Crash course in navigating your PhD or postdoc

The Crash course in navigating your PhD or PostDoc was held at Jægtvolden Fjordhotell on the 24th and 25th of September. It was funded as a collaboration between The Digital Life Norway research school and the Norwegian Research School in Neuroscience. 29 PhDs and postdocs attended and contributed to interesting discussions and a great atmosphere over the two days

PhD studentws

This course was initiated by Liv Egnell and me after having experienced some work environment-related challenges during our first ventures into academia. Seen in hind sight we both had a list of things we could and should have done differently – and we thought that it would have been very helpful if someone had told us about these strategies before we actually needed them – then maybe we could have avoided the worst of it? And so, after some chitchat over coffee, we figured that this “someone” could just as well be the two of us. There and then we contacted the coordinator of the Digital Life Norway Research school to ask for help to do this. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I opened the course with a short introduction to the lessons I have learned after one PhD and a PostDoc contract. I decided to rewrite the Norwegian Mountan Code (Fjellvettreglene) to a list I call PhD-vettreglene that can be a useful guide to survive a PhD: 

The PhD-vettreglene: 

  1. Plan your experiments and tell your supervisor about the route you have selected.
  2. Adapt the planned research according to ability and conditions.
  3. Pay attention to your gut feeling and the early warnings.
  4. Be prepared for failure, even on simple experiments.
  5. Listen to experienced scientists.
  6. Choose safe-ish routes. Recognize possible pitfalls.
  7. Use your colleagues and always know where you are.
  8. Don't be ashamed to turn around.
  9. Conserve your energy and seek shelter and/or fun more often than you think is necessary.

After this it was time to open the floor to our first speaker: Jon Wikende Iddeng. Jon joined our meeting as a representative of Forskerforbundet, one of the worker unions that is a relevant option for researchers, including PhDs and PostDocs. He informed us about the supportive role the union can play for you as an employee, the courses they offer, and the general role unions play in the Norwegian work life. We learned that you can contact your local union representative if you have questions regarding labor rights, intellectual property rights or health and safety issues in the workplace. We learned that your supervisor is not your employer (the university is) and that if the need occurs, the university should help you find a new supervisor. We also learned that it is possible to negotiate your salary, also as a Phd student or a postdoc.  He underscored that the university as your employer must provide a good working environment for you, and that also includes the psychosocial work environment. If you encounter problems, every department should have a safety representative (verneombud) that you can contact. Your local union can also provide support in such a situation. After Jon’s informative talk, we all enjoyed a very nice lunch.

The afternoon was spent with Tore Stiles, a psychologist and professor at NTNU. He gave us some thoughts about how he experienced being a PhD student before now being a PhD supervisor. He also gave us some general advice on smart things to do as a PhD-student:

  • Starting writing early, write even when it doesn't feel necessary.
  • Make sure you get good feedback on your writing.
  • Keep reading so you have a good overview of your field.
  • Take time off - a tired brain is not an effective brain!
  • Sharing your worries = sharing the responsibility.

Tore then lead us in group discussions where he asked us to discuss and reflect upon how we want and don’t want our supervisor to relate to us. And on how we want our coworkers to treat us and what factors are important for us to succeed. The answers to these questions are of course very individual since we all have our different needs and preferences, but some common points were made: 

  • There should always be room for disagreement and discussions.
  • We want a supportive, safe and friendly atmosphere.
  • Supervision should be easily accessible.
  • Low bar for asking for help.
  • A community in the work environment.

No matter what is important for you, and what you would define as s good working relationship with a supervisor and your other colleagues, we learned that it is important to reflect over these questions to better know ourselves and what we need. If the situation arises where you’re no longer happy at work, having reflected over what you think you need might make it easier to pinpoint whatever it is that is lacking and making you unhappy. After Tore wrapped up his session we gathered for some drinks before social activities with paper planes and quizzes before a very nice three course dinner was served.

Friday was a day with communication in focus. We started with Katrine Kavli Smith. She has a master’s degree in organizational psychology and is a certified coach.  She showed us some tools we can use to set goals and plan projects in a way that makes them achievable. With that as a backdrop we talked about how to set expectations for ourselves and what expectations we have for the people we work with. We also discussed how to communicate those expectations, since communicating them can help you commit to a project, reduce worries and stress and prevent conflicts and misunderstandings.

The final speaker of the course was Petter Bakken. He has a background in sales and coaching and knows a lot about how to best communicate to get your point across. After a short introduction he led us in a group exercise where we were divided into groups based on character traits (“leaders”, “planners” and “empathizers”). We then discussed what the different traits brings to a team, and why they are all important, but also the areas where conflicts might arise and how to communicate most effectively between the different groups. This was an eye-opening exercise that gave us some very useful tips on how to get a team to work better together. After this Petter gave us an introduction to means of suppression (Hersketeknikker in Norwegian) and a few tips on how to most effectively answer or react when we are faced with them.

The crash course was concluded with a short summary session, and hopefully, everyone went home with some new tools on how to navigate their academic life in their toolbox.


Nina Bjørk Arnfinnsdottir
Published Nov. 8, 2020 3:54 PM - Last modified Nov. 14, 2020 9:27 AM