Is the life of a PhD student lonely

PhD students must be crazy

Helga Knigge-Illner's doctoral guide on the rocky and hard road to a doctorate

By Hannelore Piehler

Discussed books / references

Because they don't know what they're doing. This motto can obviously apply to many of the enthusiasts who immediately throw themselves into a doctorate after successfully completing their studies. Helga Knigge-Illner, who is the psychological advisor for doctoral students at the Free University of Berlin, identifies very diffuse motives for the decision to do a doctorate. The gloss of the academic title is by no means the most important thing. The hope for a scientific career should be mentioned earlier. But the welcome opportunity to continue the familiar student life and to postpone the seriousness of professional life can sometimes play a role. It is seldom a very specific scientific question that arouses the urge to research, but rather the desire to specialize, to work scientifically and to deepen one's own knowledge, which is the intellectual challenge.

No matter which motive is decisive, the decision to do a doctorate has far-reaching consequences. The dissertation will completely determine the life of the PhD student for several years. The emotional roller coaster ride, frustration and joy through the scientific work are programmed. The professional uncertainty while contemporaries start families and establish themselves socially can be extremely stressful. "To put it bluntly, one could conclude that doctoral students have to be crazy if they get involved in such a life situation," says Helga Knigge-Illner - after an initial overview of the work and life situation of doctoral students.

There are many guides to "strategies for a successful doctorate" (so the subtitle) and, as far as the strategies presented are concerned, certainly more interesting than these. The particular merit of this guide is to take a sober, nothing euphemistic look at the problems of his clientele. The road to a doctorate is rocky and hard. Helga Knigge-Illner knows this from her own experience. And so the author justifies her own writing motivation right from the start with the words: "At the time I swore to myself to write about it, because I wanted to make the public aware of the stress you are under in this phase and how much you torment yourself. Sometimes I forged plans to improve the world, saying that the doctoral procedure should actually be fundamentally restructured and redesigned. " The doctoral procedure still needs to be reformed. But here others are responsible. Helga Knigge-Illner is now an expert on psychological and organizational issues - so it was high time she put her intention to write a book into practice.

But what exactly is so agonizing about the existence of a doctoral student? According to the psychologist, this brings together a lot. Ultimately you feel like Sisyphus: You read and work, sort and excerpt mountains of primary and secondary literature, but years pass before the first lines are put on paper, before the result can finally be presented. That can get on your nerves. The dissertation often turns out to be less of an intellectual problem, but primarily represents a huge energy, motivational and organizational task. No wonder that not a few doctoral projects are abandoned at some point. The work situation of the "lonely lone fighter at the desk" or "the lack of communication and support" proves to be particularly stressful, because the relationship with the supervisor is often not unclouded.

Time and again, the impression is that the supposed advantages of doing a doctorate turn out to be double-edged: the downside of the tempting freedom to divide up your time and pursue your own scientific interests is that this usually hardly affects the circle of friends and acquaintances.

Certainly the lone fighters, plagued by destructive self-doubts up to severe identity crises, are also to blame for their isolation: "The doctoral students bury themselves completely in their work and hardly find the time to cultivate existing relationships, let alone establish new ones. For theirs It is often frustrating for partners and friends when they are asked to muster much more understanding and moral support than they can get back. Every relationship suffers in the long run. " The retreat into the quiet little room often also serves to protect oneself: "This prevents others from recognizing and criticizing their weaknesses in the early phase of the work." The further the work then progresses, the more the author recognizes its - apparent - deficiencies. In this case, your own exaggerated demands are often the real problem; constant revising or postponing the submission can be the result.

Helga Knigge-Illner offers numerous observations from her conversations with those affected. Not only your pragmatic reference to the socially and professionally difficult situation is important. Because a doctorate is usually also a decision for a standard of living just a little above the social assistance limit. Scholarships, odd jobs, assistant positions - in each case there are advantages and disadvantages that one should be aware of. Just as the time factor cannot be completely disregarded. The psychologist finds a "very strange relationship" with many young scientists: "They seem to have an unlimited amount of time for their doctoral thesis or to live with it as if in a timeless space. Time simply does not seem to be a category - neither does time economy . " After several years of doing a doctorate (and possibly without simultaneous internships or professional experience), there may be a rude awakening here. After all, in the end - especially in the humanities - there is no automatic ticket to a professional or academic career waiting.

The first target group of the guide, namely those who are thinking about a doctorate, is therefore robbed of many illusions by reading it. They in particular should find out without make-up what is in store for them. At the same time, Knigge-Illner offers numerous pieces of advice on how to deal with individual problems and how to proceed purposefully from the planning stage. Enthusiasm for the topic is not enough: the doctoral thesis is a mammoth project that needs to be managed. The extent to which the individual then wants to fall back on Knigge-Illner's suggestions from mind mapping to changing the writing environment in the case of writer's block is certainly different for each individual. Not everything that the author offers here is convincing, even if, as if to forestall the skepticism of the reader, she refers to the great practical experiences in her workshops when it comes to suggestions that need getting used to.

The second target group, i.e. those who are in the middle of their doctorate and whose initial enthusiasm has long since given way to sober reality, should ultimately help the book to overcome this phase. It is comforting to read once that most of the problems are quite normal.