10 tips for future PhD students: What I have learned in my first year

By Johanna Coenen

A full year has passed since I started my PhD. Now it’s time to reflect on some experiences and lessons learned. Here are 10 practical tips, I would have liked to know from day one of my PhD journey. They can be useful for anybody currently doing a PhD or planning to do so.

1. Use a reference manager.
It’s obvious that doing a PhD requires a lot of reading. Yet, we easily lose track of what we have read in the past, or what we are planning to read in the future. Using a reference management software can support you in maintaining an overview of your literature. Personally, I use Mendeley. It forms the backbone of all my work. But many other reference management tools are available, such as Zotero, Citavi, or Endnote. The choice is yours.
A reference manager allows you to quickly add references to Word documents, but more importantly, you can save, group, tag, and annotate your literature. You can also share literature folders with colleagues. A particularly useful function is “watch folder”, which is an easy way to import new articles into your personal library.

2. Take notes.
This tip seems simple and self-evident. However, when searching the literature for particular information, we regularly come across concepts or definitions that we didn’t look for in the first place, but might find relevant for future work. For example, some articles provide a very good and precise overview of a certain field of literature. Other articles describe difficult concepts or methodologies very well. Or you find comprehensive figures or graphs. To remember valuable articles or text passages, set up a note-taking system that allows you to save these insights for later. Even though you might only use a fraction of all your notes, it can save valuable time when searching for relevant descriptions of theories, methods and cases. For this purpose, I started using Evernote, which works like a flashcard system or glossary. A simple notebook or other programs like OneNote might also do the job.
For example, I collected a multitude of different definitions of telecoupling or governance over time. Now I can always select the most appropriate one for presentations or texts. Taking notes simply protects you from the false assumption that “I will remember this argument or article later on”. If you’re like me and don’t have an extraordinary memory, make sure that you take notes on the wide variety of relevant concepts, theories, and ideas that you will discover during your PhD.

3. Use networks to get a general overview of the literature.
As a newcomer to the world of research, it is challenging to acquire a good overview of different streams of literature. Sometimes we search for influential scholars in a given field of research, and at other times, we try to understand how various research areas are connected.
A practical approach to addressing some of these questions can be the use of bibliometric analyses. Recently, I learned about a free and easy to use software that allows you to quickly construct bibliometric networks based on a Scopus search. You simply need to conduct a Scopus search with keywords of your choice, download the results in a CSV-file and import the file to the software called VosViewer. Examples from my research can be seen in two figures below. Within 15 minutes you will be able to better explore your field of research using network graphs.


Co-occurrence of keywords in telecoupling literature (based on 108 publications that use the term “telecoupling” in their title, abstract or keywords according to Scopus search conducted on October 2, 2019; minimum number of occurrences of a keyword is 3).TC_co-authorship_408
Co-authorship in telecoupling literature (based on 108 publications that use the term “telecoupling” in their title, abstract or keywords according to Scopus search conducted on October 2, 2019)

4. Set up email alerts for newly published literature.
How to keep track of articles published in your area of interest? One way is to make use of email alert services which will inform you about the publication of new literature on a regular basis. For example, you can set up email notifications in Google Scholar or Scopus for particular keywords, such as “telecoupling”, “sustainability”, or whatever topic or theory is of interest to you. This way, you ensure that you stay up do date about scholarly discussions and trends.

5. Ask your colleagues for newsletter recommendations.
We not only want to stay informed about newly published literature, we are also interested in staying up-to-date about the announcement of special issues, conferences, and workshops. In later phases of our PhD, we might be interested in jobs and funding opportunities. Since there are useful newsletters on these issues in any field of work, I recommend browsing the web or asking colleagues for recommendations regarding valuable newsletter subscriptions.

6. Make sure other people can find out what you are working on.
As PhDs, we usually sit quietly in our office and conduct research. In comparison to our supervisors and senior colleagues, we don’t have a well-established network and are not widely recognized for our work. Thus, it is very important that you create some visibility of your research activities to the world that lies outside your office door. You can either use the website of your research institution, ResearchGate, LinkedIn or any other channel to ensure that other people can get a glimpse of your research interests and can potentially connect with you, while Twitter is the preferred communication and announcement platform of many academics.

7. Keep track of how much you work.
It’s not a secret that many PhD students work (too) much. Sometimes I ask myself where all the time has gone. At other times, I leave the office with a bad conscience if I have not managed to finish my tasks as planned – either because I procrastinated, assumed ever new tasks, encountered unexpected difficulties, chatted too much with colleagues, or was trapped in long meetings. In order to keep track of time, I write down how many hours I work every day, and I summarize what I did that day in 3-4 keywords. It only takes a few minutes and the primary goal is not excessive self-maximization or self-control. Instead, it’s a simple way to help you recognize when your work-life balance is seriously upset. It also allows you to shut down your computer on a Friday evening without asking yourself all weekend long whether you should maybe finish some more tasks and duties.

