Blog post

Life as a researcher: working in projects and completing a PhD

Published on
March 21, 2017

On the verge of obtaining a new title, Thomas Mattijssen writes about what it's like to complete a PhD.

I’m a scientist. I get paid to stare at my computer screen - the most-watched object in my life - and try to understand things that most people don’t bother about. I wrestle with complex phenomena, theories, methodologies and anonymous peer-reviewers, and I’m never quite sure
if I’ll end up as a victor of the scuffle. During this iterative process which
they call ‘research’, I’ve analysed and re-analysed, written and re-written and submitted and re-submitted countless times – or so it feels. In the end, this all should lead me to the holy grail of a PhD title.

This might sound a bit cynical, but that is not at all how I feel about my job. Completing a PhD is tough, but it’s also a very rewarding process. In my PhD research, I study the involvement of citizens in management and governance of green space. This has put me into contact with many engaged citizens, professionals, policy makers and researchers, and it’s
truly a great experience to meet so many passionate people. I’ve worked in multiple research projects on multiple subjects over the years, which has intellectually and creatively challenged me, broadened my perspective on a lot of issues, and made me more passionate about my fields of study.

If I’m at a birthday party, it’s not always easy to explain what exactly I’m studying. But while some people might think that we’re up in an ivory tower, we are studying real-life issues in our work at FNP. Yes, we publish in scientific journals that most people are not subscribed to. Yes, we use words and theories that are complicated to understand for many people - myself often included. But, as researchers, we always try to learn from what happens in the field, in practice. And we love to discuss our work with whoever is interested, no matter how busy we are.

And yes, we are a busy bunch at FNP. If our corridor in the office is empty, that’s not because we’re not working. We might be working at home, at conferences, teachings classes or doing fieldwork in
some faraway place. But doing research is not something which you just do ‘in the office’. Some say that it’s almost a way of life. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m often amazed by the dedication, long hours and hard work that many of my colleague researchers put into their job. Before I started on my PhD, I thought that intelligence would be the most important trait required to finish it. Now, in the fourth and hopefully  final year of my PhD, I’ve found out that commitment and perseverance are just as important - if not more so. You certainly need a good motivation to make it in science, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved over the years.

Life as a university researcher comes with uncertainties. For the last five years, I’ve been on temporary part-time and full-time contracts, in
different positions and for different employers. Job security, buying a house? Well, I guess that can wait a bit longer. First finish the research projects and get this PhD thing! Through the light at the end of the tunnel, I can almost see the end: Thomas Mattijssen, PhD. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? For me, a new life will start after the PhD, and I don’t know yet what that will look like. Even so, I can say that I will look back with joy and pride on my years spent at FNP. I’m proud to be a scientist!

Re:actions 3

  • Jean Jacques

    Thanks Thomas for a frank point of view about a PhD journey.I just got my admission letter and was wondering how it feels like.And you just gave me a clear snapshot.All the best with your last year!

  • Tabi

    What an incredibly satisfying PhD journey, Thomas. Thanks for sharing and all the best in your last leg. As you always say ''op het end, komt alles goed''!

  • Cathrien de Pater

    Thank you for this comprehensive insight in pre-PhD life. As a freshly started external PhD candidate, I am both warned and encouraged about what it entails. Good luck with the final part - I'm sure you'll succeed!