A PhD nightmare: how a ‘safe’ paper turned into a ‘horror’ paper

By Ine Dorresteijn

Recently the last paper from my PhD has been accepted for publication. The paper describes the impact of current and potential future land-use intensification on bird species richness in Transylvania, Romania. Although the paper is maybe not groundbreaking, I always thought that it is still a relevant contribution to the scientific literature, based on our large field efforts, its statistical soundness and because it was well written. A solid paper. But instead, getting the paper published has been a tough ride. While we thought bats were difficult to publish (see our previous blog post on a rejection journey five years ago), we have now seen that birds can be even harder to get into journals. Ironically, this paper was considered the ‘safe paper’ of my PhD work. I was one of those lucky students that was part of a well-planned research project including great supervision. The bird work of my PhD was carefully planned and designed, was based on pilot studies and was set in a region rich in (protected) bird species. Very soon, however, my ‘safe’ paper turned into my ‘horror’ paper, with high levels of frustration, a shattered confidence, and – in the end – lots of sarcasm and laughter.

Here goes the story how my ‘safe’ paper was turned into my ‘horror’ paper.

Journal 1: Submitted Dec 2013, rejected with review Feb 2014: Lacking novelty and generality, and lacking clarity and focus of the analysis.

Journal 2: Submitted Feb 2014, rejected with review Mar 2014: Too broad discussion and lacking strong conclusions/management recommendations.

After these first two rejections, we made major changes to the manuscript. We narrowed down the manuscript considerably by deleting a part on species traits, and worked on the clarity of our methods section.

Journal 3: Submitted May 2014, rejected without review: Not general enough in concept, scope and approach.

Journal 4: Submitted May 2014, rejected with review Sep 2014: Lacking novelty.

Journal 5: Submitted Oct 2014, rejected with review Dec 2014: Lacking novelty, and lacking clarity in the methodology and results. As one reviewer put it: having a more complicated and complex design than other studies should not stand for novelty in scientific research.

By the time the paper was rejected 5 times I was pretty desperate and frustrated to hear over and over that the study lacked novelty. I figured that we couldn’t change that much on the novelty of our study’s outcome. However, another frequent critique was around the clarity of the methods and results, something I thought we could improve. Therefore, to give the paper a new and fresh boost, we received help from a new co-author. We re-analysed the entire paper focusing solely on species richness (taking out a part on bird communities), rewrote the entire paper for clarity and to put into a broader context, and even put in some pretty pictures to illustrate traditional farming landscapes. Now with our paper in a new jacket I was convinced we would be luckier in the review process.

Journal 6: Submitted Jun 2015, rejected with review Aug 2015: Methodology limited the study’s conclusion and its capacity to go beyond a regional example. For example, it was critiqued that the model averaging approach used poses limitations and regression coefficients should be used instead.

Journal 7: Submitted Aug 2015, rejected with review Sep 2015: Flawed study design which was deemed uncorrectable without significant reanalysis. Although reviewer 1 had significant problems with our study design, reviewer 2 seemed to be less unhappy: The study is well introduced (I particularly liked the introduction of traditional farming landscapes), the study design is appropriate, the analyses generally robust (although please see comment below), and the results clear, and the discussion well considered.

Journal 8: Submitted Nov 2015, rejected with review Dec 2015: Methodology – given our objectives and sampling design we used the wrong analytical unit.

Journal 9: Submitted Jan 2016, rejected with review Feb 2016: Lack of novelty, trivial findings and not taking into account the rarity of species (something we had excluded from the manuscript due to other reviewer comments).

Journal 10: Submitted Feb 2016, rejected with review June 2016: Goal of the work not addressed.

Journal 11: Submitted Sep 2016, Minor revisions Jan 2017, Submitted revised manuscript Jul 2017 (after maternity leave), Accepted Jul 2017. Hurrah, the reviewers liked the paper a lot!!