8. Engage in peer-reviews and writing retreats.
I think one of the greatest learning resources are not dusty books or lengthy publications, but our peers and colleagues. They can provide highly valuable feedback. Exchanging manuscript drafts with other PhD students, who work on related topics, and commenting on each other’s work can be a very fruitful and inspiring exercise. Besides making use of peer-reviews, you can also draw on peer pressure to keep you focused and motivated during a writing retreat. Find a quiet location, close your email program, and immerse yourself in some productive hours of writing.

9. Attend PhD defenses.
At some point in time, we will hopefully all defend our dissertations. One way to prepare for that day is to attend other PhD defenses. These occasions provide a precious opportunity to learn how to structure and compose a coherent dissertation. In addition, you get to know what kind of questions are posed by the jury. After attending several defenses, you may realize that in your field, certain types of questions are posed at almost every defense.

10. Check these miscellaneous websites

  • We often try to visualize our data for presentations and publications, but don’t know which type of visualization works best for our particular purpose. On this website, you can explore examples of a wide range of different visualizations.
  • If you want to print a website without useless ads and junk, or save it as a PDF file, you can use Printfriendly.
  • ResearchGate is a widely used social network for researchers, which allows you to connect with other scientists, follow their activities and projects, and access publications.
  • If you’re not a native English speaker, you will probably find yourself constantly searching for correct formulations, and the right use of prepositions and adverbs. If you want to check how certain words or phrases are generally used, you can visit the website Linguee, which provides you not only with bilingual translations, but also with a list of examples how the word or phrase has been used in other (con-)texts.

Originally published at 
coupled-itn.eu on 18 October 2019.

Participatory and collaborative environmental governance – just symbolic exercises to sustain unsustainability?

By Jens Newig

No matter if it’s about siting new landlines, declaring protected areas or developing water management plans: Citizen panels, stakeholder roundtables and deliberative decision-making have become commonplace in Western democracies. While great hopes have been placed in such participatory and collaborative forms of governance to advance environmental sustainability, the debate is now more nuanced and partly skeptical as concerns both their democratic and their sustainability-oriented benefits. Ingolfur Blühdorn and Michael Deflorian from WU Vienna add an interesting facet to this debate, building strongly on Ingolfur Blühdorn’s earlier work on simulative politics and democracy. Their thought-provoking article entitled “The Collaborative Management of Sustained Unsustainability: On the Performance of Participatory Forms of Environmental Governance” was published just two weeks ago in Sustainability.

What makes this an interesting read is its broader sociological perspective. Rather than asking how governance does or should function to achieve normative goals, the article investigates why participatory and collaborative forms of governance are proliferating and which societal functions are served through these. The authors start out by arguing that collaborative and participatory forms of governance are neither (1) particularly democratic nor (2) likely to be effective in the sense of their transformative potential towards sustainability. This, they argue is because (1) collaborative and participatory forms of governance are typically coopting citizens or selectively empowering only some actors who do not have a clear democratic mandate, and (2) because “their proliferation has, as yet, not taken modern consumer societies much closer to the great socio-ecological transformation”. This, the authors speculate, is “perhaps because the prevailing forms of decentralized and collaborative governance are explicitly designed not to disrupt the established order and are, therefore, structurally unable to deliver the kind of change that scientists and environmental movements demand.” If this is so, then why are collaborative and participatory decision-making processes becoming so prevalent?

The key to understanding this apparent puzzle, the authors argue, lies in the performative aspect of governance. Referring to the title of our 2018 paper on conceptualizing the “performance of participatory and collaborative governance”, the authors re-interpret the notion of ‘performance’. In a nutshell, they distinguish

  • performance as delivery of outputs – both in a “democratic” and in a substantive (“systemic”) sense – from
  • performance as theatrical display, enactment or illusion in the sense of symbolic or simulative politics.

