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Is there a universal character that helps to "take the charge of your PhD"?

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Topic: Science  |  Series: Reflections
Source: www.nairaland.comI am currently working at the AMOLF Institute in Amsterdam. AMOLF is partly financed by FOM (Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter), a Dutch organization that "promotes, co-ordinates and finances fundamental physics research in the Netherlands". As a new PhD student I took part in a course named "Taking Charge of Your PhD project", which is compulsory for all PhD-student fellows and is paid for by FOM. The following text summarizes the two-day course & my interpretation of the take home messages.

Let me first mention some basic facts about the course. It took place in two separate days (with a three-week pause in between). We were twelve PhD students coming from different FOM institutes (beside AMOLF the other two are DIFFER and Nikhef). We were from different countries, there was no Dutch students. The lecturer was a founder of a company that offers plethora of courses for scientist about coaching, communication, motivation etc. The objective of the course was to teach us how to handle problems, worries, uncertainties typical for the just-beginning PhD students. It intended to "help (us) the PhD students to manage (our) projects effectively by optimising success factors and practising personal communication skills… such as feedback, negotiation, conflicts etc."

What I liked about the course in general was the connection of theory and practice. An unwritten rule was applied: what was explained in theory was practiced immediately in model situations, often with a present actor (who was really great, by the way).


The first day was among others aimed at clarifying the conditions of our PhD projects. I was quite surprised that knowing these conditions in a deeper detail is not a necessary commonplace among the students. Also, that the conditions for obtaining the doctoral degree vary so much project to project. I took it as a plus to explore the situations of the others. Another goal of Day one was the time-management.

The lecturer gave us several useful tips how to master our time schedule. However, his conviction about writing a detail daily-weekly plan was not commonly shared. In particular by myself :) I cannot possibly imagine how I would work with an hour-to-hour written detailed schedule; things can change so unpredictably in the lab, that I just cannot find the thorough planning handy. One of the things I love about my work is the freedom of coming to work and, of course, sometimes do what is necessary (and planned) and sometimes just do what I feel like doing. So that was one slight disagreement that I had with the lecturer on the first day. The second one resulted into yet another oposition from my side.


The Day two was focused on negotiation. Again, theory was explained and practiced afterwards. This time the practice even surpassed the greyish theory (even though I have to point out here that the lecturer was a good speaker, which made the listening parts a way more pleasant). However, I started to feel uncomfortable after we filled in the famous Thomas-Killman test.

This survey serves for telling you, what kind of strategy you prefer in communication, etc. It consists of 30 couples of questions. From each couple you select the option A or B, based on which statement is true about yourself. Finally, you end up with a score – certain amounts of points in five different cathegories:  
- Competing/Forcing (assertive, uncooperative),  
- Avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative),  
- Accommodating (unassertive, cooperative),  
- Collaborating/Exploring/(Aiming for win-win situations) (assertive, cooperative), 
- Compromising (intermediate assertiveness and cooperativeness). 

Ideally, your characteristics are evenly distributed since various situations require different approach. And here is my problem with the Day number two and with the general concept of the course as such:

After completing the test, the lecturer asked an open question about our scores. "Are you high in forcing, collaborating and possibly compromising boxes? Congratulations! You are the strong person!" What?! I was shockingly staring at him clutching my test result which said 11 points in admitting box, the other points evenly dispersed among the other departments: 5, 5, 5, 4. And the rest of us what… we are the so-called "weak personalities", not able to hold on our opinions and aims? Unsuitable to do PhD?

"OK", I thought, "so the result of this two-days course is the revelation that I am a total looser with a personality that on beforehand excludes the possibility of finally defending my thesis." As a bonus the lecturer did not forget to mention him having high scores in the "strong" compartments…

Anyway… For the time being, I admitted his point. (The test is correct, you see.) However, my brain kept working… In the end, I realized that there is no less power in being an admitting person than in being a forcing person. I feel strong in my admittance attitude. I usually do not waste my time in pointless quarrels… I like discussions, but when someone starts forcing me, I rather back-up, indeed. Not to the point when I get hurt and burnt, or where my essence or the essence of my opinion is destroyed, of course. (In such cases I can also use all my other boxes, which come in handy equally strong.) There is humbleness in the admittance which forcing people might lack. There is wisdom in admittance, which forcing people might forget about in their pressure. I can find many old quotes, that explain what I am trying to say here:

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt." 
Abraham Lincoln

"Speaking is silver, silence is gold."  
DUTCH proverb (we have the same in Czech)

"The crying cat catches nothing." 
Arabian proverb

"Talking comes by nature, silence by wisdom."

"People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they'll have good voice boxes in case there's ever anything really meaningful to say."  
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat's Cradle

You can find many others in books and on Internet, too. This is just a selection of my favourite ones. I do not worry about not being able to manage my PhD because I am officially not a strong personality. Apparently, my strength resides in something else than forcing and in the ability to manipulate/negotiate… For certain reasons, I do not fit the by-current-society recognized box of strong people. I could not care less…

And none of you should if someone is trying to put you down by saying you are out of the society parameters! I do not believe there is one universal character that guides you on the way to the doctoral degree. Just do what you are passionate about, the rest comes by itself. Just be yourself, please. Do not try to fit the criteria of successful extroverts. I am an admitting introvert. And I am proud of it!

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