Having had 10 rejections on this paper, mostly after review, means that approximately 25 (!) reviewers were involved in getting this paper published. Importantly, of those reviewers probably half of them could have been satisfied with major revisions. Like in the example under journal 7, usually one of the reviewers did not dislike our paper that much, but I guess one more negative review is enough for a rejection. Even more interesting, we published two similar papers on butterflies and plants from the same region, based on the same study design and using similar analysis. While this paper on birds got continuous critique that our methodology was not clear, flawed, or limited, these other two papers on plants and butterflies received positive constructive reviews without much complaints about its novelty and/or study design. I am still not sure why this paper had such a hard time, is it just birds or something else, but I am happy it is finally out there! Enjoy the reading and you can always contact me for further clarifications on its methods or novelty J.



Paper recommendation: The undisciplinary journey

By Joern Fischer

The following paper just came out:

L. J. Haider, L.J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., Schill, C., Sinare, H. (2017). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. PDF available here.

This paper should be particularly interesting to early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary environments, or themselves being “interdisciplinarians”. It should also be of interest to more established scientists who train more junior researchers in such areas, especially in sustainability science.

In a nutshell, the paper is built on the premise that a new generation of sustainability scholars is emerging. These scholars often are interdisciplinary in their orientation from the outset. This makes them different from many of the currently “senior” (i.e. older) sustainability scientists, the vast majority of whom were trained in a specific discipline, and then started to reach out to other disciplines.

But what if you start off without ever having had a strong affinity for a single traditional discipline? This is increasingly common for young sustainability scholars, and it leaves them with certain typical challenges — which are what this paper is about. For example, how do you balance depth and breadth? How can you make sure you are taken seriously by your peers, or by more senior scientists? How can you navigate institutional environments that are largely based on disciplines?

To navigate a journey of being “undisciplinary”, the paper provides a compass — a simple conceptual model that can be used to think about how to develop into a good sustainability scientist. A “good” scientist, in this sense, needs two key attributes: agility to move between different ways of thinking, and a good methodological foundation.

Agility to move between different ways of thinking is needed because sustainability is such a broad challenge — to solve problems related to forest degradation, for example, you might have to understand issues of governance, social justice, and ecology. Each of these, in turn, will have a different epistemological foundation; what counts as valid knowledge for an ecologist comes about in a different way from the knowledge deemed valid by a political scientist.

A good methodological foundation is needed because, although sustainability science is an extremely broad field, this can’t be an excuse to not base one’s insights on solid methods. This can be challenging, because the range of potentially relevant methods is vast — but to be a “good” sustainability scientist, it pays to have some clearly identifiable methodological strengths, or at least a solid methodological foundation.

The link to the paper is given above. As I said, I think it’s a nice reflection, as well as really good food for thought for scholars who either are, or are working with, the “next generation” of sustainability scientists. Well worth a read!

Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings

I once heard this question being asked within an interview setting for a university position. I thought then, as I do now, that it is an inspiring way to structure my thoughts regarding the different disciplines and associated worldviews I am exposed to, or work with. I find timelines and evolutionary perspectives extremely useful, especially for those who share a time orientated understanding of the world. Rather than thinking in spatial landmarks, I like to create timelines in my mind. I suppose structuring research fields would also work nicely (or even nicer) with mind maps.

Following this logic, I tried to sketch some personal answers, which would probably need some revisiting soon enough. I would like to share with you a few relatively recent trends that I see gathering even more momentum in the near future, being aware there are many other milestones one could consider. In sharing these thoughts, I think mainly about young PhD students or academia scholars, but mostly non-academia professionals, such as practitioners working in the field of sustainable development. Hence, this is fairly simplified, with only a few references and suggested readings of papers deemed representative of their respective field.

We tried to debate some of these thoughts in our yet “pilot journal club”, so this may serve as a proposition for a more “holistic” journal club session.

