The GLOCAL Careers series investigates what it takes to work in different sectors relevant to the programme. Through interviews with academics, industry professionals and GLOCAL alumni, we share first-hand insight on application processes, necessary skills and other considerations when choosing your career.
For this edition of GLOCAL Careers, we interviewed individuals at different stages of their academic careers. Their perspectives span the German, British, Dutch, Estonian and Belgian educational systems.
Our interviewees offer tried-and-tested tips, tailored to GLOCALs, for finding the right PhD topic and supervisor, as well as writing an effective proposal. Especially important is their insight on dealing with rejection, avoiding common mistakes, and reflecting on whether doctoral research is the right decision for you.
Robert Kloosterman is Professor of Economic Geography and Planning at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. He was the Director of the Amsterdam Institute of Metropolitan and International Development Studies (AMIDSt), Universiteit van Amsterdam from 2003 to 2008.
Hi Robert – please tell us about yourself
I’m a Professor of Economic Geography and Planning at the University of Amsterdam, and I’ve also been doing work on migrant entrepreneurship, cultural industries and
before that polycentric urban configurations. So I don’t stick to one particular scene… I’m interested in the conceptual issues of social reality. I like the puzzles.
What should students consider before pursuing a doctoral degree, and indeed a career in academia?
You should be intrinsically motivated in a particular kind of puzzle. You’re not in it for the money. You’ll want to know what’s going out there? Why are people doing this? Or why
do we see these patterns in a city? These are the puzzles that you are interested in. So in that sense, it’s much more of a vocation than it is a choice. That doesn’t hold for everyone, but it still holds for quite a lot of people. Basically you get paid to solve the puzzles that you’re interested in. If you work for Unilever, and you have to sell the diapers, then maybe you’re only in it for the money. But if you’re intrinsically motivated to look into social issues in a deeper way, then [academia] is a great profession, right?
The other thing is, I only got tenure when I was over 40. And so, I guess I have an idea of what it’s like to do a sequence of temporary jobs as an academic. I do remember at one stage I bought a house 250 meters from where Rembrandt was born in Leiden, and again the ice under my feet began to melt. I had to find a new job, so I applied to a Dutch bank. I got this form back and they asked all kinds of questions, and I just said, “f*ck off! Maybe I can get the job right now and earn twice the money, but I’m not going to do that.” I also remember when I was in the last year of high school, instead of going to school we could do a lot of learning at home. My father had a 9-5 job and I thought “I’m never, ever going to do a 9-5.” Maybe I’ve reneged on some of the other promises I made at that age, but this was one of the promises that I really was able to keep. So it still gives you a lot of freedom and you can choose how you work. When my daughter was born, I was able to spend a lot of time with her when she was playing. I brought her to school and then in the afternoon I picked her up. So it’s hard for me to imagine a better kind of work environment even with all the problems – cuts, temporary jobs, endless assessments, rejections and so on.
Another great thing is that in most of my academic environments, when you’re talking to people at the coffee machine, it’s only very rarely that people will brag about their BMW or their Mercedes. That’s such a boon that you’re not in these hedonistic environments where people flex their spending on cars!
What should a candidate bear in mind when it comes to choosing a supervisor or a research group?
It has to be some kind of fit between the supervisor and the student. For a PhD student who’s able to do almost all the work on his or her own, he or she could choose a supervisor who is very busy but who will be able to open up doors for them at a later stage. If you are very young and you just graduated then I think you should choose a supervisor, or maybe two supervisors – at least one who will have the time to really guide you through the process, especially in the first years. It’s also not just that you’re in the same field and you share a particular perspective. You also have to have some kind of personal click, so that you can deal with each other and not just when everything goes right, but also when things go wrong. It’s not just about the research question and contributing to the discussion, but everything else happening in life as well. PhD students are at an age where a lot of things can happen. New relationships, moving to a new house a few times, those kinds of things. These are all important life events.
How can you tell if it’s the right match?
