Graduated – A glorious future behind?
By Antti Saastamoinen
Roughly a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog text here in Aallonhuiput blog about the life after graduation (see http://aallonhuiput.ayy.fi/the-end-is-near-what-next/). More specifically the date when the text was published was November 17th, 2013. In that text I predicted that about within a year, I would graduate. And I must say that I could have not been more on the point, since on 21st of November, 2014, it actually happened! I had the honour (and horror) of defending my thesis on 26th of September last year and due the usual bureaucratic quirks that graduation involves, I was given my degree roughly two months later.
When my friend and the grand old man of Aallonhuiput, Sampsa Laakso heard that I am soon to be graduating, he suggested that I should again write a blog text about graduation. Well, I kind of did that the last time already, but more from the perspective of what might happen in future after the graduation. Given that back then graduation was still a year away and that now it is reality, it is sort of funny that this time I decided to write a little bit about the past. But I guess graduation is one of those things that just makes you a bit nostalgic.
Of course with a hindsight it is now easy to say what was right and what was wrong with the last five years or so.  When you are there in the gutter with your thesis, it is hard to evaluate the PhD process itself. You’re just too busy to just climb back to life from the ditch. But if graduating and the hindsight it brings upon me gives me any right to make few comments about my journey and the PhD process in general, then I shall use that right now. I shall raise two issues which I feel needed some further though now that I supposedly am less bound by the process of PhD itself and can view these issues more from the outside.
First, I would consider closely what exactly is the role of course work in PhD? Don’t get me wrong, I do support including course work into PhD if it is correctly aligned with the interests of the candidate and the topic of the thesis. But in all fairness, I think that for many candidates course work is still more or less a burden that they would not mind avoiding. Especially if the purpose of it in terms of the thesis seems somewhat vague. Just as a personal example, I happened to do one rather relevant course related to my research topics on 2013, on a year, when my thesis was already mostly done. So definitely the course was a bit too late for the thesis. This was because the course had been offered very rarely over the years. But the point here is that a successful thesis can be done also without excessive course work. You can and will learn the necessary skills also by doing the research itself. Of course, it is much dependent from the supervision you get that how well you can acquire the needed skills. However, I am quite positive about the future. The founding idea of Aalto to bring together students of different fields is truly worth pursuing. For example, if you can’t find a course suitable from your own campus, you can try to see if something more appropriate is available in other campuses. I believe that from the wider selection of courses all doctoral candidates can find a better course portfolio for themselves. Hopefully the structure of the program will allow them to make those choices more freely. Another factor that can might contribute to more structured course work planning in PhD studies is if the proposed supervision agreement is adopted widely to use. Besides HOPS, such a document can clarify the overall direction of thesis and the responsibilities and rights of both the candidate and the supervisor.
Second, as I said, the candidates there in the ditch are not probably very much concerned about the big picture and the broader meaning of their PhD. The inevitable moments of despair during the process makes you just want to survive to the next deadline with not much thought put into the purpose of your existence. In such moments you may not find much purpose from your thesis. But it is exactly in those moments when the purpose comes from the people. If anything besides the acquired competence, it is the people that I see as the main intake from your PhD. Not just networks for future career, but friends always ready for a pint. Thus although thesis itself might be many times lonely and desperate work, don’t worry, there’s always equally lonely and desperate candidates out there who would not mind having that pint. Anyhow, PhD students is a very specific community within the university. Not quite students anymore, not quite proper faculty yet. Although this might make you feel a bit outsider (I felt so at the times) it is also the driving force of the communal feeling of grad-students. At least I see it so. I am very happy that I was able to be a grad students in our university at the times when for example Aallonhuiput got some momentum in its operations to further enhance this communal aspect of PhD life. After all, after 20 years or so, I probably won’t remember what I did in that specific paper but I certainly remember the people who were there during those times when I did it. And if any university aims to be a top-notch institution, it will try push forward in valuing and acknowledging this communal asset of PhD students. It would be easy to pigeonhole (odd term I must say) grad-students into their small offices as lonely paper-writing machines. But I think that the research done in universities is sustainable only if the research is done by a well-functioning community and not by segmented and separately operating individuals.
Lastly I probably should say something about the graduation as a rite of passage or something of that kind. Well, I won’t go to such cliché but instead I just list random anecdotes that I would say describe very well, what happened to me during the last five years or so.
- If you think you’re done, you’re not.
- Towards the end, the graduation is painstaking and tedious bureaucratic process which has very little to do with science anymore.
- Enjoy your PhD Karonkka. It probably won’t be your last (all your friends are also doing PhD, just admit it) but it is most likely the last one that is yours.
- Just stop. I mean, just stop at some point. You can tweak your thesis as long as you want but I guarantee the second after you get the precious book out of the print, you will find dozen of typos etc.
- Go ahead, make an impact. Make it big if possible. But remember THIS.
- The good thing about the overnight optimization/simulation routines is that the only thing you can pretty much do is to sleep till next morning.
- Find your tipping point. Mine is around 6 pm. I am a daytime worker. Nothing too productive has happened in my PhD studies after 6 pm. Why it is important to know this? Otherwise you don’t know when to stop on those down in the gutter days.
- Related to the above, don’t cut flow though if you happen to find it. In this case, be my guest, write like it’s 1999.
- In the end it seem that the hardest decision in your thesis is the colour of the covers.
- All your post-graduation job application decisions can probably be summarized with the sentence “I think I can do that.”
- There are many things that you could have been doing instead of your thesis. Learn to ignore these things.
- When all the fuzz and haziness of defence and Karonkka settles, you find yourself asking the question “So this was it? Was this all? Meh…”
- You form a grad-student aura the very moment you get accepted. At that very same moment you also develop a useful skill to spot the under-grad aura.
- “Yes, a very good question. Let me get back to that after the class.”
- “I heard that you went to Italy last month. What did you went to see there?” “Conference room XYZ-101 was kinda cool.”
- If you can write it, you probably try to do it.
- They say that do the thing you love and you never work a day. Well, then you end up working during the night I guess. (Point here: also the unpleasant stuff have to be done at some point).
- The feeling when you notice that at slide 30/50 you have 15 minutes left for the lecture.
- More or less the same feeling when there is a minute left in your conference presentation and you have not even started with the results.
- A relative asking: “So what do you do?” You: “It’s complicated.”
- Lastly, but definitely not the least, the little smirk on your face when you finally get that one certain piece of paper on your hands.
Hopefully this was not my last piece in this blog. I am more than happy to keep reporting from the other side. Until that, peace out my fellow truth seekers!
Antti Saastamoinen is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Information and Service Economy (BIZ).
Table: The median graduation times at school and university levels in period 2010-2014
(source: Aalto-Sampo; internal source)
 Yeah, I know, I did not quite do it in the expected four years. But I am not the only one; see table below.
 Recall that in many countries, there is no coursework involved in PhD studies.
 Here I would like to point out that of course, if you put a candidate with well-planned course portfolio and a candidate with not so well-planned portfolio next to each other, it is reasonable to expect that the former one delivers a better thesis also. But until I get some data, I dare to say that course work is not the deciding factor who succeeds and who does not in doing the PhD.
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