Horizons Magazine Debate: Is writing a doctorate a normal job?

They’re pursuing their passions, and can delve deeply into their chosen topic. Should doctoral students be able to regard their research as a regular job?

Volker Thiel (left) and his former PhD student Philip V’kovski (right). Pictures: Valérie Chételat Published in The Horizons Magazine

Yes, says doctoral supervisor Volker Thiel.

If you expect more of a doctoral student than you would of someone in a regular job, that would imply that a doctorate is an 'irregular' job. And this in turn would mean that other jobs don't need you to work so hard. And that's not the case. Many careers with high-flying goals demand a similar commitment. In each case, the legal fundamentals ought to apply - in other words, labour law.

What is unusual about writing a doctoral thesis is that it is generally the first time that the people in question have had a regular post. They are highly motivated and want to meet their own personal expectations. They want to be innovative, and to work independently in a success-oriented manner. There is another difference from a 'normal' job, which is in the nature of research itself. Writing a doctoral thesis means breaking new ground, which in turn means that there is no clear guide as to how to reach your goal - unlike in a regulated profession. When experiments fail, this can quickly lead to frustration, and doctoral students often try to compensate for this by working more and harder.

What's more, they are in direct competition with other doctoral students - nationally and internationally - who have set out with the same career goals and will later be their competitors when they apply for the few jobs available in academic research or in industry. This mixture of high motivation, anxieties about the future, and the pressure of their own expectations, often leads doctoral students both to believe that they have to work harder, and to their actually putting in this extra work.

As a doctoral supervisor, it is thus important to take away some of the heat, just to protect your doctoral students from themselves. Because they do exceptional work. They don't just ensure that our research is competitive and of a high standard in international terms: they are also our future, because they are the next generation of researchers.

"Your journey into the world of research shouldn't end with your doctorate".

Getting your PhD is often achieved more quickly and easily than the students assume. When I think back to my time as a doctoral student, I often felt I was making too little progress and that I had to compensate for this with more work. It was actually more important to find the right balance in life, and that took longer than I wanted. But then I realised with some astonishment that I wasn't any less productive or less successful when I left enough space for my private life. It is often more important to teach your students this, than it is to communicate any specialist knowledge to them. After all, your journey into the world of research shouldn't end with your doctorate.

Volker Thiel was the doctoral supervisor of Philip V'kovski. Since 2014 he has been head of virology at the Institute of Virology and Immunology and a professor at the University of Bern. He took his doctorate at the University of Würzburg in Germany.

No says the former doctoral student Philip V'kovski

To be involved in research as a doctoral student, and to be able to make your passion your career, is an extraordinary privilege. But it also demands extraordinary sacrifices.

Young researchers are subjected to strong competition. Their goal is a permanent position at a university, they endeavour to publish their research results in renowned journals, and they struggle to get research funding for their projects. There is no way that doctoral students can avoid being competitive.

The very first research steps undertaken by doctoral students can point them along their future career path, which means they are under pressure to succeed. They have to be able to present good, interesting results quickly. They inevitably compare these with the results of other research groups that are active in the same field. So repeatedly putting yourself under pressure is part and parcel of what you do.

Writing a doctoral thesis is not a normal job. Failure, for example, is an everyday occurrence. You need strong nerves for that. So on your way to a PhD, you constantly have to manoeuvre yourself out of your comfort zone and solve multi-disciplinary problems on your own, autodidactically. And you have to put in innumerable hours of overtime in order to compensate for the time lost to unsuccessful experiments. That's more or less part of the job description.

Ultimately, doing a doctorate is part of your university education. The demands made on doctoral students don't just encompass theoretical, practical, specialist knowledge in the topic you've chosen for your thesis. You also have to participate in a whole series of university exams, scientific workshops and conferences.

"The very first research steps undertaken by doctoral students can point them along their future career path, which means they are under pressure to succeed".

So doctoral students work in a profession that makes greater demands than others, because you are part of two opposing worlds: you already have one foot in the competitive world of work, but the other is still in the student world. You have to find your place as an independent researcher in this unusual environment; you have to lay the foundations of your academic career; and you have to create your own opportunities and build up useful contacts for later. Is it nevertheless worth all this effort? Yes, it really is!

Philip V'kovski studied for his doctorate from 2014 to 2018 in Volker Thiel's group at the Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of Bern, where he today does postdoc research. Before that, he studied biology and biomedicine at the universities of Lausanne and Utrecht (NL).

The Thiel lab is an associate member of the NCCR RNA & Disease and recipient of one of the PhD fellowships for associate member labs.

Link to debate article in Horizons in English.

Link to debate article in Horizons in French.

Link to debate article in Horizons in German.

Images and text published in Horizons - The Swiss Research Magazine under the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

Changes: Sentence mentioning NCCR RNA & Disease associate membership added.