In an ideal situation you can choose your supervisor, but in many cases that’s not how it goes. You have to be pragmatic. Maybe the PhD student and the supervisor get together at very short notice for whatever reason, and the student would have preferred another supervisor or a different subfield discipline. But that’s the way it goes sometimes. How can PhD candidates deal with, and learn from, rejection? In a sense an academic career can be quite lonely. Rejections of articles and grant applications are absolutely part of academic life, not just for PhDs. Sometimes it’s like waiting for a bus – you have to wait for a very long time while nothing happens, then the buses all come at once. And if such a moment arises in your career, use it because that’s the window when you are hot and should be able to make the next step. You have to really develop some kind of armour to deal with rejections and also know that it’s a fact of life. Don’t let it push you over the edge. I had a rejection recently and I thought, “these guys don’t understand what I’m doing.” Even after a major revision they still rejected it, so I was really angry. Try to deal with these experiences with other PhD students and also with other staff who have been through the same thing.
What mistakes do PhD candidates often make that others should look out for?
I think that in some cases people read too much. You know, you write a PhD by becoming an expert in a sub-sub-sub-field, and that sub-sub-sub-field is embedded in a sub-field, which is embedded in a larger field… it’s like Russian dolls! You can read for your life twice over when dealing with all the literature out there. So you have to have read strategically, but also at some stage you have to say, okay, this is what I should build on and start to make your own contribution. I think it’s linked to a lack of focus. Many PhD students start with a very ambitious general question, which makes sense, but it has to be translated at a very early stage into a manageable, feasible, researchable question. Maybe I’m becoming an old fart, but it’s also the case that some people overdo their critical attitudes. It’s very easy to read the science literature and critique it – that’s what we teach. But you have to be aware that it takes a lot of craftsmanship to write an article that will be published. So if people are very good at criticizing articles, that’s all very well, but at some stage you have to deliver yourself. What are the most important things to consider for writing a competitive proposal, particularly in the Netherlands? I’ve learned from my colleague, Betsy Eely, as she has a very down to earth approach. She always asks PhD students two questions: The first is, what are the fields you’re going to contribute to?
The second requires a lot of reflection – how are you going to contribute to the debate? For this you should think about your skills. If you are very good at quantitative research, you should highlight that in your proposal. Or highlight that you’re very good at qualitative research or have privileged access to a particular set of data, because you have a friend of a friend for example. You have to think about the audience, but it’s tough because in most cases you don’t know who’s going to decide [if you’re accepted]. In the Netherlands, in many cases, there were these two review committees stuffed with economists and psychologists who could only deal with positivist, quantitative research – you have a variable, which impacts on variable A or variable B, and you want to measure this. There was an endless emphasis on methodology, and you had to sketch out how you were going to address your research questions. In terms of global urban economies, what are some key avenues of research that will become especially important in the wake of the pandemic? There will be a much more critical attitude towards global production networks. People have underestimated that if one component of the system breaks down, the whole system comes down with it. I’m not a Marxist, but I think we’ll learn the essential importance of the production system in a year from now.
In terms of global urban economies, what are some key avenues of research that will become especially important in the wake of the pandemic?
There will be a much more critical attitude towards global production networks. People have underestimated that if one component of the system breaks down, the whole system comes down with it. I’m not a Marxist, but I think we’ll learn the essential importance of the production system in a year from now.
There’s also the use of public space and urbanization. The simplistic attitudes of economists really baffles me; the larger the city is, and the higher population density, the more economic growth [it can generate] – the highest goal in life. That was the only thing they looked at. But now there will be a more critical attitude towards economic growth in general, as well as the role of cities (in terms of density and numbers) if we have to stick to social distancing for a long time. That will be interesting. From my point of view labour markets, social inequality and the political economy – the relationship between the state, market and family – will also be very important.
Dr Chris Miller is a lecturer in Global Economy at the University of Glasgow. In 2015 he completed an AHRC funded PhD, co-hosted by the Scottish Centre for War Studies and the Centre for Business History in
Scotland (University of Glasgow).
