Doing a PhD Thesis in Psychology

“Which reminds me: I don’t like to be called ‘Doctor.'”
“Oh, I’m not offended. But when they began handing out doctorates for comparative folk dancing and advanced fly-fishing, I became too stink in’ proud to use the title. I won’t touch watered whiskey and I take no pride in watered-down degrees. Call me Jubal.”
“Oh. But the degree in medicine hasn’t been watered down, as you call it.”
“No. But it is time they called it something else, so as not to have it mixed up with playground supervisors.”
Jubal Hawshaw and Jill Boardman in “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein

I received my PhD certificate a few weeks ago. I’m now a doctor in psychology — and no, not from a prestigious university 😉

A good time to reflect on the last 4 years and three months to see what I’ve learned about doing a PhD thesis in psychology — the kind of things I would have liked to know in advance.


Make sure you have a strong network of social support

Doing a PhD thesis is hard. Some things you expect and can plan for, for example the writing. Other things, like problems with your experiments or trouble with supervisors or colleagues will occur at the most inconvenient times, often completely out of the blue. So, make sure that you have a strong support net available — independent of the people you work with. There will be times when you want to curse your (co-)work(ers) and when you need support by someone who is not working in the same institute.

Make Friends with the City

I did my PhD thesis in Tübingen, a city that is famous for the speed with which the students leave the city after graduation. Given that you will spend the next years in the city, make friends with it — if you can. There are usually some people with similar interests and the university sports program or associations you belong to might help you in finding them. Even if a city with no interests might force you to concentrate on your PhD thesis, believe me, you will have to do something else, or you go crazy.

Get some independent Hobbies

There will be times when your work sucks, when nothing works as planned and you just need to do something else. You will probably have to make budget cuts in your spare time department, giving the high work demands of a PhD thesis, but make sure that something remains that is available as a balance when the PhD work becomes very stressful. During me four years I tried out different kinds of sports (e.g., taekwondo, kayak), continued with other sports (e.g., jogging, climbing) and with some spare time hobbies like creating and writing books (strangely enough, during the time I wrote one 258 pages PhD thesis, I also wrote a 400 pages book about creativity, one short novel (188 pages), and created a book of quotations (388 pages) and two photo books). Actually it were these spare time projects that got me through the day.

Your Colleagues

Colleagues are in some ways similar to classmates in school. You did not choose them to be your classmates (unless you also work in human resources) and they most likely consist of some people who are very nice and can even become your friends, some people you can work with, and — if you are unlucky — some real assholes.

Note: I am all for treating people, especially colleagues, with respect. But I have seen some people who do not deserve this kind of respect because their actions were … well, below anything you think an adult is capable of, especially if this person is doing his PhD. Read the part “Deal quickly with Colleagues who are Assholes” if you want to know more.

Make Friends with (some) Colleagues

Someone once said about school: “If you’re a little different, some kids can make your life an absolute hell.”. I must say that work in an institute has more tolerance of “difference”, but it also has limits. Given that your co-worker do not know you as long as the people in school or the university did know you, some differences (e.g., ironic comments delivered with a straight face) can easily give you the reputation of an arrogant asshole. It takes time to get to know colleagues and giving them the opportunity to get to know you. I would say that I never tried to intentionally insult or hurt a co-worker, but I guess some colleagues would judge differently. Once I got to know that they did perceive me in a certain way I tried my best to apologize for the misunderstanding and straighten things out. I found that having some colleagues who are close to friends is invaluable in this regard. Given that colleagues talk (gossip) with each other, friends among colleagues can set the record straight or give you the information where you have to do this yourself.

But friends (or near friends) among colleagues is a very rare thing, so do not expect to much of your colleagues: If you are different in some regards and your behavior can be misunderstood, you can place a bet that it will be misunderstood. Given the high cognitive demands of the work itself, most people do not have the capacity to clearly judge a person in detail. And that includes psychologists (although psychologists might be prone to think differently — which makes matters worse).

