PhD work vs Project Work

“Oooh! Ahhh! That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.”
Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park”

In Germany — and I suppose I many other countries — positions for students to do their (doctoral/PhD) dissertation are not financed by some institute or university, but by national or international organizations. Whether it’s the national science foundation, or an international organization like the European Union, doesn’t matter. Thing is, the money is not given to train a new PhD, but to realize a certain project. A scientist — PhD or professor — at the university or institute wrote a grant proposal for a study, and the funding organization agrees to give the money to realize the proposal by using students who work on it while doing their doctoral thesis.

In a way, the PhD students on these positions are really lucky — they are paid while doing their dissertation. However, at least in some project in some institutes or universities, they really got the rotten end of the stick: Their dissertation thesis has to compete with a thought out, peer-reviewed and funded project.

Think about it — you are doing your first steps into science (being a mere student at a university doesn’t count), trying to do extremely hard and stupefying work, while also doing the work based on the ideas and expertise of someone who convinced others to give him/her thousands, if not hundreds of thousands dollars/euros/whatever of money. You are learning to build a dug out canoe while also working on the latest highly regarded super yacht.

In the best of possible worlds, you are in a situation to learn a lot. That is, if you got a supervisor who really takes his or her job seriously and sees you as an apprentice. In my (very limited) experience, few do, and most supervisors follow a Sith model with one apprentice (also called “Golden Boy”/”Golden Girl”).

What I have seen — again and again — is that the PhD student is used primarily to do the project work.

The project work is usually supervised and the supervisor has an active interest in high quality work. After all, his/her name is on the project proposal. And while some funding organizations are rather lax in evaluating the work actually done, many supervisors have a keen interest in getting something out of it (i.e., publications). And so they should, after all, they did (hopefully) use their expertise for the proposal, and they (should) contribute to science (i.e., our understanding of the world).

But in a relevant amount of cases the dissertation thesis of the PhD student is severely neglected. It’s “let’s first do item x of the proposal, then we have time for your thesis”, or “I am sure if we do x of the proposal, we find something for your thesis”. So the PhD student slaves away, in the hope that there will be time reserved for his/her dissertation thesis.

Kinda like this image, where blue is the project work, and green is the dissertation thesis of the student:


Would be nice — having time for the project work, and then time for the dissertation thesis, wouldn’t it? It all equals out in the end, just a question of what currently has priority — the project or the dissertation.

However, what I usually see is the following:


There is always enough attention for the project (blue). That keen interest for the brain child (well, some children are ugly) or the proposal writer is always there. But the dissertation thesis of the PhD student? Yeah, some discussions about possible topics in the beginning of the work, some questions and brainstorming during certain times, esp. “anniversaries”. Some activism, some “great” ideas of what “is possible”. But other than that — not so important.

And that’s not only because the supervisor care more about his/her child, but also because many PhD students suffer from a rather ugly flaw: They want to do great work. Don’t get me wrong, wanting to do good work should be a basic part of one’s work ethic, but great? Or, even worse, perfect? You are learning this stuff. Yeah, you are learning to do science. So far, you have been mostly learning about the results. And there is no natural “cut off” when it comes to the amount of work you can invest in the project. You can always read more, do more, think more about a project.

And yes, you can learn a lot from doing the work of a well thought out proposal. In a way it is expected, because it was (most likely) written by a qualified scientist (got his/her PhD) with a workload for a qualified scientist in mind. But you are not, you are learning to do science. And not only can the project tax you to capacity, you can also spend way too much time on it — on the cost of your PhD thesis. And few supervisors would stop you clocking overtime on their brain-child.

I think the best practice is to ensure that you always work both on the project that finances you and your dissertation thesis. At least, if you are hired to be paid 50% of your work-time (common in psychology in Germany). So, the work would look something like this:


There can be times where you work 100% on a project — but only if there are also times where you work 100% on your PhD thesis. Don’t take assurances that you will have time for your thesis “in the future” for granted. PhD work isn’t the afterlife. If these assurances are made, take a cold hard look at the project proposal and ask yourself:

Where in this proposal does it specify months of unused time for the PhD student to do his/her dissertation thesis work?

I haven’t seen a proposal that included these “unused” times. If you are hired to do project work and your PhD, you are smart enough to be trusted with a project that is worth thousands if not hundreds of thousands. Be smart enough to keep your dissertation thesis in focus. Otherwise you will have spend years of hard work for a laughable amount of money — without having an academic title to show for.