Max Vidal Carranza graduated in 2018 from the Economic and Social History Masters at the University of Göttingen. After that, he worked as a research fellow at the university’s Institute for Economic and Social History. He currently lives in Berlin, where he works in the educational NGO “mehr als lernen”
What makes a research proposal stand out from the crowd in the country you work in?
CHRIS: In the UK, the biggest hurdle (by far) is getting a scholarship. With this in mind, the main ‘problem’ we see with applications is that the prospective student has clearly spotted a gap, or important question, that requires exploring, but has not articulated why X would be the right university, Y would be the right department and Z would be the right supervisor would be right for the project. To put it even more bluntly, there are lots of smart students and lots of gaps in the literature, but only a few can be solved by someone like you, in a place like this, in the time allowed. Doing your homework and having good answers to these questions goes a long way – it shows you know more than just the subject area, but the process required to successfully complete a PhD. That tends to impress application committees.
Conversely, applications that stress too much about how someone wants to be an academic or researcher first and foremost – tends to raise red flags as to what their motives are – especially on project PhDs – and whether they will successfully complete if those motivations change.
MAX: There are a couple of points which I consider important for very good PhD proposals. Firstly, the research question, research approach and methodologies should be as clear as possible. That creates a positive and serious impression to the people that is in charge of conducting the evaluations. Secondly, a PhD proposal will only stand out to a Department or Institute which actually works the topics of the proposal. Finding and getting PhD position is in this sense not different from any other kind of job application: both ends have to match.
What are the essential considerations for a candidate in terms of choosing a supervisor or a research group?
CHRIS: Funding. Having it is better than not having it. It looks great on the CV, it shows you have to some extent succeeded in a competitive field. So if you really want to be in Glasgow but Sheffield offers you the scholarship, take it. Next, PhDs are still lonely experiences. With this in mind, I think a good graduate community is essential. Having an office with ten or twenty PhD students working on similar topics is, in the long run, at least as helpful as your supervisor is going to be. You will ask your peers frank questions, get support, and see first-hand their own experiences. If your supervisor got their PhD in 1979 and has worked at the same university since 1978, their ideas on how to get a job, how to navigate the struggles of PhD life, will perhaps not be the most important advice you end up receiving. Clearly, the supervisor relationship is very important, and the temptation can be to chase the big names in the field. There is nothing wrong necessarily with this strategy – though also consider that a lot of other people may be thinking like you. Some of the biggest names in the field could have fifteen or twenty PhD students attached to them, which also cuts down the time they can spend on you.
What advice can you give for dealing with rejection?
CHRIS: It’s important to properly diagnose why you may be rejected from a particular programme when re-tooling that application for other departments. Second, you may be rejected not because you aren’t bright enough or because you have a ‘bad’ idea, but simply because that department is not the best fit for your proposed PhD, and other applications were deemed better in that respect.
MAX: Learn from rejections. Analyze what “went wrong”, why the fit was not perfect. Doesn’t necessarily have to do with the research project. Don’t take it personal. Circumstances vary a lot. Analyze with a cold head and consider further options. Get advice from friends, instructors or other persons with experience.
If you were to apply for a PhD now, what advice would you give yourself?
CHRIS: I would advise myself to stop stressing about why things don’t seem to make sense yet, or worrying about making a big ‘killer’ point that redefines the field. For 2.5 years, I had four or five related ideas, but I didn’t see the thesis and how to stitch it all together until the final 12 months. Moreover, I wondered whether other people had had those (or better) ideas before, and if I shouldn’t change the focus of my research entirely. That caused me a lot of stress until the Eureka moment when the big argument started to come together.
