“We are always searching”

Whether meticulously planned or at random, PhD students arrive at their topics in many different ways. Seven stories.
Ran Berkovich

Antonia Wagner, Art history

TU Berlin/Oana Popa

I had a degree in industrial engineering and was about to complete my master’s degree in art history. I just had to finish my master’s thesis. I wanted to do something with feminist perspectives on consumption in art. Feminist issues had always interested me, and I think consumption is a field that brings together aesthetics, the economy, and gender issues. My professor thought the topic was interesting, and suggested that I could write a dissertation instead of a master’s thesis. That sounded like a good idea. In retrospect, however, it was a fallacy to believe I could do the dissertation in three years. At the end of the day, it took five.

I had two conditions when I started my dissertation. One, I did not want to do my PhD if I could not get funding—partly because I already had a child—and two, I wanted to collaborate actively with other researchers. My professor ended up getting approved for project funding through a research association. So I had the money, and that gave me the security I needed, especially since it wasn’t just a stipend, but rather a half-time appointment. That is especially important for me as a woman. I got pregnant with my second child and could apply for regular parental leave and parental benefits—something that isn’t possible with a stipend.

I learned the hard way that research is often a lonely endeavour. Collaboration and exchange among PhD students? A myth. The first two years were the worst, as I tried to pin down my topic. It was not until I started trying to find new networks that I was able to overcome my feelings of disorientation. I just went up and started talking to people at conferences. One woman told me about her doctoral student group and invited me to a meeting the very next day. The group helped me better formulate my topic. There, I learned to talk about unfinished texts—and about all the doubts that go along with them.

Antonia Wagner studied art history at the HfG Karlsruhe, and has now successfully defended her dissertation. The name of her dissertation is “Artikulationen des Konsums. Feministische Perspektiven in der Kunst der 1960er bis 1980er Jahre” (Articulations of consumption: feminist perspectives in art from the 1960s through the 1980s). She was funded through the research association project “Konsumästehtik Formen des Umgangs mit käuflichen Dingen” (Consumption aesthetics: ways of handling commercial objects) by the Volkswagen Foundation.

George Datseris, Physics

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I am from Greece, where I studied physics. Then I came to Göttingen to do my master’s. I stayed for my doctorate. Then I applied at the Max-Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation, since the institute specialises in non-linear dynamics—an area I am particularly interested in. I had taught while doing my master’s, and I knew I enjoyed research and teaching. A doctorate is basically required to pursue this as a career path. After applying at the Max-Planck Institute, I had to give a talk and then I was accepted. They suggested a topic to me, which I found very interesting and which fit in perfectly with my major research areas. Now I am writing my dissertation on electron transport in graphene nanostructures.

Although they had specifically suggested the topic to me, it is important to make sure your work is breaking new ground. My advisers do not necessarily have time to find out whether someone else has already covered the topic. It is extremely important to research the field first to determine what is already available. You have to assume things will never go as well as you plan. Of course, that is what research is all about: You want to discover new knowledge, and the only way to do that is through change. We are always searching. Sometimes ideas work, and sometimes they don’t. You have to rethink your approach.

I am supposed to be finished in April, but I hope I can delay my timeline a little. I still have work to do. I am very happy as a doctoral student, and I also enjoy teaching. The only thing I find a little tedious are the seminars you have to attend for credits as part of the PhD programme. They are not relevant to my very specific topic.

George Datseris studied at the National and Kapodistrias University of Athens, and is doing his PhD at the Max-Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation in Göttingen. He is funded through the International Max Planck Research School “Physics of Biological and Complex Systems”.

Janine Conrad, Medicine

Marko Bußmann

I always knew I did not want to write a medical dissertation that would make me wade through lots of files and evaluate statistics just for the purpose of getting a title. I wanted to do basic research and lab work, a more experimental dissertation. This would let me do non-clinical research later on as well. Once, I had to write a paper for my degree programme, and I chose tumour pathology as my topic.

The paper was about new treatment methods: How can you tell the body cancer is bad? After reading the paper, my professor offered me the opportunity to write a dissertation. She suggested a topic to me as well. The topic was understanding how the immune system responds to cancer, and what kinds of strategies tumours use to circumvent our natural defence mechanisms.

