My personal tips on how to write a summa cum laude phd

My husband took that picture to test his iphone‘s camera. Let‘s imagine it‘s me contemplating on the 4.5 years of my PhD although in fact, I wasn‘t 🙂 

Just recently I finished my PhD in economics and – despite all self-doubts (I am female and was the first in my family to study and as a mother of three I wasn’t able to work on the dissertation 24/7) – I was granted summa cum laude… the best of all possible grades. Afterwards when we went on our family holiday trip, I could calm down my roused self. There I started contemplating of how my experience might be of use for others.

Now don‘t get me wrong. Telling you about my summa cum laude is not meant as fishing for compliments. Instead, I was truly surprised of how something that I had created was liked so much by my supervisors and reviewers. This surprise is based on the fact, that in a PhD you don’t get grades until the final day.  So I hadn’t known how they would like my style, my scientific writing and my way of discussing the results that I had obtained. Of course, there have been feedback loops on chapters and papers, but they have never been marked with a grade.

I know that many doctoral students struggle with this: not knowing how one’s own work is going to be judged because there are no mid-term examinations with grades. So sometimes, the doctoral students are suprised by their final grade – in both directions, good and bad. The internet is full of stories in which PhD students complain about how they have been judged unfairly. Here, the expectations of the supervisors and those expectations that the doctoral candidate had assumed these supervisors would have, must have differed from eachother big time. Anyhow, I was determined!!! enough to do research on what is expected (consciously and unconsciously) from a dissertation thesis and in the end I was lucky enough to live up to the expectations that I had assumed the reviewers would have.

If you are in the same situation – maybe you are in your early phase of the PhD – I have put together my top hints that I figured made the difference from a good doctoral thesis to an outstanding one.

1. Read and read and read – and read!

Read scientific literature, and by scientific literature I do not refer to „googleing search terms and reading the first page of hits. I mean scientific papers in scientific journals, that have undergone blind peer-review. I mean scientific Journals that are indexed in scientific databases. Now, each discipline has its own databases – in Psychology we search psycinfo, psycarticles and such. In economics, we search econbiz, Business source premier and such. And there are many more, but one thing is important: search systematically, keep track of your search method, and read what other authors have written, how they have written, how they present their data, their research questions and so on.

 

2. Focus, focus, focus on one very precise question!

I have worked with many Phd students and I have seen some of them struggle with focusing on a particular aspect that they wanted to investigate. I have been there, too. You know, in the early phase (and early phase means the time span, before you have all your results and putting it on paper!!) you know, you will write a book containing some 150 up to 200 pages and you think: how am I going to fill these? Looking back, I am most grateful for my second reviewer telling me in a very straight manner: your question is too broad, you will never answer that in 4 years. So, after recovering from that little failure, I took up a question that many people had tried to answer before, but I found my research gap very soon. So will you.

 

3. Don’t be afraid to discover that someone has done exactly what you have planned on doing.

Because the day will come when you will find that someone has had an idea similar to yours. In fact, the sooner you find your mysterious „twin in thought“, the better. Look her/him up, get in touch, rely on her/his work and see (particular in the discussion and conclusion sections) what is left under investigated and calls for you answering it.

 

4. Get a life!

A PhD is not a sprint…. it’s a marathon in which you gros. It takes 3, 4, 5 years and longer! And not because the people who have done it before were lazy, but because it is a huge amount of work and thinking.

Just to give you an example for illustration: I had to investigate 400 scientific primary studies to answer one of my many micro-questions: which idea generation techniques are better suited to raise the quality of ideas in idea generation phase of innovation? 400! That is work for half a year!
So again, don’t sprint, don’t rush, but work constantly (not more than 8 hours a day, 5 days a week) and have a life other than your PhD. Put one foot in front of the other.
For me it was my husband, my three children, my Handball sports, my friends, my passion for sketchnotes and visualization, my love for reading books other than scientific literature and so on…that kept me from overdoing it.
You know, there were times – and still are – in which I wanted to keep working, felt the urge to finish a paragraph or a session on SPSS, to finish reading an article, but simply couldn’t because my kids were screaming, smashing things, hitting each other, or in which my watch would tell me: you got to go, Kindergarden closes soon, or my husband would look at me with this look of reproach… a little angry, a little pitiful… as if my work wouldn’t matter.
And you know what? It does not matter so much as to risk losing your health, your husband, your love, your life and such.

And by the way, as I am typing these words, there comes another „didn’t we want to go on a swim today??“ So again, your work is important, but love, a life, social relationships are worth much more.

That is why I come to an aprubt end and start packing our swimming clothes. See ya!

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