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Masochistic PhD



‘Why are most PhD candidates unhappy?’ blogger Nadya Karimasari was asked by a student. In today’s column, Nadya reflects on the culture in academia that unintentionally encourages unhappiness.

‘The ability to constructively deal with criticism is one of the most important traits for a scientist,’ said professor Jan-Willem van Groenigen during a general PhD course last month. Being critical about oneself is a good sign for a PhD candidate. It means she is aware that her knowledge and capability are limited. This great quality would encourage her to be open-minded, stay curious and learn deep and wide. Jokingly, Jan-Willem gave an example of one of his best students who was almost masochistic in the sense that when she didn’t receive enough criticism on her paper, she thought the reviewers had not read it well enough. ‘However, I am not like that and neither are most people,’ he added.

Unfortunately, sometimes unintentionally, there is a culture in academia in which professors discourage PhD candidates who do not seem to be unhappy enough. It is as if something is wrong when the PhD candidate is not agonizing over how lost, confused, and incapable he is. Perhaps it is a pedagogical approach to remind PhD candidates to be humble. But it suggests that you distrust and underestimate the ability of the PhD candidate to judge his own research capability in a balanced and proportional way. When taken too far, it contributes to bringing PhD candidates to the brink of mental depression. It also normalizes the general aura of unhappiness among PhD candidates.

Of course, Jan-Willem was not advocating for academic masochism to PhD candidates. Jan-Willem himself is a very positive and exuberant person. But it is quite widespread among professors and peers to give students the impression that a good PhD candidate is very self-critical and treats themselves as if undeserving of any good comment on their work.

Other professors practice daily criticism on their students in order to train them to perform convincingly. Being able to have a ‘convincing performance’ is a useful skill to survive in academia. By treating PhD candidates in a way that encourages her to doubt herself, it is expected that she could develop the reflex to push back and be convincing.

‘I never read her comment on my paper before I sleep, because I know I wouldn’t be able to sleep afterwards. I would rather sleep and read it in the morning,’ said one of my PhD friends about her professor.

Peter Tamas, a professor of qualitative research methodology, mentioned the common personality traits of PhD candidates and scientists in general, in which they tend to be internally insecure and are in constant need for external validation. PhD candidates who are prone to identity crisis would look up to an image of the good PhD candidate. It is a pity that the image provided is often of a somewhat masochistic PhD.


Methodology Notes: Fieldwork and Reality Construction

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This month I am following a Master course, “Fieldwork in Conflict and Post-Conflict Setting” with Gemma van der Haar and Peter Tamas. It is very good and gives me a lot of imagination to handle the practice and methodological thinking of doing fieldwork. I would recommend to do this course especially if you already had a fieldwork in mind. In each session, we discuss the delicate and intricate dilemmas based on experiences of other researchers, which is why it open my mind in a good direction. This is perhaps the only Master class (with big credits) that I will be taking in the course of my PhD and I am happy that it is very interactive, not a one way lecture loaded with cognitive material, but it deals with our emotions etc. The point is to put the study materials into a dialogue with our own thinking and research.

Today we study about what are we able to research? We encountered the “social construction of reality” line of thought that shows us how it is perhaps not enough to study hard facts. My own interpretation of today’s class is we are able to study three “layers” of research object: the first is the action or practice, the second is what people say about those action (what they think is knowledge or knowledge claim), and the third (the constructivist approach) is the “structures that enables some societal knowledge to be possible”, it means doing a historical study or an “archaeology” of the knowledge (claim). The implication of our discussion is the question of whether or not is it important that the content of the knowledge claims is true in the sense that it objectively tells the factual reality? Or does it matter more to see what are the frames within which such claims are possible? Does it matter so much that what people say has to be the real truth, or does it matter more to see how their claim, regardless of its “objective accuracy”, implicates their action?

