Doing a doctorate is a long, often solitary, and complex quest. While the process is usually gratifying and interesting, sometimes it is also stressful. The ultimate goal of doctorate students is to become independent researchers, capable of conducting rigorous investigations that contribute to the understanding of pertinent social or natural phenomena.
During this time, I faced many of the common difficulties that a PhD student can encounter: anxiety about the future, financial inflexibility, and even health issues. I wrote these lines to share with current and potential PhD students my thoughts about the pitfalls one has to face to get to the other side.
DPhil students have to surpass all sorts of challenges along the way. Some of the difficulties are directly related to their research, such as dealing with endogeneity and spuriousness while testing the association of two variables, or making sense out of piles of qualitative evidence (interviews, archives, direct observation etc.). Overcoming these challenges requires building research skills, diligence, patience and good guidance from supervisors. Strengthening those basic abilities are the core objective of a doctorate and represent real tests that students must surpass.
However, there are other challenges that may appear in the path that are not directly related with research and that may be even more difficult to deal with. Carrying out a long-term project that requires being skeptical about evidence and avoiding to take things for granted may end up generating anxiety and insecurity at a personal level.
For example, a well-known problem that many doctoral students face in their journey, and many people who undertake new projects in competitive environments, is the so-called “imposter syndrome” which make competent and capable people feel that they are actually a fraud and that can generate feelings and conducts that inhibit progress in work.
During the DPhil/ PhD path one may end up believing there are problems (“I am not good enough”) that are actually just the product of one’s imagination. These non-existent challenges (other than in one’s mind) can actually become real problems when they are not dealt with properly and can end up in self-sabotage.
How to avoid these illusory traps? Enter Don Quixote. In the novel written by Miguel de Cervantes, the character of Don Quixote is described as a man who dreams of being a knight that brings justice to the world, while entering into all sorts of deceptive adventures. Don Quixote often attributed his problems to external factors, such as wizards and demons, rather than facing reality. A lesser-known character in the novel is Sansón Carrasco, a bachelor from Salamanca University who tries to bring Don Quixote to his senses and eventually achieves it by the end of the novel in a forceful way.
In the remaining paragraphs, I will try to imitate bachelor Carrasco and provide five pieces of advice to help others unmask Don Quixote as I did with my own Don Quixote condition.
1. Maintain realistic expectations.
Don Quixote started his journeys with unrealistic expectations. He dreamed of castles, princesses and great feats. Sometimes students begin their work with high expectations about their thesis, dreaming of Nobel Prizes and titanic contributions to the existing literature. Carrasco’s advice: The doctorate work requires meeting certain quality standards, but it will probably not be the best piece of written work that you will ever complete. After all, a student is an apprentice, not an expert in research. Hence, it is sensible to establish from the start more grounded expectations about the DPhil outcome.
2. Identify the real priorities and focus on them.
Don Quixote confused modest inns with castles, windmills with giants and puppets with foreign armies. Carrasco’s advice: During the DPhil/ PhD road it will be important to identify which problems are real, which are the priorities in each stage, and to avoid confusing the normal travails and difficulties of a doctorate with dead-end streets. Focusing in real problems linked with the research and avoiding illusory problems will help to advance the work.
3. Plan ahead and get the skills and tools that you need.
Don Quixote sometimes attempted to accomplish athletic achievements. However, he never achieved them because he was simply ill-suit or under-equipped to undertake them. He did not train to be stronger or faster and instead had a sense of entitlement that prevented him from preparing properly. Carrasco’s advice: There are myriad opportunities to get the required training, it is just a matter of taking advantage of them. Your department will certainly offer pertinent courses for learning about research methods or tools, but it is sensible to look beyond. It may be worth to check other departments or even visit another university during the summer to acquire very specialized knowledge. Moreover, there are good quality online courses and some of them are free.
4. Make sure you are in good company.
Don Quixote was accompanied by an unintelligent and self-interested person, his squire Sancho Panza. Sancho greedily plays along waiting for his reward. Carrasco’s advice: Make sure that you have good travel partners for the doctorate expedition. Aside from your supervisors, there are other sources of sensible advice that will come in handy. Your colleagues in the DPhil room will face very similar encounters and may share with you their own experiences. Just knowing that your peers have to deal with the same problems may help you understand and normalize your tribulations. In my case, for example, I found that having friends who were not part of the academy helped me to stand my ground and understand life events in their proper proportion.
