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Doctoral Degree

Summit of a Student Career

München, 08/10/2018

Preparing a doctoral thesis entails exploring the unknown. The task fosters critical thinking, practical skills, and personal development. But almost all doctoral candidates run into difficulties and need encouragement and support. The GraduateCenter offers a broad range of advisory and support services relating to the doctoral phase of postgraduate studies and helps doctoral candidates to master the diverse challenges that their projects throw at them.

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Dr. med.? Dr. jur., Dr. phil. or Dr. rer. biol. hum.? Or the internationally familiar catch-all title Ph.D.? Doctoral students at LMU can choose from a broad spectrum of program models in more than 100 subjects, and the University awards some 1300 doctoral degrees each year. One of them was conferred on Dr. Astrid Séville, a Junior Lecturer in the Scholl Institute of Political Science.

Intellectual Curiosity
“Quite early on in my student years, it had become clear to me that I had my eye on a career in academic research,” she says. Working as a student research assistant, she became better acquainted with academic life, and finally took the decision to take up doctoral studies. “My curiosity was aroused, and I realized that I really wanted to devote myself to a single problem over a longer period of time.” In addition, she was attracted by the idea of taking an active part in academic discourse, and having a greater say in shaping the course of her professional life than most of her fellow-students could expect.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Like virtually all doctoral students, she too experienced phases of self-doubt and loss of motivation. But one shouldn’t lose heart when ‘the mid-term blues’ strike. Séville’s advice is to be realistic in one’s expectations and to set oneself realizable goals. “One should also keep in mind the fact that research projects never go according to plan,” she says with a wry smile. She herself found solace and encouragement in regular meetings with other graduate students in the departmental library – and she was helped by a very special institution at LMU. During her doctoral work, Séville attended several courses at LMU’s GraduateCenter. “The workshops and courses provided there certainly helped me to become a better speaker and lecturer,” she says.

Service Unit for Doctoral Students
The GraduateCenter was indeed designed to act as the central coordination unit for advisory and support services relating to the doctoral phase of postgraduate studies, and for the past 10 years, it has helped doctoral candidates to master the diverse challenges that their projects throw at them.

Each year, approximately 1500 doctoral and postdoctoral researchers take part in one or other of the over 50 courses in subjects such as research methodologies and the art of university teaching. In addition, the Center organizes conferences, briefings and training courses given by other LMU institutions and by outside agencies. One of the most popular offerings is “An Introduction to Doctoral Studies”.

The Classical Path
Most doctoral students in Germany choose the classical route to a doctorate, selecting a supervisor and (in most cases) a research problem themselves. Indeed, candidates may in principle choose to do a doctoral degree in a subject other than their major subject, as some of the most fascinating research questions turn up at the interface between conventional disciplines. “There is no obvious reason why a political scientist who is interested in healthcare policy should not make contact with the Faculty of Medicine,” says Dr. Isolde von Bülow, Director of the GraduateCenter.

In all phases of a doctorate, the quality of the interaction with one’s supervisor is critical. This begins with discussions on the choice of the topic and how to approach it, and may include issues such as whether or not the candidate needs to spend time abroad to learn new techniques. “That is why it is so important that the chemistry between candidate and supervisor is right, and that both sides are able to articulate their expectations openly.”

Dedicated Doctoral Programs
Dedicated doctoral programs represent a fairly recent alternative to the traditional one-on-one format. These programs are designed and supervised by members of related faculties, and usually include a coordinated, interdisciplinary curriculum with broad networking opportunities. The range of choice in this area reflects the diversity of academic subjects taught at LMU. “Many of these doctoral programs are small in scale and rather more aspirational in character, while others are large, well established – and have the necessary funding,” von Bülow says.

This last remark brings us to the inevitable question of finance. Doctoral students do not have to pay fees, but they do need to be able to keep body and soul together while they are engaged on their projects. Many doctoral students are lucky enough to get a doctoral fellowship, while Astrid Séville also had a part-time teaching position which helped her to make ends meet. Other students earn their keep by working for research institutes, or in non-academic settings, outside the University.

Good Scientific Practice
Question: What did the medical student say when he found three telephone books on his desk? Answer: “How long do I have?” – The joke may be an old one, but the situation it invokes remains all too familiar to newly accepted doctoral students. Before exploring the unknown, one has to plough through the relevant knowns – in the published literature. Here again, the GraduateCenter can help one find one’s way through the thickets. It offers courses on researching of sources, managing references, and the most effective ways of surveying and staying up to date with the literature, as well as providing tips on the legal aspects of the (re-)use of copyrighted texts and images.

In these courses, reference is often made to the tenets of ‘good scientific practice’ with respect to the appropriate use and attribution of sources and data, as graduate students need to be aware of the often thorny issues it raises. “This often involves a weighing-up of competing interests," von Bülow points out, so that it is very important that research students are acquainted with the accepted conventions.

In collaboration with the mentors of doctoral programs that are underway in the biosciences, the GraduateCenter has developed a series of lectures and workshops on “Responsible Research”, which was presented for the second time in 2017. The lectures are given by experts from more than 15 doctoral programs, and by invited speakers, and are supplemented by intensive workshops on topics such as plagiarism, open science and arbitration mechanisms. Attracting more than 300 attendees from all over Germany, the course is unique in both form and popularity.

How (and Where) to Publish?
Up until quite recently, once the thesis was finished, its author had to arrange – and pay – for it to be printed and published. But there is now another option. Depending on the regulations in force, which can vary from one Faculty to the next, it is also possible to publish one’s dissertation in electronic form – in accordance with the burgeoning demand for open access to scientific data. The University Library maintains no less than four servers for use as repositories, expressly intended for the electronic publication of research data free of charge. So doctoral students can now choose whether they want to make their work available in book form or as an electronic document that can be accessed from virtually anywhere.

Publishing is an industry in the throes of change. “Blogs, Twitter et al. are also making headway in the universities,” says von Bülow. These trends are also dealt with by the GraduateCenter in programs organized in cooperation with the University Library or the Bavarian State Library. Having submitted the dissertation, the candidate faces the last hurdle - the 40-minute thesis defense, in which the results of the study are presented in front of an audience, followed by a question-and-answer session.

Coping with the Troughs
Clearly, doing a doctorate makes a lot of demands on those who decide to take up the challenge. That’s why it is so important to be able to step back and take stock every now and again. Von Bülow advises candidates to have faith in their own resources: “Yes, I can”. And they should remind themselves of the last time they successfully confronted such a problem – for example in their Master’s project. “Sometimes even very simple things can help re-ignite one‘s enthusiasm for the task at hand,” she points out.

Astrid Séville recalls finding new inspiration in her visits to the cafés in the Maxvorstadt. Nevertheless, shortly before submitting her thesis, she ran into an unexpected obstacle. She was suddenly faced with the realization that the text needed a substantial revision. “I had to restructure a whole chapter, and this meant also deleting around 80 pages, which had taken a great deal of time and effort to write,” she says. In the end, the effort proved to be worthwhile: Her dissertation on “Constraints and the Absence of Alternatives: A Political Case History” won the Körber Foundation’s prestigious Deutsche Studienpreis on the basis of its treatment of an issue of overriding social significance. And the frustrating reconfiguration of the text of the thesis turned out to have an unexpected side-effect: Séville has since been able to quarry several further publications from the 80 pages of text that had to be deleted prior to its submission.