I am a very beginner on this, it seems like the course is persuading me to study the third layer and not taking the first layer for granted. But I am not sure if I would be able to study the third layer, it seems very difficult. So for now, for my own research I would still stick with the first layer, at least initially, you can call me a positivist, it is okay for me. I would still need to have the concrete, material, practices and action, that is something I can research. Then only I will think about the next layers. And I think also each layers are interactive and constitutive of each other. As we discussed in class, it is a process (between the three layers), one does not exclude the other. Constructivist is studying the process of how knowledge comes into being, including within ourselves. We also problematizes how “representation” of realities are often seen as different and separated from “the reality” itself. But it is not separated, it has a dynamic relation. People act based on the representation of realities. “Representation is what informs action, not the brute reality but what they think is real,” said my lecturer.

The second thing that I will be following this week is a workshop on how to write an abstract. It is going to be more informal and intimate, I guess. I will let you know how it goes. Another thing that I am doing this month until December is a reading group on Marx’s Kapital. I am happy to do it together with friends and also a lecturer, Kees Jansen. It is a biweekly reading group and this week we are reading the third chapter about money. I am not doing this because it is trendy or cool to read Marx, but because the labour theory of value is very core in my theoretical framework. But I am also simultaneously struggling to learn the methods and how to do the research in practice. How to study labour relationship? Should I train some households to keep a diary of activities like what Michael Dove did in his research? Well, I am still in the search of different options.


Life after Deadline

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‘Life in academia is a life of catching up,’ said a professor of blogger Nadya Karimasari, which is why people in academia have to get used to the feeling of being behind.

As a first year PhD candidate, I was often told ‘you still have plenty of time!’ But I am wondering: why has it never been my case?

It seems like PhD work has been intense from the very start. My schedule is comprised of deadline after deadline. I tried hard to work efficiently and meet all the deadlines, but sometimes I just couldn’t make it. Having a young child with only two days at day care that sometimes gets sick and needs extra care, and a husband who is also writing his dissertation, made me absolutely aware that I have to be protective of my time. I have to figure out ways to be smart in using my time, but sometimes I am still feeling behind of my schedule.

Other PhD candidates told me that we all have to get used to the feeling of being behind.

I am not alone in this. Other PhD candidates told me that we all have to get used to the feeling of being behind. Not only being behind on schedule, but also being behind on the current developments in our academic field.

One of my professors in the Sociology of Development and Change chair group, Rob Fletcher, said ‘life in academia is a life of catching up.’ It instantly makes me feel less alone in this. He said he always has so many things to do. Things will only get done when he makes them into a priority, which means a lot of other things could never be done. ‘I have been working on my next book for years and it’s still not done yet.’

Life in academia is a life of catching up

Another professor at the University of Amsterdam, Laurens Bakker, told me how much he loves cooking, ‘because cooking has a start and a finish, and we can eat our result at the end of it. While in academia, the work never ends. You thought you’ve finish a paper, but you have to write another paper, and then your previous paper needs revision, you need to do more research, more reading, things completely change, and your work … it’s never finished!’

At this point, I wonder how would life be after deadlines. Maybe it’s going to be beautiful, but it could also be boring.

featured photo: aesthudent


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… continually facing a problem which is very familiar to anthropologists: how to express a different system with a vocabulary which is inevitably moulded to the institutions of the society in which it is normally used. (Bloch, 1983: 34)


Seasonal Change

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Blogger Nadya Karimasari needs some tips to enjoy the breezy autumn.

Summer is officially over. For someone from the tropics like myself, to let go of the glorious summer days is easier said than done. The night comes sooner and the morning is terribly dark. I have to bring a flashlight to the bus stop, otherwise the bus driver can’t see me. This is my first lesson on how to survive autumn in Wageningen.

For most of Wageningen people, nothing is more normal than seasonal change. But as a person from a different part of the world, I can’t help thinking, why can’t the sun just rise and set at the same time throughout the year? It is hard to deny the gloomy feeling that comes with not seeing the sun as much as I used to. I tried several things like using brighter lamps and eating warm noodles, but these things don’t help that much.

I tried several things like using brighter lamps and eating warm noodles, but these things don’t help that much.

Instead of telling myself, ‘just get over it and get over it quickly’, I would like to embrace this gloomy feeling for a while, because it signifies where I am coming from and the distance that I have to go through. It brings me to a small realization on how we tend to forget how far we’ve come because we only see how far we still have to go.