5. Breaking the silence to expose self-created challenges.
Once Don Quixote came across real lions and he demanded their handler to unlock the cages so he could prove how courageous he was. No one was asking him to prove any point nor to look brave, he dragged himself into trouble. Carrasco’s advice: Challenges created by oneself are common among DPhil students. An example of such situation is the “imposter syndrome”. How to unveil it? There are multiple strategies to interrupt patterns of this syndrome. I will underscore one of them that was particularly helpful for me: talk with others about your feelings. Do not let that these beliefs stay within and, if in need, seek support.
I started writing this post a year before I submitted my thesis. It was a means for becoming aware of the type of difficulties I was facing. It was also a way of dealing with my insecurities and using them constructively. I do not think that the doctoral experience is a bed of roses. But, if the DPhil/ PhD road is hard in itself, one should not make it harder.
One of the lessons that I learned from my DPhil is that one should try to recognise and avoid illusory pitfalls and focus on the real challenges that appear on the way. In my case, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel was possible thanks to the support of many people, including my supervisors, colleagues, administrative staff, friends and my wife. To all of them, thank you for helping me unmask Don Quixote!
Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD : how to plan, draft, write, and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
González-García, J., León-Mejía, A., & Peñalba-Sotorrío, M. (2019). Cómo preparar y aprovechar el doctorado. Madrid: Editorial Síntesis
Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. S. (2000). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (Third edition). Buckingham: Open University Press.
Azuma, R. (2019). So long and thanks por the PhD!
Note: This article was originally published in English on the Oxford University School of Government blog on October 10, 2018 and in Spanish on the GPP Forum blog on August 3, 2019. My thanks to Sarah M. Muñoz Cadena for their assistance in translating the English text into Spanish.
In 2015 I did three months of field work in Colombia for my doctoral thesis in public policy. During these three months’ time, I carried out 72 semi-structured interviews with a range of actors related to natural resource governance in the country. The list included public officials, politicians, journalists, academics, members of extractive companies and NGOs. The objectives of my work were threefold: 1) map the actors that influence decision-making processes regarding investment of natural resource rents by local governments, 2) identify the formal and informal rules that operate in these processes, and 3) explore the drivers of public investment decisions.
This was the first time I conducted this type of work at a DPhil level and I wanted to make the most of my time in the field. Different courses at Oxford and a few texts guided my preparatory work. However, after being on the ground I must confess that it was the student testimonials of DPhil colleagues at the University that helped me the most. This is why I decided to share my fieldwork “takeaways” with you.
Below you will find ten thoughts on the process of preparing, carrying-out and processing elite interviews. One important caveat: this is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. The topic and research questions, the type of interviewees and the context where the fieldwork is carried out will affect how you prepare and implement your research. Moreover, although these issues are pertinent to most social sciences researchers, perhaps my contribution will be particularly relevant if you are researching policy-related issues.
Preparing for fieldwork
- Ethical implications. Ethics clearance is not only a bureaucratic process and you should take it seriously. When researching public policy, you may want to ask your interviewee about topics that involve sensitive political issues and you may even get answers about criminal activities (from third parties or even self-incrimination!). Hence, you really have to think about the ethical implications of your research. For example, how to ensure confidentially and anonymity? What’s your strategy to obtain consent? Your research design should put the interviewees’ welfare and security as a top priority.
- Networking and access. Before requesting interviews to prospective interviewees, it may be helpful to get acquainted with them. Frequently, if you contact the interviewee through another person that introduces him or her to you the interview will flow more smoothly. A colleague who researches human trafficking policy told me that he spent more time building connections before formally contacting people for interviews improved access, particularly when dealing with public officials and politicians.
- Draft, draft, draft. Draft model emails you will use, for example, to request interviews or simply to introduce yourself or your research. Believe me, this will save you time.
- Patience. Arrive a bit earlier to your interview. Sometimes you will be able to speak with the person before the agreed time and you may win valuable time. Bring a book in case, public officials and politicians tend to postpone or delay meetings. Waiting hours in public transport or for an interviewee to show up is not infrequent. Having something to do meanwhile helps to cope with these situations.