I had always been interested in cancer treatments in general. I became much more interested when my mother was diagnosed with cancer herself. Of course, it was not like you would see in a film: ‘I will study oncology so I can find a cure for cancer, and I will do it for my mother’. In retrospect, however, I do think that her illness and death did motivate me—especially when the writing got boring. I did not need as much motivation to do my experiments. Although the dissertation took a lot of time and I spent most of my school breaks in the laboratory, and although things did go wrong and I had to repeat multiple experiments, I always had a lot of fun. Writing was a different story. I started writing right at the end. I probably should have been more disciplined and got an earlier start. Somehow, I think I needed the pressure of the deadline. I would probably do the same thing if I had it to do over again.

I completed my final corrections and did my defence all while I was working That was probably not a good idea. It is easy to underestimate how much time this will take, and how heavy your everyday workload is as a young physician in a clinic—it was really hard, but I am proud I did it.

Janine Conrad studied at the Humboldt University of Berlin and completed her PhD at the Charité Institute of Tumour Pathology in 2011. The name of her dissertation is “Methylierungsanalyse von HLA-A, ULBP2 und ULBP3 in kolorektalen Karzinomzellen” (Methylation analysis of HLA-A, ULBP2, and ULBP3 in colorectal carcinoma cells). She works as a neurologist.

Miriam Steinborn, Archaeology

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The way I found my topic was not at all romantic. I knew my adviser from completing my master’s thesis, and he asked me whether I would help out with an excavation in southern Serbia, and whether I wanted to turn my results into a dissertation. Someone else had recently left the project. All of a sudden, I had a topic and a half-project position at the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum (Roman-German Central Museum) in Mainz, Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology. I am writing my dissertation on everyday life in a household in the early Byzantine city. The joke is that I knew nothing about the field initially—the focus of my undergraduate studies was on prehistoric times and the Dark Ages, and I learned about totally different approaches.

It was very stressful at first. I had to learn about Byzantium and get used to a new region and timeline, as well as a new research tradition. I thought the ‘household archaeology’ approach was not very sexy at first. It seemed marginal initially, then as I learned more, I thought it was not very focused on theory. I often thought, ‘Oh no, all of this literature from other disciplines!’ Over time, however, I got more and more interested in the topic because it was so complex and interdisciplinary, and I realised there were many different facets that I had not expected.

Now I am writing, and I am happy every time I finish a paragraph. The project financing ran out after three and a half years. I want to have the majority of my dissertation out of the way by the end of the summer because I am having a baby. And then? I hope to go into scholarly communication, preferably by working in a museum. However, I am open to seeing what happens. That approach has served me well since I was an undergraduate.

Miriam Steinborn studied archaeology at the University of Mainz and will complete her PhD in the Medieval and Modern Archaeology department at the University of Bamberg. Her dissertation’s preliminary title is “Alltagshandeln im Spiegel der Archäologie. Perspektiven der ‘Household Archaeology’ am Beispiel eines Gebäudes in der Nordstadt von Caričin Grad” (Everyday activities as reflected in archaeology. Perspectives on ‘household archaeology’ based on a building in the northern city of Caričin Grad).

Tim Loepthien, Musicology


I focussed on musicology as a PhD student, and my dissertation assessed a survey on regulation processes we use while listening to music. I always knew I would enjoy academic work. While doing the PhD, I realised how much I liked science. My dissertation, then, was a logical continuation of my thesis. I dealt with the question of whether certain forms of listening to music trigger similar cognitive processes to the regulation processes we use to overcome personal crises. Finding a topic was no problem for me. However, it did take some time for me to figure out where my questions fit into the larger research landscape. I feel like this is a common problem. You have to determine what specifically you are researching.

It was difficult for me to design the studies for my PhD thesis. I found discussing my work in new environments particularly helpful—if you are always talking to the same people, you never get any external input. By doing so, I learned how to communicate my topic more broadly and be easier to understand.