Photo credits: http://chelonianri.org

Photo credits: http://chelonianri.org

Ecosystem services (ES) research

Research on ES evolved quickly from conceptualization, localized documentation and modeling of ecological dynamics, to policy and management applications, such as the creation of payment schemes for ES. A very nice timeline is provided by Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2010. Ecologists, economists and policy makers now widely engage with the concept, turning ES into a heuristic tool for revealing the multiple ways in which ecosystems support human well-being, an operational tool for making decisions, and a compelling language for policy makers. At the same time, the concept has generated a lot of criticism because of its hypertrophied focus on utilitarianism and potential commodification of nature (e.g. Schröter et al., 2014). Specifically, some authors have viewed ES as a one sided simplistic metaphor of human-environment relationships (e.g. Norgaard 2010, Raymond et al. 2013), ignoring different, often non-material, values that beneficiaries may assign to ecosystems. In response, new research agendas have emerged, including issues of: co-production by social-ecological systems, socio-cultural valuation of ES (e.g. Martín-López et al. 2014, Scholte et al. 2015) depending on a wide variety of values that stakeholders assign to ES (based on well on their own held values) (e.g. Ives and Kendal 2014), equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as location or gender (e.g. Daw 2009). The academic discourse on ES has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards recognizing their stakeholder driven nature. At the current stage there is growing interest in studying and understanding the more anthropospheric side (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014), or the ‘subjective end’ of the cascade: the plurality of benefits and values associated with different beneficiaries and their well-being. The general discourse is moving towards stakeholders, their capabilities (e.g. Polishchuk and Rauschmayer 2012), agency, interest, power (e.g. Fisher et al. 2013, Felipe Lucia et al. 2015), preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade: mobilization, appropriation, value articulation (e.g. Ernstson 2008), management, governance, normative foundations (e.g. Abson et al. 2014).

Social-ecological systems (SES) research

This point has been thoroughly dealt with in a previous more detailed blog entry (see also here). In short and simply put, present discourses seem to focus on the fundamental connection between the social and the ecological system, and, at the same time, the risk of disconnection or the dangers of teleconnections (e.g. Challies 2014), as well as potential solutions such as innovative re-connections supporting a transition towards sustainability. To these ends, SES research is striving to accommodate and adapt its frameworks to the social dynamics of globalizing systems inherently pertaining to a global economy and market. A variety of new conceptual frameworks (e.g. Diaz et al. 2015, Diaz et al. 2011, Fisher et. al 2014) are trying to capture better the interlinkages and interdependencies between nature and people and between science and society, while acknowledging them as being an integrative part of the other, and inseparable in reality. Authors are increasingly placing the focus on the knowledge about links between “the social” and “the ecological”, knowledge that was generated beyond disciplinary boundaries, at the interface between science and society (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2015). Papers are proposing various recoupling strategies (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2012), emphasizing reconnecting social-ecological feedbacks (Folke et al. 2011), such as more effective “virtuous circles” between natural, cultural, and economic assets (e.g. Plieninger and Bieling 2013, Selman and Knight 2006).

(Cultural) landscape research

The landscape lens brings forward the landscape as an arena for sustainable development and knowledge integration. Here, I would chose to stop over the rise of landscape stewardship, as a way to operationalize moral concerns in relation to social-ecological interactions that were enounced as early as the 50s (Leopold, 1949). Science for relinking communities and landscapes draws attention to the potential of landscape stewardship as one of the ambitious but effective ways to achieve sustainable management and design inclusive rural development policies (e.g. Plieninger et al. 2015). Integrating a broad suite of landscape values through engaged forms of stewardship is thought to balance out the dependency on active outside input (again inherent to a globalized world).

Sustainability science research

An important acknowledged milestone for sustainability science is re-thinking boundaries and structures, overcoming societal roles, and transforming the science-society interface, through for example the co-design of research projects and the co-production of knowledge fitting with transdisciplinary approaches (e.g. Lang et al. 2012, Brandt et al. 2013). Other suggested pathways are the recognition of its normative foundations through mapping and deliberating sustainability held values (e.g. Miller et al. 2014).

Resilience thinking

Resilience thinking continues to receive a lot of criticism for not sufficiently acknowledged limits such as the lack of attention to normative and epistemological issues. Recent discourse on resilience aims to open towards fields more engaged with the issues of power and agency such as political ecology or sociology, which may complement the arguably functional perspective of resilience. A permanent work in progress, resilience theory continues to develop, striving for a more complete knowledge integration of human and ecological dynamics. A more detailed perspective is offered here.

Sustainability related governance research

Finally, I am not sure to which extent this is a milestone, but I retained that in addition to the governance models incorporating elements of participatory (non-state multi-actor engagement, e.g. industry, NGOs) and multi-level governance, recent literature calls for polycentricity, further emphasizing the idea of a collaborative dispersion of authority (Biggs et al. 2015). Advanced polycentric systems comprise multiple independent centers of decision making, with different levels of inclusiveness, collaborating horizontally and vertically at various scales. In theory, these systems may isolate failures, but if successful, may be reproduced elsewhere. I found this idea worthy of further explorations in contexts with a diversity of elements pertaining to the social subsystems: different formal and informal institutions, land-use preferences, management approaches, various values, perspectives and interests such as identified in Southern Transylvania.