- Icebreaking and warm-up. Try to start with a topic that makes the person comfortable even if the query is not related to the research. Also, it is helpful to begin by asking the interviewee who they are and what they do. Even if you already know their background, politicians and senior public officials like to talk about themselves… so it is a good warm-up!
- Some key queries. Regardless of your topic, I found some silver-bullet questions that I suggest you bear in mind. For example: When the interviewee makes a key statement, but it is not clear why he or she knows it, ask why! Do not forget asking an essential ethics issue: May I cite you and how? Finish the interview by asking about other people to contact or about any other thing they would like to add. In some interviews, this last query was key to get information that otherwise I would not have obtained.
- Processing as go. Whether you are transcribing the interviews or just taking notes on the most important points, it is sensible to start processing the data from day one. If you are not audio recording, write down right away your notes on the interviews, don’t let too much time pass. If you delay the transcription you are likely to find the accumulation of work very burdensome and maybe you will forget things that you were not able to annotate during the interview.
- It is not just about interviewing. Do not underestimate administrative work required to conduct interviews! Researching the background of your interviewees, organizing your day-to-day agenda, contacting people… even getting around the city or between meetings may take hours every day.
Back from the field
- Decanting your experience. Talk to other colleagues about your experience, this will help you reflect on what you can do better next time (as I am doing right now!). It is reassuring to know that others had to struggle with similar issues and to learn how others cope with the challenges of fieldwork.
- Brushing and rinsing. Making sense of the data is probably the biggest challenge I have encountered so far. Sometimes I am in the stage where I am processing my data to distinguish between information, perceptions and patterns that are pertinent for my research from those that have other type of pertinence. For example, some anecdotes from my fieldwork may be great icebreakers for pub-talk and even for academic presentations, but they are not central to my research.
To finish, I have three extra messages that are a bit more personal, but I think may be particularly interesting for those of you who are going to jump for the first time into the fieldwork experience. First, getting to know so many new people in a short span of time is a great experience. Embrace that idea and enjoy meeting new people! Second, humility, not false modesty, should guide your mission of learning from your interviewees. Third, sometimes we forget the obvious: in an interview, listening is essential. Only as you give your full attention to listening to what they are saying can you gather more information. Not in vain nature provides us with two ears and a single mouth.
SUGGESTED LITERATURE ON CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS:
Alvarez-Gayou, J. (2003). Cómo hacer investigación cualitativa: Fundamentos y Metodología. México: Paidós.
Hernández Sampieri, R., Fernández Collado, C., & Baptista Lucio, P. (2010). Metodología de la investigación (5a. ed.). México: McGraw-Hill.
Guber, R. (2001). La etnografía: Método, campo y reflexividad (Enciclopedia latinoamericana de sociocultura y comunicación, 11). Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma.
Leech, B. L. (2002). Asking Questions: Techniques for Semistructured Interviews. PS: Political Science and Politics, 35(4), 665–668.
Mosley, L. (2013). Interview research in political science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Rathbun, B. C. (2008). Interviewing and Qualitative Field Methods: Pragmatism and Practicalities. En J. M. Box-Steffensmeier, H. E. Brady, & D. Collier (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology.
Strauss, A., Corbin, J., & Zimmerman, E. (2002). Bases de la investigación cualitativa: Técnicas y procedimientos para desarrollar la teoría fundamentada (Contus). Medellín (Colombia): Universidad de Antioquia.
Note: A previous version of this article was published in English in November 2015 on the blog of the U. Oxford School of Government and later it was published in Spanish, July 2019, on the GPP Forum blog. I thank Sarah M. Muñoz Cadena for assisting me in translating the text from English to Spanish.
“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day”, wrote Haruki Murakami in his 2007 best seller What I talk about when I talk about running. I cannot be as assertive as the famous contemporary Japanese writer but running has significantly influenced my life and during my doctorate at Oxford University. For me, running on a regular basis is not just a matter of physical and mental wellbeing; running is also a constant source of ideas, such as writing this piece.
I started a DPhil (PhD) program in public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government in fall 2014, and since then I have enjoyed all the possible and beautiful routes that Oxford city offers for runners. Moreover, I have run races in different cities of the UK and successfully finished my first marathon in Manchester.
