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To PhD or not to PhD: my experience as a Marie Curie PhD Researcher

Craig Zelizer

April 22, 2018

This post comes as a response to Craig Zelizer's great post: To PhD or not to PhD and his kind invitation to share my experience.

I recognized myself in many aspects of his post. I started a PhD by chance. I had been talking about doing one for a while but never took the steps to really look into it. One day, my husband sent me an advertisement for a Marie Curie PhD position (https://www.findaphd.com/.../marie-sklodowska-curie...). Marie Curie is a fantastic, very intense and selective programme and I am still amazed that I have been selected to take part in it. This programme is fully funded including a (good) salary and all field work expenses, conferences related costs, training course etc are fully funded and integrated into the programme. Marie Curie PhD's are funded by the European Union and open to everyone with the aim to enhance the mobility of researchers. 

So my husband sent me an advertisement for a PhD position and I decided to apply. I thought that I would give it a shot and at least I would see what it was like to apply for a PhD. And (surprisingly) I got it!

I started my PhD 3,5 years ago. The funding only lasts for 3 years and a lot of pressure is put on the PhD researchers to finish their thesis within these three (VERY INTENSE) years. I submitted my PhD in law after 3 years, 2 months and 16 days and I am now waiting for my defence (delays are pretty long in my university and I submitted "only" 2 months ago).

I would like to underline some points put forth in Craig Zelizer's post that strongly resonated with me:

1) relationships and the never-ending PhD. I confirm that it can sometimes be difficult not to completely forget your partner in the process, mostly when you reach the end of your thesis. I spent my last 7 months sitting in front of my computer doing nothing else than writing, re-writing and re-re-writing my different chapters, stopping only to eat or sleep. It was a very unpleasant period where I was focused on nothing else than myself (my thesis actually), I was stressed and as the time passed getting depressed as I thought that I would never see the end of the tunnel. At times my husband was fed up with the whole process as he would have liked to spend some time with me and do something else than staying home in front of a screen. But overall I was extremely lucky, as he was very supportive and helped me stay sane by making me take little breaks along the day.

2) it is a marathon: and the last km/miles are the most painful. But this also means that you should try not to get tired too quickly. The 2,5 first years of my PhD were fantastic. I had a rhythm that would allow me to move forward with my work but also have fun and keep a good work-life balance that contributed to me really enjoying the process. I think that putting too much pressure on yourself from the start might not be the best idea as you risk burning out or not having the sufficient energy to go through the hardest part (for me) which are the last months of pure writing. During my three year PhD I spent over 6 months doing field work in Africa (which I loved), I travelled and attended several training courses (included in the Marie Curie programme) and presented papers in international conferences which were nice little breaks in my routine but also very enriching experiences.

3) conference papers: it is very important to attend conferences to get your work known but also to meet people and get very useful feedback. It can sometimes feel draining because it can be seen as extra work; an extra paper to write, an extra presentation to prepare. But when you reach the end of your thesis you will realise how important it was to start writing early on and to get "outside" feedback on your work. "Outside feedback" to me means feedback given by someone else than your direct supervisor(s). In order for the process to be useful and efficient though, I would suggest staying focused on your thesis work and writing papers that can later be re-used in your thesis so that you do not lose too much time. In the end, I could include in my thesis most of the work I wrote in my papers. 

4) doing a PhD feels like riding an emotional rollercoaster: I went through many different feelings during my PhD experience. Most of the time I was very excited and enthusiastic; excited to start something new, to learn more about an issue I am particularly interested in, excited to finally find the missing piece of the puzzle that a paper or a chapter can represent. But I was also sometimes worried that I would never be able to make it, that my supervisors will realise at some point that they should not have hired me and that I was a fraud. Towards the end, I was also getting more stressed and depressed because I grew fed up with a thesis that seemed to stretch infinitely. Thankfully, the happy thoughts were much more common than the negative ones! The other point worth pointing out is the loneliness that one can feel. This will depend on your working environment of course, are there other PhDs? Do they come to the office every day? Do you share a working space? Is there anyone working on a similar topic as yours? I did sometimes feel a bit lonely because of the working habits at my university as well as because no one around me worked on similar issues. In order to get over the feeling of loneliness, it is important to be able to share your work and thoughts with people outside of your direct work environment (importance again of conferences etc.).

5) academia and practice: in my case, I did a very policy relevant PhD here in the EU (looked at the implementation of a specific migration policy instrument). I wanted my research to be policy relevant because I am (was?) more of a practitioner than an academic and to me it was important to link both worlds as this is also how I see (saw) my future career going.  My research topic is very "niche" which scared me a bit throughout my PhD but I am now also one of the only 10 experts in Europe on the topic so it gives me more visibility. I would advise PhD candidates to think about the "niche" question and whether they should become very specialised on one issue or cover a more transversal issue. I would say that it depends on the potential market linked to your "niche" research. If it is very policy relevant, being an expert on something very topical can be a boost but if there is no clear market then it can also be an obstacle for further employment.

Finally, I think that I would love to be both an academic and a practitioner. Work as a researcher but also be a consultant or work in a think tank and give lectures at a university. As Craig Zelizer rightfully mentions in his post, the possibilities are vast and the best way to fully benefit from your recently and hardly acquired degree is to be open to all of them. 

Fanny Tittel-Mosser holds a Master's degree in Law and European studies as well as a Masters in international relations focused on cooperation practices applied to the relations between the EU and developing countries from the University of Strasbourg, France. She is currently completing a PhD in Law at the University of Minho, Portugal. Her research interests are postcolonial migration, migration law, EU Law and migration policies with a strong focus on EU Mobility Partnerships, and migrant’s access to rights. Fanny worked on several migration-related projects with NGOs, the Council of Europe and IOM, focusing mostly on West and North Africa. She speaks French, English, Portuguese and Spanish and has an intermediary level of German and Greek. Fanny's LinkedIn.

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