In conclusion, I take from these potential milestones that the general trend seems to be towards integration of existing knowledge, conceptual and epistemological openness and plurality, and maybe even a ‘subjectivisation’ of science, in hope of achieving meaningful contributions towards normative goals.

As for future directions, I guess one of the main questions that stems from the above are: 1. Do we need to engage more in these pathways, and if so how can we capitalize on them? 2. Do any of these potential milestones are going to lead to any fundamental changes in approaches towards sustainability (e.g. mainstreaming transdisciplinarity?)

As already mentioned, there are many other interesting developing directions in all of the scientific disciplines I touched upon. The few selected are reflective of a particular research experience and perspective I had from my positioning as a PhD student dealing with the ecology of the social system. This is just a starting point from where the mind can continue traveling boundlessly to imagine infinite perspectives outside comfort zones.


  • Abson, D. J., H. Von Wehrden, S. Baumgärtner, J. Fischer, J. Hanspach, W. Härdtle, H. Heinrichs et al. “Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability.” Ecological Economics 103 (2014): 29-37.
  • *Bennett, Elena M., Wolfgang Cramer, Alpina Begossi, Georgina Cundill, Sandra Díaz, Benis N. Egoh, Ilse R. Geijzendorffer et al. “Linking biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being: three challenges for designing research for sustainability.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 76-85.
  • *Biggs, Reinette, Maja Schlüter, and Michael L. Schoon, eds. Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • *Brandt, Patric, et al. “A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science.” Ecological Economics 92 (2013): 1-15.
  • Challies, Edward, Jens Newig, and Andrea Lenschow. “What role for social–ecological systems research in governing global teleconnections?.” Global Environmental Change 27 (2014): 32-40.
  • *Cote, Muriel, and Andrea J. Nightingale. “Resilience thinking meets social theory Situating social change in socio-ecological systems (SES) research.” Progress in Human Geography4 (2012): 475-489.
  • Daw, Tim, Katrina Brown, Sergio Rosendo, and Robert Pomeroy. “Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being.” Environmental Conservation 38, no. 04 (2011): 370-379.
  • Díaz, Sandra, Fabien Quétier, Daniel M. Cáceres, Sarah F. Trainor, Natalia Pérez-Harguindeguy, M. Syndonia Bret-Harte, Bryan Finegan, Marielos Peña-Claros, and Lourens Poorter. “Linking functional diversity and social actor strategies in a framework for interdisciplinary analysis of nature’s benefits to society.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 3 (2011): 895-902.
  • Díaz, Sandra, Sebsebe Demissew, Julia Carabias, Carlos Joly, Mark Lonsdale, Neville Ash, Anne Larigauderie et al. “The IPBES Conceptual Framework—connecting nature and people.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 1-16.
  • Ernstson, Henrik. “The social production of ecosystem services: lessons from urban resilience research.” Ernston, H, In Rhizomia: Actors, Networks and Resilience in Urban Landscapes, PhD Thesis, Stockholm University (2008).
  • Felipe-Lucia, María R., Berta Martín-López, Sandra Lavorel, Luis Berraquero-Díaz, Javier Escalera-Reyes, and Francisco A. Comín. “Ecosystem Services Flows: Why Stakeholders’ Power Relationships Matter.” PloS one 10, no. 7 (2015): e0132232.
  • *Fischer, Joern, et al. “Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social–ecological systems perspective.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 144-149.
  • Fischer, Joern, Tibor Hartel, and Tobias Kuemmerle. “Conservation policy in traditional farming landscapes.” Conservation Letters 5, no. 3 (2012): 167-175.
  • *Fisher, Janet A., et al. “Strengthening conceptual foundations: analyzing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research.” Global Environmental Change5 (2013): 1098-1111.
  • Fisher, Janet A., Genevieve Patenaude, Kalpana Giri, Kristina Lewis, Patrick Meir, Patricia Pinho, Mark DA Rounsevell, and Mathew Williams. “Understanding the relationships between ecosystem services and poverty alleviation: a conceptual framework.” Ecosystem services 7 (2014): 34-45.
