9 September 2019. I wasn’t nervous. The hard part was already over.
When I’m asked to describe my doctoral experience to others, I often reply by saying, tongue-in-cheek, that I now talk to myself a lot more than I used to. I suppose that that development represents a PhD to me: it signifies a lot of alone time, a lot of brainstorming, and a lot of self-discovery.
My topic involved using economics to look at, and monetise, different ways to encourage people to shift the patterns in which they use electricity. People are creatures of habit, driven not just by prices, but also convenience, habit, comfort. But encouraging such flexibility in their electricity usage behaviour can make it easier to match their energy demand to the supply of renewable energy – which depends on sunlight and wind conditions – and integrate it into our electricity grids.
And five things helped me get through this PhD.
It’s much easier if you love your topic. I didn’t, at the beginning. But I grew to enjoy it, especially as I became more comfortable with it and started to understand its nuances. And once I started enjoying it, it was easier to move faster, dive deeper, write better. It was even easier to enjoy life overall. That’s how big a part of your life the PhD becomes.
It helps if you know that it’ll be impactful. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the PhD as much if I didn’t know about the potential of such research to help transform energy systems. Knowing that what you’re doing can make a big difference, can make a big difference in your ability to do it.
Setting small targets helps. When you have just one deadline – to answer a question in four years – it can be all too easy to spend the first six-twelve months not being productive. And then before you know it, half your time is up and you’re only through a fifth of your thesis. Set small, short-term deadlines. Read two papers today. Write a thousand words tomorrow. Submit a paper next month. This can all help you with staying on track.
It’s all about the zigs. Early on, my supervisor, Steven Van Passel, had drawn a zig-zagging line on a piece of paper and explained that a researcher’s journey looks like that – a lot of ups and downs associated with milestones and bottlenecks. In hindsight, I find that those zig-zags also explained my PhD and broader life in Belgium. Move to Belgium – zig. Deal with the bureaucracy – zag. Make new friends – zig. Get fined for jaywalking – zag. Doel – zig, Hohe Venn – zig, Kassa 4 – zig. Sandwiches – zag, Genk – zag, NMBS – zag. Focus on the zigs. They always eventually show up.
But it’s also about patience. Through the zig-zags, the line is clearly upward. When you spend four years trying to answer a question, you learn the art of patience. You have to do that, for a good thesis. Take your time, dive deep, go down the hyperlink rabbit hole, clicking from reference to underlying reference.
But most of all, it’s about enjoying the ride! Four years can go by in a flash. Especially if you have a good group of friends to help get you through it.
9 September 2019 . It was a day of humor, of celebration, of endings and beginnings. It was a big zig.