Doing an economics PhD can be full of challenges and difficulties. Here we look at some of the personal qualities that will help you continue making progress when you encounter a problem.
1. Creative Thinking
When things go wrong during your PhD program – which they surely will! – then you need to find creative solutions.
If your initial analysis found no meaningful results for your primary question, did it reveal other interesting insights? If your pilot experiment didn’t work out, can you salvage the data or design a better experiment? Perhaps you couldn’t find the data you were hoping for – would finding a suitable instrumental variable help fill the gap?
The process of research is really a process of learning, and if your research is new, it probably generated new knowledge. Even a finding of “no relationship” can be interesting.
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Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter (w/m/d) für den Bereich Wirtschaft und Soziales
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At Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI)
As a PhD candidate, you are an expert in some areas but inexperienced in others. In order to deal with challenges, you’ll need to adapt and learn new skills. An attitude of lifelong learning is a good quality for PhD students.
So, don’t tell yourself that you’re “not good with numbers” or “not a good writer” – instead, you’ll benefit from accepting that you’ll sometimes need to learn new skills or spend more time on certain aspects of your research. Asking your peers for help might be a good way to start, thus at the same time forging connections that will help you support one another through the difficult PhD process.
As with adaptability, it’s important that you are open-minded to new ideas. Don’t get too attached to one idea, method, or approach to your work. It’s better to consider different approaches when you’re in a bind. For example, perhaps your experimental methodology didn’t work out, but there might be a different methodology you could use instead.
Learnings from other social sciences, both in theory and in methodology, can be helpful here. Especially if you know peers working in other disciplines, it could be very illuminating to chat with them about your research interests.
4. Ability to accept criticism
It’s hard to hear criticism – especially when you’re tired, worried, or stressed. But when you run into a problem, you need to really listen to criticism from your supervisor or colleagues. They have a wealth of information and ideas to offer you, and your project can greatly benefit from them.
If you find this difficult, try writing down the feedback and not responding to it straight away. Take a day to think it over before responding, and you’ll find it easier to accept valid criticism.
5. Having (and using) a support network
You can’t pursue a PhD alone, and you’ll need a team who can help you out when things get tough. Fellow PhD candidates, other people in your department, people you meet at conferences and events, family, and friends can all be called on to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for support when you need it – whether that support is advice, technical help, proofreading, or just going out with you socially to take your mind off things.
6. Perseverance & determination
You’re sure to come across some roadblocks in your PhD, like your paper getting rejected from a journal, an experiment which did not work out as planned, or the unavailability of resources that you were relying on for your project.
In these times, you need to be able to keep working and not give up. If you’re really struggling with a problem, it’s okay to take a few days off to think about it. Keep pushing back at your problems and seek help when you need it, and you will likely find a way to overcome them eventually.
7. Stress management
Everyone doing a PhD feels overwhelmed with stress sometimes. It’s normal to feel that way on occasion, but it’ll be very hard if you feel stressed all of the time.
In order to keep your stress levels under control, you should find a way to blow off steam that works for you. Some people like to exercise or play a team sport, while others like meditation or relaxation techniques. Some people just like to read or to spend time with friends. Find something that works for you and carve out some time for stress management each week. This will make you much more capable of dealing with problems when they do arise.
All of these qualities go together to help you become more resilient – that is, capable of coping with difficult situations and not giving up when faced with problems. Psychological resilience is a very important quality for a PhD student, and one which many graduates will recognize in hindsight as a trait that they developed during their PhD. In a PhD as in the rest of your life, dealing with stress and adversity will be essential for success.
Studies have found that positive emotions are key to coping with negative experiences, so one of the best ways that you can build your resilience is to occasionally take time off in which you indulge in fun activities. It might feel frivolous but it will help you in the long run.
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