  • Fisher, Janet A., Genevieve Patenaude, Patrick Meir, Andrea J. Nightingale, Mark DA Rounsevell, Mathew Williams, and Iain H. Woodhouse. “Strengthening conceptual foundations: analysing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research.” Global Environmental Change 23, no. 5 (2013): 1098-1111.
  • Folke, Carl, Åsa Jansson, Johan Rockström, Per Olsson, Stephen R. Carpenter, F. Stuart Chapin III, Anne-Sophie Crépin et al. “Reconnecting to the biosphere.” Ambio 40, no. 7 (2011): 719-738.
  • Gómez-Baggethun, Erik, Rudolf De Groot, Pedro L. Lomas, and Carlos Montes. “The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: from early notions to markets and payment schemes.” Ecological Economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1209-1218.
  • Ives, Christopher D., and Dave Kendal. “The role of social values in the management of ecological systems.” Journal of environmental management 144 (2014): 67-72.
  • *Lang, Daniel J., et al. “Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges.” Sustainability science1 (2012): 25-43.
  • Leopold, Aldo. The land ethic. USA, 1949.
  • Martín-López, Berta, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Marina García-Llorente, and Carlos Montes. “Trade-offs across value-domains in ecosystem services assessment.” Ecological Indicators 37 (2014): 220-228.
  • Miller, Thaddeus R., Arnim Wiek, Daniel Sarewitz, John Robinson, Lennart Olsson, David Kriebel, and Derk Loorbach. “The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda.” Sustainability science 9, no. 2 (2014): 239-246.
  • *Newig, Jens, and Oliver Fritsch. Environmental governance: participatory, multi-level-and effective?. No. 15/2008. UFZ Diskussionspapiere, 2008.
  • Norgaard, Richard B. “Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder.” Ecological economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1219-1227.
  • Pascual, Unai, Jacob Phelps, Eneko Garmendia, Katrina Brown, Esteve Corbera, Adrian Martin, Erik Gomez-Baggethun, and Roldan Muradian. “Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services.” BioScience (2014): biu146.
  • Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. “Resilience-based perspectives to guiding high-nature-value farmland through socioeconomic change.” Ecology and Society 18, no. 4 (2013).
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. Resilience and the cultural landscape: understanding and managing change in human-shaped environments. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, et al. “Exploring ecosystem-change and society through a landscape lens: recent progress in European landscape research.” Ecology and Society2 (2015): 5.
  • Polishchuk, Yuliana, and Felix Rauschmayer. “Beyond “benefits”? Looking at ecosystem services through the capability approach.” Ecological Economics 81 (2012): 103-111.
  • Raymond, Christopher M., Gerald G. Singh, Karina Benessaiah, Joanna R. Bernhardt, Jordan Levine, Harry Nelson, Nancy J. Turner, Bryan Norton, Jordan Tam, and Kai MA Chan. “Ecosystem services and beyond: Using multiple metaphors to understand human–environment relationships.” BioScience 63, no. 7 (2013): 536-546.
  • Scholte, Samantha SK, Astrid JA van Teeffelen, and Peter H. Verburg. “Integrating socio-cultural perspectives into ecosystem service valuation: A review of concepts and methods.” Ecological Economics 114 (2015): 67-78.
  • Schröter, Matthias, Emma H. Zanden, Alexander PE Oudenhoven, Roy P. Remme, Hector M. Serna‐Chavez, Rudolf S. Groot, and Paul Opdam. “Ecosystem services as a contested concept: a synthesis of critique and counter‐” Conservation Letters 7, no. 6 (2014): 514-523.
  • Selman, Paul, and Melanie Knight. “On the nature of virtuous change in cultural landscapes: Exploring sustainability through qualitative models.” Landscape Research 31, no. 3 (2006): 295-307.
  • Spangenberg, Joachim H., Christina von Haaren, and Josef Settele. “The ecosystem service cascade: Further developing the metaphor. Integrating societal processes to accommodate social processes and planning, and the case of bioenergy.” Ecological Economics 104 (2014): 22-32.
  • *Turner, Matthew D. “Political ecology I An alliance with resilience?.” Progress in Human Geography (2013): 0309132513502770.

