Why leaving Oxford (for a summer) was the best decision of my PhD

Tübingen and six things I learnt during my time away.

Summer views of Tübingen from my IWM office

“Doing a PhD is a choice of passion, not a choice of reason.” I still vividly remember the time when a jaded third year PhD student first showed me around my Oxford department. “The bathrooms on the ground floor are the perfect place to cry once you hit ‘the wall’, and start hating your PhD”. Looking at the battered bathroom door just a stone’s throw away from the departmental reception, I felt a mixture of worry and wonder.

At the beginning of March this year — one and a half years later — I started noticing this ominous ‘wall’ coming into view. My old departmental building had been shut down a few weeks before, leaving me to work at home without an office or co-workers. I was feeling extremely tired; my research plans were being shot down repeatedly by university lawyers or complex ethics procedures; I started applying for internships in non-academic industries.

With the hope that a new location would provide me with some buffer for the imminent impact of my foreseeable crash into ‘the wall’, I arrived at the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media (IWM) at the end of March. What I did not know then, was that my research visit to Tübingen would not only buffer the impact, it would spare me from crashing altogether.

Dinner — feeding working brain cells German style

My stay was like rebooting a struggling laptop. Escaping Oxford allowed me to question how I define myself, my work and my goals as an academic. It gave me the time and muse to learn new skills and explore novel ideas and research areas. I am now more excited than ever about a career in academia.

Here are the six main things that let me dodge ‘the wall’:

  1. Connect with people

You might be sitting in a crappy office somewhere in the middle of nowhere, working on something that no-one in the whole building thinks is important, but you should not take that as an excuse for being isolated. Twitter changed my academic life, no joke. I realised there were academic communities out there that share my interests and strengthen my ideals. Twitter constantly challenges me to find topics I am passionate about, think critically and form my own opinions. Isn’t this what research is supposed to be about?

2. Work with people

As someone who treats almost everything in life as a competition, it was an important realisation that great research is (almost) never done by an individual. Feedback and others’ input are quick, cost-free and invaluable ways to improve. I now value coffee and Skype meetings with colleagues more than the extra paper I might have read in the meantime.

3. Learn the skills of your trade

Trainee cooks don’t only look at glossy pictures of Michelin star meals, they are motivated to learn the intricate skills needed to prepare them. PhDs should do the same. We cannot only look at results, we need to learn (or even re-learn) the skills of our trade. For me, this is advanced statistics. The good thing is, once you start, improving your skills gets quite addictive.

4. Ask challenging questions

It is always hard hearing people criticise your work. Furthermore, many people won’t dare give you the necessary negative feedback, knowing how much time you have invested into your PhD work. The only way for you to improve, is by directly asking people challenging and possibly painful questions. Ask them. It’s worth it.

5. Aim high

Don’t design a study because it is simple or because ‘everyone else does it like that’; design it because it is the best possible way to study the research question you are interested in.

6. Find a topic you cannot let go

Find something that gives you a reason to wake up in the morning. In the last six months, I have become increasingly invested in improving science communication - especially science communication about the effects of digital media. Yes, maybe my research is only illuminating tiny pieces of a much bigger puzzle, but this does not mean I cannot try to change things in science or society.

Cheers to an amazing 6 months!