Learning how to be a researcher

Learning how to be a researcher
When I became a Ph.D. student, I thought I was quite prepared. After all, being a student was pretty much everything I’ve ever done. It’s my primary expertise. What does doing a Ph.D. entail other than reading, thinking, researching and writing it all down in the end? Of course, this time, all of these activities would be more lengthy, extensive and with a lot more pressure attached. But I still believed that only the scope, not the manner would differ from what I’d done before.


Little did I know. 


Turns out, the scope does affect the manner. Significantly. As a Bachelor or Master student, you are made to follow a routine in which preparation and delivery follow each other in quick succession. When working on a Ph.D.-project, the moment when your performance is being put to a final test is so far away… Pressure is present but so ominous and blurry that its motivating force is minimal; instead, you have to find intrinsic motivation. At the same time, materials and tasks are growing rapidly and need to be tamed before they devour you. It took me a while to understand that all these things which I used to handle more or less intuitively needed a makeover; that I was lacking, to use the unavoidable word that smells a lot like business claptrap, a strategy. As much as academics eschew the near-esoteric neoliberal self-optimization mania, approaching tasks a bit more systematically and reshaping bad habits probably doesn’t hurt. Since I am much too inconsistent to be truly strategic, I content myself with stitching together patches of tips and tricks that „work for me“, relying on friendly advice, some professional help by the academic career boosting industry, and mainly months of trial and error.
Firstly, I needed to revisit my daily time management. Previously, I used to spent 6 painful hours in the library, mostly browsing Facebook and having coffee breaks with a horrible conscience, then go home, have dinner and get shit done between 8 pm and midnight. This is no longer an option. Being offered a workplace in an office with my own computer, I am afraid, is not just a friendly gesture but also a gentle nudge to frequent this locality fairly regularly, and at goodly hours. What I need, thus, is a daily schedule that takes my biorhythm into account and is at the same time reasonably compatible with other people’s expectations, colleagues as well as persons who appreciate my physical AND mental presence in my spare time. This seems like an almost impossible task, and I’m still trying to come to terms with it. It has lead to some interesting discoveries, though. For instance, I found that I can use the hour after waking up, while my head is stuck somewhere between Nirwana and Dreamland, for exercise. But what to do with the other time in the day when go practically brain dead, between, say, 14 and 16 pm? I think a nap would show the quickest way out of the post-lunchtime valley. Are expenses for an office couch eligible for a refund? I’ll look into it.


Reading is another topic. Out of all academic activities, reading seems like the least problematic. We learned it in primary school, didn’t we? And actually, we didn’t make all that much progress since then. Most people get accustomed to reading at a certain speed, about the same speed as that of reading out loud. This pace is so hardwired into our brains that reading 10 000 books won’t accelerate it if we don’t consciously practice speeding up. At least, that’s what the coach at the Graduate Centre in Munich told us. The room was filled with desperate students who think they are reading too slow and understanding too little, like me. Seems like the oh-so-easy task of reading is giving many a hard time.  The course’s title was, of course, „Reading Strategies“. 


And it is not just about reading, but remembering what I read. So far, I always read my sources a maximum of a few weeks before I actually needed them to produce text. By and large, I could rely on my memory for getting the basic idea straight and resort to my notes for citations. Meanwhile, I don’t only forget the details of what I read half a year ago; I don’t even remember if I read it at all or not. Which means I need to keep a meticulous audit of each single work, where to find it, what drew my attention to it, how much I read of it, quotable sections, how useful I think it is, the topics or chapters of my dissertation they might be useful for, and quite extensive excerpts (because WHO KNOWS what I might need two years from now). To organize all of it in a low-maintenance and easily searchable database is quite a challenge.


Technology can be a blessing in many respects. Google „app“ and the problem you have, and you’ll most likely come up with a solution. There is a website for training speed reading, a website that provides a pleasant soundscape to enhance concentration (where you can transfer yourself into the middle of a forest or near a campfire, for example), an add-on that prevents you from entering social media sites (with a „nuclear option“ which turns off the internet altogether), an add-on with which you can organize collections of interesting links, and a program with which you can create colorful mind-maps, to mention just a few things I found helpful. 

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