*Suggested readings

Ideas for a PhD defense

By four newly pressed graduated PhD students

In continuation of Joern’s blog entry on strategies for a successful PhD, and since all of the four PhD students working on the Romania project have just finished their PhD, we would like to take a reflexive step, and share our experiences with you about our PhD defenses. At Leuphana University in Germany, the common procedure is to present one’s work in about half an hour, followed by one hour of questions and discussion, the actual “defense”. This procedure can be seen as a last formal step to being accepted in the “scholars’ club”.

We hope our thoughts will be useful for the next generation of PhD students, or to anyone who googles this topic.

The following is not an exhaustive list and there are plenty of other good posts on the topic (e.g. 1, e.g. 2). Similarly, this post is not intended as a blueprint for preparing a PhD defense. It is up to the candidates how they would like to approach this step. As we had the chance to see the strengths in each others’ presentations, it contains what we thought worked well in our defenses, but also what we now believe we could have done better. As a little disclaimer, we should mention that none of us respected all of the following points… that is why we entitled this post “ideas”, and not strategies for a successful PhD defense, as we actually did not test all the suggestions below. Moreover, merely having a list of useful things to think about is not sufficient, since they also need to be put in practice, which can be difficult in conditions of stress, nervousness and limited time. Likewise, there is always the possibility of over preparing which can distract one’s focus from the achievements of the research (see one of the points below).

So here’s a collection of lessons learnt and useful tips.

Before the presentation

  • Take time. We would recommend two to three weeks in total: One to two weeks for the preparation and practicing of the presentation, and approx. one week for refreshing the memory.
  • Re-read your papers or your monograph several times to be very clear about the methods (and eventually theories) used, the key findings, and what you could have done differently. Arguably, no research is perfect and while you should be aware of potential faults or weaknesses of your research, you should also focus on the positives.
  • Also in relation to refreshing the memory, be able to articulate some important milestones in the evolution of your research field, together with some recent trends as well as potential critique to the theories and approaches you used.
  • On a secondary note, if time allows, tackle the matter of working out additional material and continuously building your knowledge and understanding by trying to mentally integrate some new ideas presented in recent publications. Simply put, stay updated about recent developments in your research field.
  • If not already, get familiar with the work of your reviewers so that you will be able to answer questions in a common “language”. This may also improve your understanding of their way of thinking, and help to anticipate their potential questions during the defense.
  • In the case of a cumulative dissertation, the presentation would benefit from clarifying the overall internal logic and coherence of your papers combined. Also, how does this show in each of the papers?
  • Some distinctive slides on the knowledge generation, significance, and/or applicability of one’s research to the broader academic world are very much welcome (i.e. the “so what?” of your findings, as well as research gaps closed).
  • In the case of co-authored papers one should be able to shortly and clearly explain one’s contribution (it might be obvious, but less so in conditions of stress).
  • Write down the answers to the examiners’ comments on your thesis (which you receive approx. one month before the defense). Try to tackle their main points of criticism during the presentation, and ideally have some “backup” slides prepared for the actual defense afterwards. One may also prepare supplementary slides with some of the questions you thought about yourself or you were asked during test defenses; it can help to use these slides when answering questions during defense.
  • Prepare for the typical questions. These may be content related such as the strengths and limitations of the applied method(s), justification of the use of a particular conceptual framework/theory, explanation of the normative assumptions underpinning one’s work or theoretical framings that were used, and eventually the ‘policy relevance’ of your findings. At least three of us were asked “how would you put into practice and/or translate into specific policies your general recommendations”.
  • Other questions may be rather related to the overall experience as a PhD student: what did you enjoy the most, what would you do differently, what have you learned, what would be your next research goals/steps, what would you do research-wise if you had an unlimited amount of money? Arguably, one cannot pre-empt all (un-)foreseen issues, but we found it a useful reflection exercise. There is also the danger of over preparing, and trying to prepare for every possible question or situation can dilute one’s focus from the main points of the research.
  • Presentation: Focus on your achievements (findings) and their implications. Focus on what you are knowledgeable about. Try to be as precise as possible, and avoid “unnecessary” details.
  • Practice your presentation. At the beginning alone, then with the cat, aunt, on the balcony, on the roof, with pointer or not, etc. Finally, give at least one test defense in front of your colleagues, friends, etc. and kindly ask them to comment and ask questions. We differed greatly among each other in the number of times we practiced. If possible, try to practice once in the actual room where you are going to give your talk. This helps checking whether the projector properly displays the colors you selected for your graphs, and also gives you a feeling for the actual “defense situation”.
  • Stress management; this is crucial and often not tackled well enough. Despite giving a fair number of public presentations until the moment of the defense, some may still be overwhelmed by the amount of emotions. Here again, it varies enormously from person to person, so we will just mention some of our own stress coping strategies: during the days prior to the defense, having someone to bounce back all the accumulated potentially negative energy; try to make sure to have some close friend/family member/colleague sitting in the defense where you can focus at while presenting your thesis; doing sports during the preparation period to clear one’s mind, working on the defense in a different and quiet environment where people would not ask every five minutes how preparations are going.
  • Logistics: prepare the room so that you feel comfortable in it; bring sufficient water for yourself and the examiners, adapters, chocolate, a “don’t disturb sign” on the door, pointer, an extra connection cable for the projector (in case it collapses), pen and paper. Have a copy of your thesis handy in case examiners refer to an exact page in your thesis, etc.

