Read! the! PhD regulations!

Ten things they should have told you when you started your PhD.
Rico Reutimann via Unsplash

1. Nothing is ever obvious.

You just finished your master’s degree with flying colours. A professor you trust, who not only got you a student assistant job, but also a stipend that let you spend a semester in Rome, is impressed with you. You are impressed with yourself, look at your outstanding grades and think: Of course I should do my PhD. But should you really? Take this opportunity to ask yourself what your motivation actually is for starting a doctoral degree. Do you thirst for knowledge? Or is it vanity? Or do you just not know what else to do with your life? There are many good reasons to start a PhD. However, there are also just as many bad ones.


2. Do not take the first adviser who comes along.

Of course, it is flattering when a professor who advised you during your master’s or undergraduate degree asks if you want to do a PhD with them. Nevertheless, you should ask some questions: How many PhD students does she already have? What is her area of specialisation? Do you think you can write your dissertation on one of these topics? Although it may sound absurd, many doctoral students do not feel they spend enough time or get enough feedback from their advisers. It is easy to avoid such problems by finding an adviser who has enough time to meet your individual advising needs and who also researches an area close to your own interests. To find an adviser like this, you might also apply to open PhD positions at other institutions, like those published on the DAAD website. Especially if you want to launch an academic career, you should not be afraid to switch cities in order to deal with different theoretical schools or different approaches.


3. Think about your career—even when you choose your topic.

Want to be an academic? Great, then writing about “The experience of existence as a discrete probability of continuous reality” is a great idea! But if you are thinking about switching to business later on or possibly even starting your own company, you might want to select a more practical dissertation topic. Even if you plan to do your PhD with the help of external funding—such as a stipend or in cooperation with a company—it is a good idea to select a topic of interest to external institutions right from the start.


4. Do not assume you will receive a doctoral stipend right away.

There are many ways to finance a PhD—through a position at the university, a stipend, a part-time job, or your private savings. However, very few people have a seamless financial transition between their undergraduate and graduate studies. Many university graduates apply for stipends from large fellowship programmes, but only a fifth of doctoral students ultimately receive such a stipend. Frequently, students completing their doctorates on a stipend underestimate how long the application process will take. Crafting a successful synopsis could take six months or longer, not including the time for the foundation to review it and make their decision. You can easily spend two years with no funding at all. Although there is no easy answer for avoiding such lean periods, always remember that gaps in your financing can happen, and plan for how you will soften the blow.


5. Get familiar with programs you want to use to do your dissertation.

There are programs for any need—from writing text to managing literature, or creating statistics or simulations. Determine which programs will be useful and suitable for your dissertation early on. Even if it is difficult, use them right from the start to get familiar with them. This will help you find out the limitations of the program early on, and determine where you need better solutions. Conversely, do not let your excitement about the technology make you choose programs that are too complex for your needs. In most cases, writing a humanities dissertation that does not involve complex formatting with LaTeX is overkill (apart from the fact that many publishers are not even set up to handle publications created in LaTeX).


6. Find out what kinds of technology and research resources your university has to offer.

Most universities—yours as well, probably—offer a campus-wide license for Citavi, for instance. Universities also often offer Microsoft Office, statistics and graphics programs, or the latest Windows operating system. And did you know that your university library can probably do much more for you than just find books? It also has access to databases, press archives, and scientific journals, and can help you find articles that match your topic. That saves you time, money, and your nerves.


7. Don’t lose yourself.

At some point, hopefully you will have your research associate position, your stipend, or a student loan to cover your financial needs—all because a professor has convinced the exam committee or a bank employee of your excellent time management skills and that you will definitely be done with everything in two years. Or maybe three. Or ... once you start looking at your mountain of literature and wondering whether you could fit a certain article into a footnote in subsection ... maybe four years. Having a presentable timeline is one thing. Sticking to it is another. The only way to succeed is to understand that your dissertation does not need to be, and will not ever be, perfect. You cannot read, test, or know everything that could somehow be relevant to your dissertation. So don’t even try. If you do not set a limit for your own work, you will end up wondering how you wasted so much time.


8. Be aware that being in crisis mode is normal when you are doing your dissertation.

No matter how carefully you choose your PhD programme, adviser, and topic, a crisis will happen at some point. Sometimes it will only last a day, after a particularly bad night, but sometimes it will last for weeks or months at a time. It might come from within, or might result from negative circumstances, financing problems, or questionable results from your latest experiment. Sometimes, the crisis might manifest itself as fear of the blank page, and sometimes as a lack of concentration. But be assured, it will come. The earlier you get used to this fact, the easier it will be for you to handle it when it does.


9. Do not think your work is done when you submit the dissertation.

You might think that once you deliver copies of your dissertation to the PhD office, you have finally passed your final test. Indeed, you do deserve to open that bottle of champagne and take a vacation to an exotic South Sea island if you want. Just remember: In most cases, submitting your dissertation is not the end of your PhD studies. You still have the defence afterwards, which may take some time to prepare for and which can be extremely stressful if you have to start a new job or do other things at the same time. In addition, in Germany you must also make your dissertation accessible to the public. You can fulfil this obligation in various ways. No matter what kind of publication you choose—knowing that delivering your dissertation is not the end can help you remember to include the costs you might still face in your calculations.


10. Read! the! PhD regulations!

Do not rely on what other doctoral students say about your PhD regulations. Search for them on your university’s website. Save them on your computer. Read them carefully. Really. Don’t just read them at the end of your PhD, like this list says, but preferably right when you start your doctoral programme. A typical problem many students face is reaching the end of their doctoral programme without ever actually knowing which PhD regulations listed on the university website actually apply to them. This is not a joke. PhD regulations are updated so often that the version of the regulations applicable when you officially register for the university is often the version that will apply to you throughout your PhD career. Some universities have two sets of PhD regulations relevant for you: a framework set that regulates all of the doctoral students at the university, and departmental PhD regulations. PhD regulations establish the formal criteria for your dissertation, the amount of time that may pass between your defence and when the dissertation is published, and the number of copies you have to submit to the university. If you have any questions about the PhD regulations, you should clear these up early on—not during the stressful final weeks before submitting your work.