Deal quickly with Colleagues who are Assholes

Yep, there is no other way to describe it. And it is very important to directly take measures against the occasional asshole if — or rather when — this person tries to move against you. The golden rule for mobbing is documentation. If you cannot talk to the asshole directly, document what this person does, then go to this person’s supervisor — and do it as early as possible. I know of one case where a co-worker ordered information material for gays and lesbians in the name of a co-worker he was mobbing and sent this material this person’s office address (of course, without this person’s knowledge). Luckily he did this from his office PC and the website he ordered it from and the technical department of the institute were very cooperative. This asshole got a serve warning by his academic adviser — given that he would leave the institute in any case a month later. It was the last of a series of actions of this person and given the things that occurred beforehand it took too long to show this asshole his bounds. And one can only wonder what some people are willing to do (this person was a PhD student who actually got his doctoral degree with a “magna cum laude”). Don’t let it come this far — if you notice that someone does something to impede you or mob you, document it, then talk to this person’s supervisor (and your own). If you do it early enough there is even the chance that you might come to some kind of truce with this person. Remember, you are not there to fight with co-workers or waste your resources in defending yourself against them, you are there to do your PhD thesis!


It takes Time to find a Topic

Unless you are working in a science foundation project where the work is pretty much defined in the beginning (and which would not qualify for a PhD thesis at our institute), you will have to find a topic on your own. Some people finish their PhD thesis quickly (in less than 3 years) by continuing with the work they did for their diploma thesis. Others change the topic and need more time. Personally, I did not like my diploma topic that much and did not work in a science foundation project. This freedom of topic did cost me one year. Yup, one year until I found out what to investigate and why. So, don’t get nervous when you do not start within the first months. It takes time to get acquainted with a new topic and to plan the studies. (And yes, you will do a lot of reading that you do not need later for your PhD topic, but don’t worry, it’s not wasted time. It actually forms the foundation you will build on later.)

Get the rules of the Game

I have made the experience that at some institutes, the way the topic is addressed determines whether some grades are possible or not. For example, if you are doing field studies in one institute, it is not possible to get a “summa cum laude”. Field studies deliver “dirty data” and that goes against the self-concept of some psychologists (cf. the blog entry about lab coat envy). It’s okay if you know this beforehand, you can avoid doing field studies (if you can arrange this with your demands of the validity of your research), but you have to know it. So make sure you understand the rules of the game at the institute you are working.

Choose a topic you like

The same rules apply that were true for your diploma thesis: Get a topic you like. You will have to work 3-6 years with it, you will have to notice the details and develop good ideas what to do with it. It’s hard to impossible to do this with a topic that you do not like.

Choose a topic that you can do

Besides liking a topic, make sure that you can deal with it. If you do not like a certain technology, do not choose to write a thesis about a subject where you need to regularly use this technology. This sounds trivial, but I have seen people choosing topics (for their diploma thesis and doctoral thesis) in subjects they were personally unsuited for. This does not mean that they cannot do the topic, but they will likely run into a lot of problems that cost a lot of energy and patience. And to make matters worse, they will most likely not realize the full potential of that technology (or topic in general), because it is so alien to them and they try to avoid it. It’s a waste of time and hurts the quality of your work, so don’t do it.

Make sure you can do the topic on your own

Let’s face it — there is nobody who depends so much on the successful completion of your dissertation project than you. Not your supervisor, not your potential external project partner, not the institution you work for. Be very careful with external partners, especially if you are dealing with multiple individuals. Always make sure that you can do your project even if this project partner quits — and always have a Plan B, no matter with whom you work. (Sure, you can work out a Plan B if a project fails, but you will most likely be to upset to think clearly.)

The Work

Defend your PhD time against institutional demands

I had it lucky. Given that I did not work in a science foundation project, there was no other project I also had to do that competed for my time. It had disadvantages, like finding a completely new topic (see above), but on the whole, it was very beneficial. I have heard of three PhD students who left their institute because the work they were also supposed to do for the science project was the only work they were doing — while their PhD thesis didn’t get off the ground. It makes sense, in a way. The project pays for the PhD student and the project is pretty well defined in terms of what is to do at a specific time. An emerging PhD project will always be second to the demands of the science foundation project — and at times, this second place equals zero time. Advisers, who also have to make sure that the science foundation project is carried out, tend to prioritize this project higher, like it more (it was most likely their own proposal) and know it better, and they likely underestimate the time it takes (in the planning, most estimate the time it would take for a research psychologist to do the tasks, i.e., themselves, not for a beginner, i.e., PhD student, like you are). If you are not careful, you can end up doing one or two years of work for the institute without doing a single study that you can use in your own PhD thesis. Given the high workload of science foundation projects you might not realize this (neither will your adviser nor your colleagues, who always see you working hard — but do not realize that it is not your PhD project you are working on). So make sure from the beginning that you have the time to work on your PhD thesis and do not accept promises like “just do this study like planned, and then we talk about your PhD thesis” — fight for equal time from the beginning on. It is much harder to change this later — and usually too late.

