”Why not try it then”
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
The journey towards a PhD
Like any other big project in life, the PhD journey is full of both ups and downs, and at times you may find yourself wondering why you began the process in the first place. Sometimes it is a good idea to sit down and remind yourself of the reasons. Doing a PhD was one of my biggest dreams already during undergraduate studies – even though it took me quite some years working as a teacher before I realised what I wanted to do research on – and I try to keep this in mind on the bad days and celebrate it on the good days.
Because we here at Kielingua also like hearing (i.e., because we are nosy) about other researchers’ journeys towards the PhD life, we decided to ask some doctoral researchers at Finnish universities to write to us about the reasons that led them to do research after completing their Master’s degree. We received some beautiful texts, and even though the number of participants was not high, some patterns could be seen in the answers. As you will see from the citations below, the journeys have been a jumble of dreams and happy accidents mixed with determination and support from others.
Dream the dream
Most of the people who wrote to us described doing a PhD as a long-standing dream. For some of them,
“doing a PhD has always been a passion - the passion to spare time to delve deeper into my field”
Specifically, doctoral researchers had dreamt about doing research, learning more about their field, and/or generally about working in academia.
”Väitöstutkimus oli pitkäaikainen haave, joka minulla on ollut maisteriksi valmistumisesta alkaen, sillä pidän paljon omasta alastani ja sillä olisi paljon tutkittavaa.”
[PhD research was a long-lasting dream that I had had since completing my Master’s as I really like my field and there is a lot to do research on.]
”Oon aina ollut kiinnostunut akatemiasta ja yliopistot on olleet mun mielestä esteettisesti tosi siistejä --- yliopistot on vain jotenkin selittämättömästi vetäneet puoleensa.”
[I have always been interested in academia and I have thought that universities are aesthetically really cool --- somehow inexplicably, universities just have attracted me.]
”Minulle tutkijan ura näyttäytyy edelleen unelmaurana: kirjoittamista, lukemista ja uuden opiskelua päivittäin, kiinnostavien ihmisten kohtaamista ja itsenäistä työtä sopivissa määrin, matkustamista, ja jossain määrin myös maailmanparannusta.”
[To me, a research career still appears as the dream career: writing, reading, and learning new things every day, meeting interesting people, and adequately independent work, travelling, and to some extent, making the world a better place.]
Doing research seemed like a good way to build knowledge and to achieve a change in the world and some saw it as a way to gain status in society or, at least, as an important milestone.
“Väitöskirjan tekemisessä --- loksahtaa kohdalleen monta itselle tärkeää asiaa: tärkeän asian edistäminen, oppiminen, tiedon tuottamisen ja maailman ymmärtämisen itseisarvoisuus”
[Many things that are important to me fall into place while doing a PhD: promoting an important cause, learning, producing information, and the intrinsic value of understanding the world.]
“Hain tohtoriopintoihin, koska tutkimus (lukeminen, kirjoittaminen, selvää ottaminen) tuntui vastaavan hyvin vahvuuksiani. Ajattelin, että tutkimalla, julkaisemalla ja julkaisemalla yleistajuisesti tärkeistä asioista voisin vaikuttaa asioihin, jotka ovat minulle tärkeitä. Olen myös aina ollut innostunut opettamisesta, ja yliopistotyössä sekin on mahdollista.”
[I applied to the doctoral studies because research (reading, writing, exploring) seemed to match my skill set well. I thought that studying, publishing and popularising science would help me to make a difference. In addition, I have always loved teaching and that is commonly a part of jobs at the university.]
“I cannot deny the instrumental reasons and social recognition factor in pursuing this challenging path. --- PhD is a sort of symbolic capital one earns to establish its privileged position and gain institutional benefits.”
”[O]lisi siistiä, jos voisin sanoa tehneeni väitöskirjan ja olevani tohtori.”
[It would be cool to be able to say that I have completed a PhD thesis and that I am a doctor.]
It seems, then, that doing research is something that many doctoral researchers have dreamt of long before embarking on the journey, for one reason or another. Fulfilling dreams requires work, however, and we will see that for many of us it has taken some time to get where we are now.
Work, work, work
Whether you have dreamt about a PhD since you were a kid or started considering it later in life, one thing is for sure: you need to do a lot of work to get there. Sometimes it may take several years after graduating, or decades even, before the path becomes clear and you finally start a PhD.