During the presentation

  • We all had very different talk speeds and rhythms, so it depends on what one feels comfortable with (breathing seems a good idea, for example between sentences, but may not always be possible…).
  • Use the pointer to make things more accessible.
  • Show you acknowledge the formality of the procedure by being dressed appropriately.

During the defense

  • Write down the questions you receive in case you are susceptible to forgetting them (it also gives you some seconds to think about, and eventually structure your answers already).
  • When answering try to link to papers you authored or that you read; it may be difficult to remember authors, but it may be worth it. Maybe make a “top ten list” of papers that you really liked during the PhD and that are useful to support more than one argument.
  • Try to underline your arguments with examples (e.g. from other policy fields/world regions). Admittedly, the purpose of a PhD defense is to argue for the importance and validity of one’s results, especially when those results are challenged, but the extent and ways this is done varies.
  • Enjoy your defense as it is a nice occasion when so many bright minds focus on what you have to say and on having a dialogue with you. The defense is also the time when you can confidently showcase several years of research and effort. One can think of this experience as a discussion between peers. This may also be an opportunity to maybe go beyond your work and think about it holistically. Use the time to talk to your examiners afterwards, as you might be working with them in the future. Finally, it is also a time to possibly have nice conceptual talks with researchers you admire, not fearing that you are wasting someone’s time.

As we wrote the above, we have realized that probably the most important point is the last one. “Enjoy the experience of the <<fall>> and worry about the landing when you get there”, as Dave so nicely put it in one of his comments.

These ideas are open for debate. What other points would you add?

Sixteen strategies for a successful PhD

By Joern Fischer

With four of my PhD students having recently submitted their theses, and four new ones having started, I found myself thinking about the attributes of what makes a successful PhD student. But then I figured thinking about this in terms of personal attributes makes it somehow a fixed thing, and that’s not quite right – rather, students use certain strategies, some innately, and some may have to learn these strategies. And so I have compiled a list of the “strategies” that I believe are particularly useful for successfully getting through one’s PhD research.