Later on, I found that many people go through that process, to the extent most PhDs are submitted looking quite different to how they were proposed, and do not (immediately, at least) lead to books, papers, fellowships and so on. It’s OK not to win the Nobel prize – and in any case prize committees from the Nobel committee are just staffed by humans who have preferences and biases like the rest of us, and who may have come to an entirely different conclusion if they got out of a different side of the bed that day. Don’t beat yourself up about it or make unhelpful comparisons the one person that seems to be doing so much better than you are. Finally: A PhD feels like eating an elephant. 100,000 words is a lot for someone that has never written more than 15,000, and it can feel overwhelming. That’s understandable. It’s not easy, and it shouldn’t be. But if you are motivated by the right things, and you really feel that interest is enough to sustain you on a wet and windy January morning, then do it. There are few things better than the freedom to explore what interests you (except perhaps sun and blue skies in January).
Milan Kovačević is a GLOCAL alumnus and PhD student on the Marie Skłodowska-Curie project ‘LIMES – The Hardening and Softening of Borders: Europe in a Globalising World’ at University College Maastricht.
Louise Sträuli is a GLOCAL alumna and PhD student on the Hera Project ‘Public Transport as Public Space in European Cities: Narrating, Experiencing, Contesting’ (PUTSPACE) at Tallinn University and Université Libre de Bruxelles.
What are your top tips for finding a PhD?
LOUISE: Apart from platforms such as LinkedIn and Euraxess, where already many open research positions get promoted, I can recommend focusing on the following two sites to read about new projects launched and snowballing from there into specific research projects: Funding websites, such as HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area, http://heranet.info/), which regularly have different rounds of project funds and advertise different projects and vacancies. Newsletters from networks, university departments or research projects that are somehow related to your field of interest, for example many vacancies and project on migration and integration get advertised through the IMISCOE Newsletter (https://www.imiscoe.org/).
MILAN: To keep track of the numerous openings, I strongly recommend the following databases (at least when it comes to Europe):
– Euraxess (https://euraxess.ec.europa.eu);
– Academic Gates (https://www.academicgates.com);
– Hochschul-Job (https://hochschul-job.de).
The first three websites on the list have the option of setting up tailored email notifications, which I find particularly useful, as it can save you from endless manual searches and make sure you don’t miss anything.
What should GLOCALs take into account before deciding to pursue a PhD position?
LOUISE: The two years of GLOCAL, as wonderful as they might have been, are also challenging and intensive. Starting a PhD most probably means moving again to another country and settling in into a new environment. I would recommend to everyone who has the possibility to consider well, at what time they feel ready to start again into such an intensive project and consider taking some weeks or months off first – not starting directly in September. Doing a PhD is similar to writing a veeery long Master thesis. So if you already enjoyed the process of reading, conceptualizing and researching then you are at the right spot. I can only emphasize how important it is that you get on well with the person who will be supervising you, respectively that you get the feeling of being supported by him/her and that you can exchange yourself constructively with this person. For me, the most motivating aspect of the research project is the exchange with other researchers with whom I share interests, provide mutual support and exchange information at eye level. Make sure that your doctoral topic is of such personal interest that you want to explore it on a daily basis for the next few years. It’s also good to start with a fresh mind and spirit – don’t rush into it right after GLOCAL. Many positions open throughout the year.
MILAN: Once you find a position worth applying to, make sure to invest a considerable amount of time and effort in crafting your application (which will often require a research proposal in addition to your CV, grade transcripts, recommendations, and writing samples)—and be prepared to see that investment go down the drain as you face rejections. Don’t get discouraged, though, but do bear in mind that a PhD is not just any job, but a career choice and a long-term commitment: you are about to embark yourself on a potentially arduous four-year journey. On the bright side, the long-term nature of the endeavour also comes with perks. The best of them: if successful, you won’t have to think about finding a job in the next four years. Plus, a PhD will give you an opportunity to push the frontier of human knowledge a tiny bit further; to explore things that haven’t been explored before and learn stuff nobody has ever learned before; and also to make this knowledge available so that other people can benefit from what you’ve learned. For that, it is certainly worth the investment.