Informal talks and PhD advice

  • Event

By Anushka Chawla & Carolina Ulloa Suarez & Kenza Elass, PhD students at AMSE

The Informal Talks and PhD Advice discussion series was started in October 2020 as an extension to the seminar for doctoral students. Recognizing the need for mentorship and open dialogue for PhD students, a need intensified by the ongoing health situation, we invited faculty and alumni to talk about their experiences of various challenges that students might face during their PhD and post-PhD life.


At AMSE, our faculty has acquired a wealth of knowledge during their careers. While much of the research-related expertise is transferred from thesis advisors to PhD students, there are valuable tips on the dos and don’ts of the profession that rarely get discussed. Having spent many coffee breaks discussing the common challenges in doing research, we realized that there was a need to address the questions that worried many PhD students, and that the faculty’s wide experience could be put to good use in answering those questions. Our objectives were threefold. First, we aimed for topics with direct impact on our research, such as the publishing process, literature reviews, networking, and co-authorships. Second, to make it clear that there is no single ‘correct’ way to do a PhD, we focused on different career paths taken by researchers in both academia and institutions. Our final aim was to create a safe space for honest discussions on topics that indirectly affect our research but do not often get a public airing, such as the impostor syndrome. While there are many resources providing general advice to young researchers on these subjects, our approach emphasized researchers’ personal experiences in successfully managing difficult situations. Listening to anecdotes of how senior faculty overcame a tough paper rejection or made a career-changing decision illustrates the value of open channels of communication between students and senior researchers. Marc Sangnier, who willingly agreed to speak on the complicated subject of student-advisor relations, summed up neatly our motivation for this discussion series. “When the organizers kindly asked me to lead the talk around the ‘you and your supervisor’ topic, my first thought was «thanks for the poisoned gift». However, I also knew that advisee-advisor relations are an issue for both sides, with anxieties fuelled by numerous anecdotes and urban legends, and without many accepted norms. Preparing and leading this session was a revealing experience, causing me to question my own supervision experiences, both as supervisor and supervisee. It made me carefully consider the different (and sometimes clashing) incentives at play on both sides. Interventions and questions by participants also vividly brought back memories of my own time as a PhD candidate. I ended up having great fun exchanging with PhD candidates on this hot topic, and think that this definitely illustrates the need for transparent sharing and open discussion about the formal and informal arrangements that rule academic interactions and, more generally, academic activity.”


When we set up the informal talks, we made a list of topics of interest to PhD students. Along with research-related and introspective subjects, we also included some lighter ones, such as things senior researchers wished they had known before their PhD, and Twitter for young researchers. We are extremely fortunate to have student-friendly faculty at AMSE who enthusiastically accepted our invitation to present in the discussion series. The format of each session was simple – it began with the speakers sharing their experiences on a particular topic, followed by time for Q&A. Since we were conducting this online, the challenge was to make the sessions interactive and engaging. We applied innovative methods such AMSE School Newsletter 17 as enabling anonymous questions from students and using short surveys before the session to help our speakers better understand the topic from the students’ perspective. We took advantage of Zoom and used the live-polling feature to allow for questions that were both fun and encouraged discussion. In the end, all the sessions were interactive and enriching for students and researchers alike! Céline Poilly, who provided great insight into different avenues of research postPhD, had this to say about the organization: “The Informal Talks series is an excellent initiative. The session “Research in the future: institution and academia” gave me the opportunity to share my experience with PhD students, who turned out to be committed and curious. The exchanges with the students were very fruitful to me, we had great interactions and I should add that the organizers did an admirable job of organizing this session and making it fun.”

With the success of the inaugural year of the Informal Talks series and encouraging feedback from students, we hope in coming years to continue offering this safe environment for communication among young and senior researchers at AMSE.

Various topics of interest to PhDs were addressed this year by researchers willing to share their experiences. Some examples:

“You and your supervisor”
“Presenting at conferences and networking”
“Research in the future: institution and academia”
“The Impostor Syndrome”
“Managing multiple projects at a time”
“Things I wish I had known before starting my PhD”
“Co-authorship and collaboration”
“Using your economist skills in the real world”
“Field Experiments”
“Using Twitter for young researchers


© Nadia Snopek / AdobeStock


→ This article was issued in AMSE Newletter, Summer 2021.