  1. Know your natural talents and skills, and capitalize on them. People differ in their skills. For some it’s communication (written or oral), for some it’s quantitative analysis, for others it’s data collection. You should rejoice in your skills and build your success around them; most likely nobody can take these skills away from you.
  2. Know your weaknesses, and work on them – but don’t try to turn them into your biggest strengths. You will also have natural weaknesses, which can hinder progress. For example, if you’re not good at writing or analysis, this will need to improve for you to get through the PhD. But most likely, what is currently just “not your thing” never will be your greatest strength. So compensate your weaknesses, but don’t try to over-compensate and be someone or something you will never be. Build on your strengths (see above) instead of trying to build on your weaknesses.
  3. Don’t compare yourself to others, especially not fellow PhD students or more experienced scientists. Many PhD students suffer from self-esteem problems at one point or another because they feel less capable than those around them. This simply isn’t helpful. We can’t all be good at the same things, and the point is that ultimately, all seven billion of us have to find a niche where we are valuable. You don’t need to be like others, and shouldn’t try to be, either. Find your own way (though of course, you can learn from others).
  4. Don’t wait for little problems to turn into big ones – talk to people before things get bad. Having an attitude of “I can do this” is good, but many students waste large amounts of time and emotional energy on trying to prove to themselves or their supervisors that they need no help – when in fact they do. This applies to personal problems as much as to technical or scientific ones. I suggest you ask for help when you need help.
  5. Don’t expect others to fix your problems. While asking for help is valuable, it’s YOUR PhD, and you’re responsible for it. Be grateful if others help you, but don’t expect it or depend on it. To a minimum level, you should be able to cope with each task in your PhD on your own; though for many, things will work much better if you ask for help and collaborate with others.
  6. Set yourself timelines, planning for about 20% each of logistics, reading, analysis, writing and “other stuff”. If any of these go significantly above the 20% mark, most likely, you’ll not manage in the time you had allocated (because you allocated too little time for one of the others). People tend to do what they find fun or easy, and tend to avoid the rest. This is normal, but a bit of reality is in order. I suggest you write up your first two papers after a first field season. That way you have gone through the whole process of empirical science (all the way to publication) relatively early on, and you’ll most likely find the second half easier. When you need to step up to postdoc level, you’ll be ready for it.
  7. Monitor your own progress, and if you’re not making progress for weeks or months, be honest with yourself: it can’t go on like that. Sometimes people just don’t move forward. Things can be painfully slow at times. Mostly, such structural ineffectiveness is a strong sign that science – requiring a high degree of self-motivation and self-organisation – is just not going to work in the long term for some people. Be honest with yourself if you’re not progressing and talk to others about what can be done.
  8. Communicate clearly, and frequently, with those you work with. I highly value a workplace culture where people work at work, and not primarily form home or off-campus. This way there is frequent, informal communication, and lots of helping each other with bits and pieces. If you isolate yourself from such an environment, you will not receive help, and nobody will ask you for help or your opinion. To get the most out of your PhD, be an active member (not a consumer) of a group of peers and collaborators.
  9. Engage with the multiple sources of advice around you, even when you’re not desperate. You can ask many people for advice, not just your supervisor. You can ask other students. Often, postdocs are the best people to ask – they often have more time still, and often are close to the experience of being a PhD student still.
  10. Network enough, but don’t mix that up with doing your work. Personally, I find networking is over-rated. We’re so incredibly connected these days that a lack of connections is problematic far less often than it used to be. I would suggest to network when you have a genuine interest in other people, but not as a goal in its own right. I find networking for its own sake disingenuous and frankly, it can be a big waste of everybody’s time.
  11. Collaborate with others, but not at the expense of the work you’re leading. Opportunities to collaborate are great, but shouldn’t be used as a displacement activity to avoid your own (more difficult to face) work.
  12. Take breaks, lots of them, and don’t let the PhD take over your life. Contrary to what many think, many excellent students I have worked with have taken plenty of time off and worked something like “regular hours”. If you’re not making progress, increase your efficiency, not your work hours.
  13. When you’re working, work. Speaking of efficiency … set yourself tasks to achieve for a given day and do them. Don’t stuff around for hours on facebook and waste time. Focus when you do things: focus on people when you deal with people, on writing when you’re writing, and on analysis when you’re doing analysis.
  14. Know two key currencies of science: one, you must read to know where your field is at, and two, you must publish or none of your grand ideas count. You cannot compensate for these two, they are simply key. You must read, and you must publish, or you cannot be a scientist.
  15. Find self-esteem in something other than scientific success: your perceived worth as a person should not depend on doing well. Your PhD will have highs and lows, but you as a person, are not your PhD. Your self-esteem is worth gold, in that it is the basis of your functioning. Focus on healthy ways of building self-esteem (such as connecting with friends and family) and not on bean-counting how successful you are (or otherwise).
  16. Know that a research existence is not for everyone, and should that be the case for you – relax. You can either get through your PhD and then shift directions, or even drop the PhD. Many people have done this, and for some people, this is precisely the right thing to do.

Comments, including on other key strategies, are of course welcome!