If you want to remain in the academy, it is important to network while doing your dissertation. Working for the department as a PhD student helps, of course. But you also need a lot of discipline. Seminars are your everyday work, and your students expect you to be prepared. These kinds of demands are not as direct when you are doing your dissertation, and you don’t get any feedback. Many PhD students let their research slip. I still really love doing research, digging into a topic and evaluating data. I am still researching regulation processes we use while listening to music—in Munich now, instead of in Hildesheim.

Tim Loepthien studied musicology and psychology at the University of Hildesheim and completed his PhD there. His dissertation’s title is “Musikhören und der Umgang mit persönlichen Zielen. Der Zusammenhang zwischen aufmerksam-analytischer Musikrezeption und akkommodativen Prozessen” (Listening to music and handling personal goals: the connection between attentive-analytical musical reception and accomodative processes). He is a research associate at the Institute for Psychology at the Bundeswehr University Munich.

Lilo Wagner, Economics

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I assumed I wanted an academic career when I started my cumulative dissertation at the German Institute for Economic Research. I quickly realised it should be a theoretical dissertation, since I enjoy abstract thinking and am interested in theoretical microeconomics and industrial economics. That is why I analysed strategic market behaviour: What market outcomes occur in certain markets, and how do companies react to changing framework conditions?

I found that being part of a structured doctoral programme motivated me and helped me identify my topic. You take a lot of courses during the first year. In those courses, I got to know someone interested in similar topics. We sat down together and exchanged ideas until we had a rough topic we both wanted to pursue. We frequently presented our rudimentary topic in our seminars, which was extremely helpful. After one of these presentations, our professor said, ‘That is a very good idea, and you could look at it from this or that aspect’. He essentially dictated our arguments to us. They were the basis for our first paper.

After my defence, I worked as a research associate for the DIW for another three years. Today I know I don’t want to be an academic. However, I do not regret writing my dissertation. With what I know today, I would pick a more specific topic and would specialise in a certain sector—such as energy—so I could work as an expert in the sector later on. I am currently toying with the idea of becoming a freelancer, only in an area that has nothing to do with my diploma or my dissertation.

Lilo Wagner studied economics at the TU Berlin and business administration at the ESCP-EAP in Paris, London, and Berlin. She defended her cumulative dissertation titled “Three Essays on Communication in Signalling Games” at the DIW in 2014.

Martin Berg, Law

K&L Gates

In law, your adviser will frequently give you your topic. He will probably also have specific ideas about how he wants you to handle the topic. I wanted a little more freedom, and I wanted to choose something I found interesting. Because of this, I looked for my own topic after my clerkship. I wanted to do something related to taxes and investments. I just went to the library and thumbed through journals looking for articles on the subject. That took me several weeks.

I kept finding articles from a particular author that I thought were interesting. He was an attorney, and I wrote him a letter asking whether I could talk to him about the topics he writes about. He responded immediately, and we met up. He gave me the idea for a topic related to VAT, which I ended up pursuing. I did change the focus somewhat, but the basic idea of investigating how VAT deals with certain administrative services with respect to investment companies came from him. I took the idea to a professor at the Free University to suggest it to him. He liked it, but said it was not his speciality or not within his area of interest. That meant I was on my own, which I did not have a problem with.

It was important to me not to have a very abstract topic you can lose yourself in, but rather one I could clearly structure. I had a plan to work through. Completing it point by point made the whole thing more fun. If I had to write another dissertation today, I would try to contact interest groups to talk about my topic. I would present my topic at more conferences, too, to get more input from different sources. Of course, that also has to do with professional experience. Today, I would know more about whom I could contact.

My dissertation topic is also somewhat relevant to my professional life. Today I am a lawyer working in investment law. The lawyer who gave me the tip that led me to my dissertation topic is now my boss.

Martin Berg studied at the Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of Passau, and completed his PhD at the Free University of Berlin. The title of his dissertation is “Verwaltung von Investment-Sondervermögen im deutschen und europäischen Umsatzsteuerrecht” (Managing investment special assets in German and European VAT law). He is funded through a Nafög stipend from the state of Berlin.