take my time to recover, leaving work aside for a while. Sometimes it can be exhausting, but I have possibilities to plan everything so that tuning into work again takes minimal time, at the same time trying to give my brain the rest that it needs. One thing that is psychologically really exciting is mixing up my work strategies after some time. In a way, doctoral studies is the period of experimenting and learning to get to know yourself better.

There have been lots of small moments of happiness, such as spotting a lynx while walking through a forest, laughing with tears in my eyes after the day’s work is done and fatigue takes over, discovering curious natural structures or microhabitats, finding a bird’s nest right next to my foot, as well as many, many other things. I think I’ll never forget these couple of times when we have walked a long distance only to discover that we have forgotten to take something with us, and the hysterical laughing fits that have followed it.

What do universities offer to PhD students? Author/Source: PhD Comics

Signe Ivask’s story  (a fourth-year doctoral student of media and communication)

My decision to go on with doctoral studies came quite naturally: I got a hold of a really important but challenging topic when my master’s journey was already ending. In addition to that, and no matter how naive it might sound, entering doctoral studies also had to do with my wish to understand and evaluate societal phenomena in a deeper and broader manner than before. I do believe that when you fill things with more in-depth meaning and are exposed to more factors, you have better chances to find solutions that are deeper than the surface level.

I most definitely couldn’t say that going through doctoral studies has been easy: there were times when there was so much scientific work, as well as studying and writing (as a freelance journalist) lined up, that it was hard to concentrate on finding solutions. But I acknowledge that it has been a lot to do with my own inner motivation and choices. I’m still amazed how accepting and supportive my family, as well as most of my friends, have been, as in the last four years a large chunk of time that otherwise could’ve been spent with them has been dedicated to work.

To be able to concentrate more on my own activities, I applied for a junior researcher’s position in the spring semester of the last year (before the beginning of the final year). This move broadened my playing field considerably, all the while reducing tensions, and now I had more time for scientific work in addition to studying.

While I have been going through my doctoral studies, the subjects of the doctoral seminar of the Institute of Social Studies had offered me tremendous help, as they help doctoral students with their first steps in the world of science. For me, these meetings are inspiring and motivating, and I’d encourage other doctoral students (including those whose doctoral journey has started to “lag”) to participate as well. The professors-researchers-lecturers related to doctoral studies sometimes even use an individual approach when helping the students. You just have to ask and you get the help that you need.

Already nearing the finish line, I’m looking towards the pre-discussion when my doctoral thesis would receive feedback from the college of the institute. It is somehow extraordinary that in practice the whole institute does its bit supporting the defendant.

Marriage vs The Ph.D. Author/Source: PhD Comics

Leene Korp muses (a fourth-year doctoral student of media and communication, Liikumislabor)

I had two reasons for entering the doctoral studies – for one, I can go on with the research I had already started during my master’s studies, all the while combining my work and studies (Leene Korp is a communication person in the UT Liikumislabor’s program Liikuma Kutsuv Kool [School that Invites You To Move] with the goal of making Estonian school culture more open to physical activity), and it is a good combination. The other reason is the chance to do something and really see that I can help. With my thesis, I can contribute to solving a complicated problem, and do scientific work on the same topic as well. The degree alone is not even important, it’s rather the contribution that I as a scientist can give to science and the small changes in Estonia that I can help to bring about. The wonderful connection with my cool instructors is also vital.

While still enrolling, I was told that doctoral studies were a lonely place, and at the moment it really is. The subjects all have quite a similar structure, each student is basically doing his or her own thing, and there’s not much synergy. I believe that by including writing groups and skills-centred methodology, the studies could be made more creative as well as practical.

Then why don’t I quit? Well, I like to get to know the rules of doing scientific work. It is a bit like a game. My doctoral thesis could be applied, it has a mission, it encompasses various disciplines, and you see that you, a social scientist, can even be a helpful person.

There are funny moments too. I remember an episode when we made a presentation for a science conference on the West Coast of the US using video. Everything was really homey: we filmed with our tutor’s cellphone, the university “lent” us the camera stand, we showed our papers in front of the camera, spoke our text and sent the video to the US. All in all, it actually went quite well, but because of the time difference, the discussion had to take place at midnight, as we were connected in real time using Skype. Well, we met our tutor in front of the university building at 12 at night, and then we were sitting there, sneezing and drinking tea from a Thermos bottle. Then it turned out we had set the alarm off in the building… In the end, the discussion was cancelled because of the organizers’ very tight schedule, so we just sat there for an hour and a half, and then went home.

My recommendation for future doctoral students, especially in the field of humanitarian and social sciences, would be to find your own gang that you can be a part of. You might feel that you’re losing your independence, but the feeling of a team, being next to each other, is worth it. Often, people idealistically assume that while studying to be a doctor, your life’s work is made, but it can be self-destructive. You cannot actually fix the world with the three articles you wrote during your doctoral studies.

Randel Kreitsberg, PhD in zoology, is a senior specialist for science communication at the University of Tartu and an author at ERR Novaator.


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