It is this second perspective that the article focuses on, proposing “that these new modes of environmental governance have become so prominent because they actually correspond very closely to the particular dilemmas, preferences, and needs of contemporary consumer societies—notably the desire to sustain particular lifestyles and understandings of freedom and self-realization, which are known to be socially and ecologically destructive (unsustainable)”. Hence, new modes of environmental governance, “if assessed from the perspective of these contemporary dilemmas, preferences, and needs, they do actually perform exceptionally well. More specifically, they provide contemporary consumer societies with a practical policy mechanism that helps them to reconcile the widely perceived seriousness and urgency of socio-environmental problems with their ever more visible inability and unwillingness to deviate from their established societal order, patterns of self-realization and logic of development.” Put simply, while we cannot achieve sustainability and at the same time continue the established logic of consumption, participatory governance helps us to at least symbolically resolve this apparent contradiction. ‘Symbolic’ stems from the Greek term symballein, meaning to ‘throw together’ – here otherwise irreconcilable aims (I’ve written earlier about symbolic politics and legislation, as it happens in a special issue edited by Ingolfur Blühdorn). Hence, ‘performing’ collaborative governance gives us the feeling of teaming up for sustainability, while at the same time we do not give up on our unsustainable lifestyles. As a consequence, these collaborative practices contribute to stabilizing (rather than transforming) current systems of unsustainability – thus the argument of the authors.

While I find these lines of arguments illuminating, my main point of criticism concerns the lacking empirical grounding. The authors illustrate their points by three empirical cases, but these of course cannot be representative. We should be aware, therefore, that the performative functions identified here may apply to some cases of participatory and collaborative governance, but not to others.

Assuming we do strive for environmental sustainability, and assuming further that governance (by whatever mode) can play a vital, if not indispensable role in this – what insights do we gain from this article? In terms of normative guidance, this paper may leave us with a fatalistic impression that not much can actually be done, because – and so long as – societies embrace the “notions of freedom, self-determination, self-realization”, which are “firmly based on the principle of sustained unsustainability”. Having said that, I see three productive lessons we may take from the article:

  • First, the paper is enlightening for all those of us who either adhere to rationalist and instrumentalist models of decision-making, or who see decision-making through the lens of power-play (in which big business tends to ‘win’). Having read this paper, one can no longer claim not to have heard of the potential dangers of participatory and collaborative governance – not just because it may be ineffective but also because in a subtle, hidden, yet striking way it may serve to obscure its symbolic functions which result in sustaining unsustainability.
  • Second, these insights by no means imply an empirically grounded verdict! Despite its three examples, this is not an empirical paper. In fact, the jury is still out on how participatory and collaborative environmental governance actually delivers (to avoid the term ‘performs’) in both a democratic and a sustainability-oriented sense. What is required, more than ever, is solid empirical evidence of which modes of governance ‘deliver’ und under what circumstances.
  • Third, from a governance perspective, it is one thing to be aware about the potential deficiencies and misleading hopes of participation; it is another to ask: What is the alternative? Should we go “back” to strong state-based decision-making? Is there just too much governance and too little government? Arguably, we not only don’t know enough about the delivery of participatory and collaborative governance, but also we lack robust evidence on the role of expert-led decisions, the role of administrative capacities and of elite-networks in shaping decisions for environmental sustainability.

All in all, I highly recommend this enlightening article – not least for use in teaching sustainability governance courses, confronting students with sobering insights on the functions of participatory and collaborative governance, and triggering discussions about ways to effectively govern towards sustainability – including or not collaborative forms.

Starting today: Leverage Points 2019

Today, day 0 of “Leverage Points 2019 – International conference on sustainability research and transformation” is starting. If you haven’t made it to the conference, please check out the programme here (http://leveragepoints2019.leuphana.de/programme/). Throughout the next days, many from our research group will present their research on the governance of sustainability transformation, institutional change, the productive functions of institutional failure and decline, and on the effectiveness of different modes of research.





Food Democracy Now! The Second Networking Congress of German Food Policy Councils

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Annelie Sieveking

This blog post reports back from the second networking congress of German food policy councils, which was held this year, between 23rd and 25th of November, in Frankfurt, Hesse. This event brought together food policy council (FPC) initiatives from all Germany and its neighbor countries Austria, Luxemburg, Netherlands and Switzerland. The FPC initiatives from the German-speaking countries and regions met for the first time in 2017 (for more details see my blog on “The beginning of a new food movement in Essen” from November 2017). In the meantime, more FPCs were established, e.g. in the cities of Munich or Freiburg, and the number continues to rise. Currently we can talk about around 40 different FPC initiatives that are emerging in German-speaking countries and regions.

