On the fence or ready to get your PhD?

The Ikea method: How stuffed animals and scented candles made me want to write a dissertation.
Jens Lelie via Unsplash

Imagine, you are at the entrance to Ikea. Before you is a bargain bin full of toys and crib sheets. “Dog or bear?” my friend Maja asks me, holding up two stuffed animals. “Dog,” I say. “But are you sure it will help me?” Maja nods. She holds up two baby sleeping bags: “Blue or brown?”

I do not have children. I do not want to buy anything. I am here to practice making decisions.

In reality, this is all about my PhD. For some time, I have been wrestling with the question of whether I should write a dissertation. One good reason to write one would be the four-month transitional stipend I recently received. One good reason not to would be an internship I could take at a fairly well-known publisher in five days. Overloaded with all this opportunity, I have no idea what I want.

Training my decision-making muscles

Maja isn’t a psychologist, but nevertheless she believes you can train your decision-making skills like a muscle. Her idea is that if I can warm up by making enough decisions on small, unimportant things, it will be easier for me to take the final leap and make the big decision.

That’s why we are at Ikea today. Naturally, we make a full round through all of the exhibits. Living room, dining room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen. Or, in Maja’s words: “Fabric sofa or leather? Pillows with flowers or checks? White vanity or mirrored? Wood panelling or light green front?” Of course, there is also the market, where the questions get much more detailed, and much more complicated. “Short or tall cups? Scented candles or tea lights? Curtains with polka dots or stripes?”

I answer automatically, without really thinking it will help. Fabric, checked, white, wood. After all, none of these choices will really change my life. I just want all these questions to finally be over, and to not be spending my Saturday afternoon running around a furniture store.

On our way out, between two layers of sliding glass doors, Maya smuggles in the real question, as skilfully as a mother adding a pickle to her child’s sandwich: “PhD or internship?”
“PhD” I answer almost automatically. “I still have plenty of time to take an internship later on.”

The power of intuition

At the time, I was surprised how easy it ultimately was to make such an important decision. I remain amazed today, even though I have decided over time that the idea of getting a PhD was a good one overall. I have always wondered what makes the Ikea method work.

I think it is successful because it forces us to make decisions from the gut. According to what Gerd Gigerenzer, Director emeritus of the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development, writes in one of his books, this is a good idea. He says that we regret intuitive decisions less often than non-intuitive ones.

This makes sense because decisions we make from the gut are not always naive or random. “Intuition is recognition,” said social scientist Herbert Simon. He means that we integrate previous experiences into our decision-making process unconsciously, even if we feel we are doing something spontaneous.

My jaunt through Ikea gave me the space to experience what intuition feels like, even though I was not totally aware of the different experiences behind my decisions.

Should I get my PhD—yes or no? If you are asking yourself this question, then you may already know the answer. All you need to do is shine a little light on it. Of course, a stuffed animal can help, too.