It’s okay to be dumb (kinda)

Most people think that after studying psychology and finishing a diploma thesis they should know how to do research. Most are wrong. Doing research in psychology is a career, and doing your PhD thesis qualifies you for this job — when (if) you have finished your thesis. But the thesis itself is a work to quality yourself as research psychologist, as PhD in psychology. So, don’t be scared of your ignorance and ask, ask, and ask again. And yes, it is extremely likely that you will feel like you are too dumb to do the job. That’s part of the learning process and nearly everyone I talked to experienced it (multiple times). A good advisor will anticipate what you know and do not know (and cannot know) and make things clear beforehand — but, actually, those people are rare. So ask.

You will curse, you will scream, you will cry

I better say this again: Doing a PhD thesis is learning to work scientifically. Learning means making mistakes. Nobody I have talked to would do the thesis again the way he or she did it. They all have made mistakes and would do things differently. That is normal. This also means that you will make (serious) mistakes, especially if you do not know the domain or use new technology. If you have a good adviser-relationship and the adviser works in the same domain, the adviser will catch these mistakes; if not, you will learn a lot on your own.

Your Academic Adviser

Get a Supervisor with whom you can work

Doing a PhD thesis can be very intimidating and you need very good support to get through it. Especially if you did not have vicarious experience of grad school through your family members. Then you need a good adviser even more, because this person is the primary source of information — ranging from the banal (what exactly happens during a thesis defense?) to the difficult (should I do it this way or that?). Sternberg once wrote that you have to find an adviser you can work with. If the work relationship is not good, find another adviser (a good adviser will search for a replacement him- or herself). I can only concur with this. Sure, it is very hard to change an academic adviser, but if the matching is wrong, it’s neither your nor your adviser fault, but the problem of both of you. Your adviser will avoid you because he or she cannot work with you, and you will avoid your adviser for the same reasons. What suffers is your work, your PhD thesis, the thing you are there for. If you realize that you have difficulties with your adviser, bring them out in the open. Ask your adviser whether he or she thinks that these problems can be solved or whether it would be better to find another adviser. Sure, you can ignore the problem and do the thesis mostly on your own, but there are no merit badges for solitary fighters in PhDs. And doing a PhD thesis takes huge resources, working with an adviser should give you resources, not drain them.

Fight for Advisory Time

Most academic advisers have little time. Some because they are in high demand, some because they are unorganized, some because of both. If you are like me who hates to disturb or interrupt people when they are working, this is a serious problem. It took me about three years until I got the message that I had to interrupt if I wanted to get any feedback on my work and that this is actually expected of me.

Look for personal mentorship, not institutionalized PhD programs

Nowadays a lot of universities and institutes offer PhD programs full of workshops and retreats and other offerings. That’s nice, but doing a PhD thesis is not like taking a class at a university. What is important is an academic adviser with whom you can work (see above) and who likes you and your topic. I’m not saying that you should become friends, but I would stress the word “mentor”. I have talked with some PhD students, but I haven’t heard a single one talking about his or her adviser as a mentor. Perhaps the academic advisers were too young (at the beginning of their career), perhaps they were too busy (with their own research or other jobs), perhaps they think (wrongly) that “the program” makes mentorship unnecessary. Personally, I think that is the biggest and most difficult aspect of a PhD thesis that you need: an experienced mentor. Someone who has your scientific career on his mind and who can give you feedback about you and your work. No institutionalized PhD program, no PhD student peer-support group can replace this. Some people could do it but they do not have the time. Others couldn’t do it even if they had the time, because it needs years of experience in the domain and field. Others have the domain knowledge and know the field, but lack the interpersonal skills. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not impossible to do a PhD thesis without a mentor, but it’s damn hard.

So, if you look for a PhD topic, be also on the lookout for a person whom you trust to take interest in your work and career (to further yours, not — only — his or hers).

So, these were some comments about doing a PhD thesis in psychology. What are your experiences (whether it’s a PhD in psychology or another subject)? Drop me a comment 🙂


  1. thanks a lot for the advice and help Iam starting a topic after reading your nice advice and will make use of I will look for a mentor . This is very necessary for all begininers I was already running hypertensive when I could not get any topic after three good months . Thanks I have gotten one just yesterday

  2. i am feeling highly tensed due to the huge confusion in deciding my topic for phd, please help me out if anybody there

  3. That’s your advisor’s job. And yeah, I can provide specific advice, but that would cost you. So, talk to your advisor. Either way, it’s better.

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