About 150 participants joined this event in Frankfurt with the aim of (1) exchanging experiences that they gathered in the…

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Sustainability Governance Working Group at 2018 Utrecht Earth System Governance Conference

by Stephanie Jahn and Elisa Kochskämper

Several members of our research group attained the 2018 Utrecht Earth System Governance Conference: Benedetta Cotta, Lisa Glass, Nicolas Jager, Stephanie Jahn, Elisa Kochskämper and Jens Newig. Here we would like to share some insights from the conference:

The conference is organized by the global Earth System Governance Research Alliance, representing the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change. This research alliance aims at exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet towards sustainable and socially equitable development.

Our team had the opportunity to present the latest results and insights from different research that is all linked to this overall aim. We presented findings form the research projects Governect, MONA, EDGE and from Lisa Glass’ Phd project on Governance and the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as Elisa Kochskämper’s Phd project on Systematic Learning in Water Governance.

Organized in six overarching streams (Architectures, Agency, Accountability, Allocation, Adaptiveness and Theoretical and Methodological Foundations of Earth System Governance), the panels offered diverse views on how to tackle transformation from various disciplines. In order to gather these and further insights, the alliance launched their own journal during the conference. Papers can be submitted from now on.

Furthermore, the new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan was introduced by leading authors Sarah Burch, Aarti Gupta, Cristina Yumie Aoki Inoue, Agni Kalfagianni, Åsa Persson to guide further research within the community: „Our vision is to understand, imagine and help realize just and sustainable futures by stimulating a pluralistic, vibrant and relevant research community.“

The new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan can be downloaded here.

The conference organization also opened-up space for visibility of and information on researchers participating, which was a welcomed initiative not that frequently used at academic conferences. Our group members Elisa and Stephanie were interviewed by the conference media team:

Other interviews of participants of Earth System Governace Conference i.e. Ortwin Renn, Oran Young, etc. can be watched on the Earth System Governance Youtube Channel.


Workshop on “Rethinking the governance of European Water protection” 

By Nadine Schröder

When:  January 8th-9th 2019

Where: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig


Nadine Schröder  (Leuphana University Lüneburg)

Barbara Schröter (Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF))

Frank Hüesker (UFZ Leipzig)


During this workshop we want to discuss on European Water governance and to address frameworks/ lenses/ concepts/ theories and methods to research water governance: Which factors, levels and scales do they focus on? Which roles play participation, sector integration and basin approaches? We draw conclusions how the governance might be improved in favor of better performance: Which factors may influence local, regional and national success or failure? Are best-practice examples identifiable empirically? Additionally, we critically reflect how the chosen frameworks and methods predetermine the findings of regulating parameters. We aim for joint products as results of the workshop, like e.g. a special issue, a book, joint conference panels, seeding joint projects, work on the science-policy interface, a manifest and so on, which is open to be discussed and depends on the interest of the participants.

You can have a look at the abstract and preliminary program here:

Preliminary Program




Job opening: Post-doc on public policy and institutions / environmental and sustainability governance

Our research group at Leuphana University Lüneburg is looking to employ a post-doc to support existing activities and to explore new research directions.

Tasks and responsibilities: Research in environmental and sustainability governance, contributing to the international visibility of the research group. Innovative topics and approaches are particularly welcome. Potential research themes and methods include:

  • Institutional change towards sustainability, potentially linking sustainability transitions research with institutionalist approaches
  • Elite networks for the production of public goods
  • Participatory and collaborative governance, from the local to global commons, with a potential focus on the global South
  • Knowledge, (adaptive) learning and experimentation in policy-formation and governance
  • Systems perspectives on governance and institutional design, e.g. leverage points for sustainability
  • Innovative methods for the cumulation of evidence: meta-analytical methods and the potential role of “big data” in governance research
  • Field experimentation on governance interventions.

Further tasks include:

  • Developing and collaborating in writing articles for international journals;
  • Supporting teaching activities on governance-related topics in environmental, sustainability and/or political science study programmes, with a teaching duty of four teaching hours per week during the semester;
  • Assisting with day-to-day aspects of facilitating smooth collaboration within the research group;
  • Preparation of a cumulative ‘habilitation thesis’ (or equivalent qualification) on a topic agreed with Prof. Dr. Newig.

Selection criteria:

  • Completed university degree (Masters or equivalent) with above-average grades in the social sciences, e.g. political science, public administration, law, planning, human geography, environmental or sustainability science, as well as a completed PhD in one of these areas;
  • Very good English language communication skills (written and oral);
  • Academic publication experience;
  • Experience in empirical research, and training in statistics, QCA or other formal comparative methods would be an additional asset;
  • Ability and willingness to teach relevant classes; some teaching experience would be an asset.

For questions, please contact Prof. Dr. Jens Newig (newig@uni.leuphana.de).

Deadline for applications is August 15, 2018.

To apply, please visit the university’s website here.