What we learn by being [PhDs] together

By Katie Klaniecki

Finding your place as a PhD student can be challenging. Navigating academic publishing for the first time is confusing, funding is always at the top of your mind, and it is easy to question the significance of your contribution to your field of research. I find a certain degree solace in reading The Thesis Whisperer and laughing at PhD Comics, but the greatest support comes from being connected to other PhDs who understand the journey.

That’s why I’ve found it essential to seek out and attend workshops and conferences for PhD students. At these events, you find yourself surrounded by peers who are both (a) passionate about sustainability research and (b) understand the wild PhD roller coaster ride. I attended such an event last week in Utrecht, Netherlands: the 3rd NEST Conference, titled ‘New Frontiers in Sustainability Transitions.’ The conference is organized by a team of PhD volunteers, which makes it a conference organized by peers and for peers. The conference aims to “discuss and exchange work in progress, leading to fruitful debates and feedback.” After two days of thought-provoking presentations and inspired coffee-break chats, I walked away from the conference feeling motivated to dig in deeper to my research, inspired by the breadth and depth of sustainability research conducted by PhD, and reflecting on what we gain when we discuss our work with our peers. So in that vein, I thought I would quickly discuss three ‘takeaway’ messages that I’ve been reflecting on for the past few weeks:

  1. Removing the hierarchy: This conference featured two keynotes by outstanding professors (Anna Wieczorek and Marko Hekkert), but otherwise the conference was entirely made up of PhD presentations and discussions. During parallel sessions, we learned about the work of our peers and received thoughtful comments and feedback on our work. I quickly realized that without the academic hierarchy in place, attendees were more likely to participate in the conversation, provide critical feedback, and suggest helpful next steps. While this isn’t true for all PhD students, I certainly found that I was more likely to speak up when I wasn’t competing with more accomplished academics for limited time or feeling nervous about giving feedback that might be critiqued by more knowledgeable members of the audience.


  1. Seeing the forest and the trees: I presented early-stage results from a paper looking at the relationship between place attachment and energy consumption behaviors in Transylvania, Romania. This work is part of the RECONNECT work package that aims to quantify reconnecting people to nature as a potentially deep leverage point for sustainability transformation. After my presentation I was asked in which ways this research informs our understanding of sustainability transformation. I truthfully answered that it probably doesn’t tell us much. This piece of research (aka a tree) plays the tiniest of roles in advancing the field of researching and providing insights on human-nature relationships. However, each piece of work we complete contributes to a more meaningful and complete understanding of our field and the potential for sustainability transformation (aka the forest). When as PhD it is discouraging to think about our small drop in the bucket, I think it is important to constantly flip between the tree and the forest-perspective to position yourself and gain appreciation for your contribution.


  1. Celebrating the abundance: As early-stage researchers in the field of sustainability science, it is all too easy to envision a dismal future where change is incremental and our unsustainable trajectory continues. That’s why it is crucial to attend events with other sustainability-minded PhD. I walked away from the NEST Conference blown away by the research that my peers have carried out and the potential contribution to our understanding of sustainability transitions and transformations. There are smart, bright, motivated students doing good work at universities across the EU (and world). Networks like NEST help connect us to other PhDs, which will hopefully lead to greater collaboration, idea sharing, and joining of forces for meaningful sustainability change.

While feedback from our research teams, PhD supervisors, and scholars from larger conferences is essential, there is something special that happens when the academic hierarchy is leveled and you talk peer-to-peer. The NEST Conference was a great reminder of this and has made me reflect on how I can further encourage these types of events with greater regularity. If you’d like to read more about other perspectives on the event, you should visit the NEST blog.

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