Training for the marathon helped me deal with the winter, very hard for me due to the lack of light rather than the cold. Running also gave me a better perspective of what doing a doctoral research means.
I will give you eight reasons why the analogy between training for a marathon (or running regularly, in general) and doing a doctorate may render interesting insights about the nature of these activities.
- Endurance and rhythm. Long-term projects are not about small sprints, but about constant and patient effort. Training does not render its benefits when you run 21k one day and then procrastinate the rest of the week. Similarly, a doctorate requires coping with a rhythm where you repeat similar processes over and over. Basically, you require a persistent pace of reading, drafting, re-drafting and discussing your research with colleagues on a daily basis.
- Self-discipline and independence. Having an experienced coach in sports or knowledgeable supervisors in a doctorate is key for staying on track. But progress depends entirely on your determination. Setting your own schedule and planning ahead are important to stay focused on the final goal. For example, setting a daily routine for writing your ideas, even if it is just for half an hour, is a very fruitful exercise that depends entirely on you.
- Staying focused. Concentration is a key trait of good runners. Similarly, a doctorate requires you to stay focused on your ultimate output: finishing your thesis. This does not mean that you should disregard other academic, social and cultural opportunities. Such attitude would be counterproductive. Besides, having time to do things different from your research project is one of the DPhil’s charms. However, don’t lose sight of the bottom line: progress in your research demands concentration and prioritization. Ultimately, the key is to strike a good balance between doctoral work and life outside of academia.
- Training and best practices. Talent may determine the result of any endeavor, but training will definitely take you beyond. There are different training methods for a marathon or for a doctorate, but only following your instincts is not a good idea. Millions of people have undertaken your same route before you, and there is much to learn from them. Reading “how to” texts, especially evidence-based guidance, is key for an amateur runner and researcher. In case you are considering doing a doctorate you can find resources, but I promptly recommend one that was key to writing my thesis: “Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation” by Patrick Dunleavy.
- Making mistakes and adjusting is part of the journey. Decisions on which paths to take are ultimately your own responsibility. Hence, novice marathoners and doctorate students may take “wrong turns”. It is normal, it is part of learning. Researching is an iterative process, where initial plans may change as you learn more about your subject or as you analyze the data you collect. Thus, being able to redirect your trajectory is a crucial skill in this process.
- Setting clear and achievable goals. When you plan to train for a marathon you start by defining a desired finishing time. Similarly, one of the first milestones of a DPhil student consists on framing a pertinent research question and designing an adequate research strategy. Sports coaches and DPhil supervisors are very strict on controlling the clarity and feasibility of your plans. Otherwise, the goals may not be achieved at all. Hence, it is important to know your limitations and set clear and achievable objectives.
- Peer and family support. Training for a marathon and doing a DPhil has ups and downs. As much as I like running, reading and writing, the process is not a bed of roses. Since these long-term projects entail physical and mental challenges, it is necessary to have support from your peers, friends and family. I cannot understate the importance of the milieu where you study and of the role of friends and family in keeping you afloat. Engaging with peers in a regular basis may inspire new avenues of research and the love from your family will keep your spirits high when in need.
- Marathons and doctorates are not for everyone. As much as I like doctoral life and running, I don’t think everyone should feel the same. Not everyone enjoys hours of pounding with your feet or sitting days and days reading and writing on the same subject. Even for experienced athletes and researchers, the routine may be hard. Hence, if you intend to do a DPhil or run a marathon, be sure that you feel passionate about it.
I enjoyed the process of becoming an independent researcher at Oxford as much as running in the city’s cobbled streets, parks, meadows and river paths. There is a symbiosis between these activities: running takes me out of my desk, helps me ponder arguments and ideas, relaxes me, releases valuable endorphins, and then when I come back, I am ready to sit in my desk and confront the blank screen… This reminds me that I should go back to my process of reading, writing and re-writing and wish you the best if you think a marathon or a doctorate is your next goal.
Note: A previous version of this article was published in English in May 2015 on the blog of the U. Oxford School of Government and Spanish in September 2019 on the GPP Forum blog. I am grateful to Sarah M. Muñoz Cadena for her assistance in translating the English text into Spanish.