“Already during my MA I started thinking about doing a PhD, however I didn’t know what research area to focus on and how to go about the whole application process – it looked overwhelming to me at the time. After graduating with MA I drafted possible topics that interest me and started contacting potential supervisors in Finnish universities. This didn’t get me far, I either didn’t get any response or received emails saying that the ideas look raw.”
”Olin --- valmistumisen jälkeen työelämässä ja sen ohessa oli vaikea pohtia vakavasti väikkärin tekemistä, koska aina oli kiire. Kun työelämässä tuli vähän rauhallisempi vaihe, sain viimein selviteltyä entisiltä opettajiltani, kuinka voisin hakea jatko-opintoihin ja tietäisikö kukaan mahdollista ohjaajaa.”
[After completing a Master’s, I was working, and it was difficult to think about doing a PhD seriously because I was always busy. Then, when I had less work, I was finally able to ask my former teachers how I could apply for doctoral studies and if anyone knew of a possible supervisor.]
Even though all the doctoral researchers that wrote to us had been prepared to do the work to get into a university, many of us have also been lucky enough to get support from some wonderful people during the process. As we saw in the citation above, these people were often our former teachers who knew how to guide us on our way to making our dream come true. However, some had already been working in academia in other positions before starting their PhD research, and it was their colleagues that cheered them on in pursuing this career or got them interested in a certain topic.
”Tosi tärkeässä roolissa mun polullani ovat olleet kokeneemmat tutkijat, jotka ovat nähneet mussa potentiaalia (mistä en itse ole ollut tietoinen) ja kannustaneet tällä uralla eteenpäin.”
[Senior researchers have had a very important role on my path, those who have seen potential in me (that I was not aware of) and encouraged me in this career.]
“Along the way, I was looking for a job and was lucky to land a research assistant position in one of the Academy of Finland projects. Some of the project collaborators were experts in [a particular research theme] and I started exploring the topic --- and thought that I could build my research proposal around this which turned out to be successful.”
So, it seems that, to start doing a PhD, you have to have a dream, or at least a plan, work hard to make it reality, and, in the best-case scenario, have people that believe in you guiding you along the way. But there may just be something else that is also needed.
Some call it luck
There is no denying that hard work is needed when pursuing a career in academia, but sometimes it is by chance that you find the right opportunity. Some current doctoral researchers were offered a job that eventually guided them towards PhD studies.
”Valtaosin sanoisin, että etenemiseni väitöskirjatutkijaksi on ollut päämäärätietoista ajelehtimista: oon aina halunnut tehdä työni hyvin mutta jossain määrin vain tarttunut hauskoilta ja haastavilta kuulostaviin tilaisuuksiin, joita on tullut matkan varrella eteen. --- Jossain vaiheessa eräs professori tarjosi mulle mielenkiintoista työpaikkaa ja ehkä hieman seikkailunhaluisenakin tartuin siihen. --- Jossain vaiheessa huomasin, että valtaosa työkavereista onkin tohtoreita ja graduohjaajakin alkoi vinkkailla väitöskirjan tekemisestä, joten ajattelin, että miksipä en sitten kokeilisi sitä.”
[Mostly, I would say that my process to becoming a doctoral researcher has been a drift but with determination: I have always wanted to do my job well but to some extent just seized opportunities along the way that seemed fun and like a challenge. --- One day, a professor offered me an interesting job and perhaps out of a love of adventure I took it. --- At some point, I realized that most of my co-workers had a PhD and even my Master’s thesis supervisor suggested that I write a PhD thesis so I though why not try it.]
For some, the opportunity arose even earlier than planned.
”Kun sitten vain vuosi gradun valmistumisen jälkeen minulle tarjottiin työtä tutkimusprojektissa, jossa voisin samalla kerätä aineistoa omaan väitöstutkimukseeni, en voinut sanoa ei. Ajankohta tuli aiemmin kuin ajattelin, mutta olen ollut tyytyväinen päätökseeni.”
[When only a year after I had completed my Master’s thesis I got offered a job in a research project, in which I could simultaneously collect data for my own PhD project, I could not say no. It was sooner than I had thought but I have been happy with my decision.]
All in all, doctoral researchers seem to be quite satisfied with the career choice they have made. Despite some difficulties along the way, they have been able to start something they believe can make a difference. They can keep on learning every day, investigate the things that intrigue them, and, through their research, try to make a small change in the world.
Minttu Vänttinen is living the dream as a doctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. She would like to thank the people who wrote about their journeys as well as Venla Rantanen for commenting on an earlier draft of the text and Tanja Seppälä for the original idea.