As director of a PhD programme with part-time professional participants who actively choose to study, I often hear myself saying that I have the best students. A programme with adults who re-enter education for the sake of learning and joy brings a student population that is mature, diverse, enthusiastic and needs no hand-holding.
Recently, however, I realised that I not only have the best students – I also have the best alumni! Of course I’ve known that for a while already, as each year some of them are willing to travel for hours to speak with or train our new PhD fellows. Those events are always insightful and for me meetings with the alumni are precious moments. Reconnecting over lunch, I realise that I miss them and luckily they also miss Maastricht as well. They love to come back. All it takes them is one lunch to feel comfortable and relaxed, and talking about our shared memories is a great pleasure.
Of course this year, also my whole programme moved online, as did these great alumni information sessions. But with this session, the online environment actually offered options. Online participation allows me to involve more alumni, from all over the world, than I would normally do. On 12 November 2020, we had a small reunion with 10 of our alumni convening online to meet our new students. We set up breakout group discussions, added some reflection questions, and the result was a fantastic session – with quite some interesting thoughts shared as well.
On the question of how to approach the completion of the proposal stage – the first hurdle for first year fellows – many great suggestions came up. From clear research development related points such as narrowing down the topic, talking to the reviewers and actually doing something with the feedback beyond simply collecting it to the bigger life lessons. As Andrea Milan (alumnus cohort 2013, Berlin) said: “The PhD is like a marathon, you need to perform for a longer period of time, so balance your energy”. Camilo Carrillo (alumnus cohort 2013, Peru) added: “The PhD does not write itself, it takes planning and continuous attention”.
Of course, having the degree safely in their hands allows for openness as well, as our alumni have nothing to lose. When talking about supervisory teams and supervisory relations, they were honest enough to share their realities, and things they would do differently if they were to restart now. Richard Martina (cohort 2011, Amsterdam) said: “Due to my own bad or absent communication, my first supervisor lost interest in my research. It took quite some effort to set up a new team”. And Shellie Solomon (cohort 2014, Miami USA) added that she learnt that “you should not only talk to your supervisors individually, but also make sure that your supervisors talk to and agree with each other on the plans and activities ahead. In my team, the ideas of the separate supervisors did not always align”. Yet, Ibrahim Conteh (cohort 2010, Nigeria) smiled when he shared that when you invest in the PhD, you supervisors will notice as well and will be willing to invest more themselves.
And then, when discussing the most important question of all, how to actually combine the PhD with a job and a family, the experience of our alumni, our success stories, converged. There was agreement, confirmed by almost everyone, that a connection to the research every day and making consistent progress every day is key to eventual success. Michal Kazimierczak (cohort 2014, Spain) added that investing vacation days to write a PhD was quite normal. Writing the PhD in a part-time fashion means having a strict management of your time. You need to do a reality check, to assess the feasibility of the PhD in your life. And, as Silvia Gomez Soler (cohort 2013, Colombia) said: “It certainly will include sacrificing things”.
At the end of the session, I really appreciated that we were able to create such awareness and support for our new PhD fellows with the help of our alumni. Manos Sfakianakis (cohort 2007, Belgium) summed it up in a very nice way: “This session was nice. I do feel like a dinosaur though. Being among the first cohort, there were no alumni and we were all learning how to do this. And now we see a programme that has grown into an established PhD programme.” Finally, as Laisa Daza Obanda (cohort 2020, Peru) said: “Now reality sets in”. This is true, and for cohort 2020 there is a lot of work ahead of them. But we are not only ready, we are actually looking to forward taking the journey with them.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H. Pijpers