Do you know this feeling? You go to your office every day, you work in your own little world, mostly on your own and at some point you start thinking: why do I do this? Who will profit from my work when it’s finished (if one day it will actually be finished)? Who will even read it? Will it really make the world a little bit better?
Well, it happens to me every now and then. It’s not fun. Motivation drops, I can’t concentrate, I want to leave work immediately and do something really important that will save the world. In good moments I have thousands of ideas about what would be more useful than what I do now. In bad moments I’m completely lost and can’t think of anything that could possibly have a positive effect on anyone.
This is more or less the mood I was in when I left for the Alter-Net Summer School in Peyresq, Haute-de-Provence, France in September this year. And then, something wonderful happened: I spent 10 days with 30 other students and almost as many lecturers and tutors in a beautiful, picturesque little village in the Provence mountains, talking, discussing and listening to lectures about “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”. And these 10 days not only changed my so to speak professional point of view of the whole topic (with which my PhD topic is also related) but it also made me even more emotionally connected to it. The lectures and discussions were at times frightening or worrying, at times optimistic and always motivating and inspiring. I felt that with so many bright people (some already with lots of experience, some having just started) working on this huge problem of global habitat and biodiversity loss together we could actually make a change. I now feel connected and part of a bigger picture. I don’t feel alone with my work any more.
The lectures covered a wide variety of topics all connected to biodiversity and ecosystem services, giving us a broad picture. We got to know “A business perspective on biodiversity” (Timo Lehesvirta), talked about “The challenges of communicating science” in the media (Mary Colwell-Hector), learned about “Landscape variability and impacts of ammonia in relation to the Habitat Directive” (Mark Sutton) and discussed “A critical perspective on valuation” of ecosystem services (Erik Gomez). And this is just giving a few examples of the many lectures and discussions we had. We also worked on a mock EU-project on how to evaluate and sustainably manage the services provided by the ecosystems in the Verdon catchment area (which is the area where the little village we stayed in is located).
But apart from all the (very interesting) scientific content, what was most important and inspiring for me was to get in touch with people from all over the world, working on the same pressing problem in different fields and from different perspectives. I made great friends! By living together, eating together, drinking and dancing together at night, going for some hikes and walks in the area, watching the amazing stars in the night, through every morning’s yoga classes and a day-long excursion to see all the beautiful places in the area (Le Lac du Sainte Croix, the canyon, vultures, lavender fields, an organic goat farm), we really got to know each other quite well and we are already thinking about where and when to meet again.
I think Summer Schools really give you the opportunity to view your topic from a wider perspective, to get new idea and to get in touch with people who work in the same research field. What’s more, most of the speakers included in their talks some reports about the “real working world” and their experiences. They were also very happy to share their experiences of and views on the work life in individual chats and to answer all the questions we had. So I think some of us ended up with a clearer idea of what we want to do after our PhDs, what we can expect when we start working and what is expected from us.
So I can only recommend to any PhD student to find out about opportunities to take part in a Summer or Winter school. maybe your research centre itself offers one. Or they give funding for their students to take part in these Summer Schools hosted by other institutions. Especially when you’re stuck with your work, getting out there, meeting other people and thinking outside your little office might really help! It did for me.