As students, we are coming from different places and background, not only in spatial terms. Most of the time, the school only sees students from our ‘output’. There is a general ‘finish line’ and a universal standard that all students are expected to achieve.

But sometimes the school doesn’t see how each student goes through different distances to get to that line. For some students, reaching the line is a no-brainer because of their default proximity to it. Other students, who are coming from a very different starting point, feel every little step is a milestone.

We shouldn’t limit ourselves to view only how far the line is. We should also take some time to look back and look into ourselves, and appreciate all the process that made us this far.


Organizing PhD Research

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While attending summer school at Zurich University, Switzerland, blogger Nadya Karimasari got some inspiration on how to organise her PhD research.

Zurich gives me the impression of being very organised, orderly, and extremely detailed. It aims for the greatest accuracy of predictability. It tries to anticipate and minimise any possibilities of things going wrong. Hence, people’s daily life can run as smoothly as possible.

Public transport
This high degree of order and organisation manifests at its best in how the public transport works. The trams buses, and trains are absolutely on time. They also have a monitor inside the vehicle that shows how many minutes away you are from your connecting trams or trains. So, you could predict and anticipate how fast you should run to your next tram, or whether or not you have enough time to grab some coffee and a croissant before continuing your journey.

I wish I could be more like Zurich in terms of organising my PhD research.

I wish I could be more like Zurich in terms of organising my PhD research. Perhaps it is good to have a set of predictable working routines. It is also significant to allocate some time to relax, otherwise PhD candidates could burn out, feeling stuck, having difficulties in finding inspiration, and need longer time to recover before getting back to the groove and having those juicy flows (or hops) of thoughts again.

Small goals
Another thing that helps is to set small goals that build up to bigger goals. These can be monthly, weekly, or daily goals, depending on how detailed you want to be. By setting smaller goals, PhD candidates could lay out what tasks actually need to be done in order to create the final “product” of a good research. By making the small tasks visible, it becomes more manageable.

At the end of the day, every person has their own style that fits and works best for them. The point of making a better organisation of our research is to help us maintain our sanity while doing intense research, and avoid getting entangled in a disarray of having to do too much while having too little time. Hopefully through a better tasks organisation, we could avoid unnecessary stress and enjoy our research process – and life in general – a bit more.

featured photo: timshel


Summer Break

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What’s the thing about summer break? Blogger Nadya writes her observation.

“How was your holiday?” That’s the opening line coming from most of my colleagues these days. The new academic year is around the corner. My next holiday season will be around Christmas and New Year. No wonder people are taking long breaks before summer is over, before being caught up in the demanding, hectic rhythm of academic life.

Dutch people are notorious for being the example of good work-life balance. I don’t know if it’s true or if it is just another stereotype. Dutch people are also known for not having as much stress from work as compared to people from other countries in the world. According to recent estimates, Dutch people in average work 29 hours a week, get around 8.2 hours of sleep every night, and guaranteed a paid vacation.

Holidays are something to be proud of.

Based on my limited observation, for Dutch people, holidays are something to be proud of. Because I am used to how Dutch people perceive summer breaks, I felt surprised when I noticed my office mates from other countries tried to avoid sharing their summer vacation stories. When one of my professors asked about our holidays, the room was suddenly quiet. Everyone started looking at their shoes. I was wondering why. If they were Dutch, they would’ve showed off their amazing holidays right away. They went to Basel, Munich, England, Czech Republic, and Croatia to name a few. Their holiday were really quite something, but instead of being proud, they felt guilty.

When one of my professors asked about our holidays, the room was suddenly quiet.

“I haven’t been working on my research proposal for a long time, that’s why I feel guilty about my holiday,” one of my colleague confessed. “I really don’t get what’s all the fuss about summer break. Apparently, here, summer is such a thing. My friend who went on vacation to the beach abroad was being laughed off by his friends because he didn’t come back with a tan,” added another. “In my country, people just went to see their family and help with errands during holidays, so it’s not a big deal like it is here,” one of them concluded.

I believe such guilt is unnecessary. There’s nothing wrong about enjoying holidays. We should feel normal about enjoying our precious summer breaks. I just wish the vacation continued a little longer.

PS: Summer break for us:

Food glorious food at Ben White’s summer home:


Cherry picking: