Part time PhD, how? Interview with Gokcen, the PhD Adventurer

Hi all! So, today this short month of February is coming to an end. This feels like the most eventful month in a long time for me! After having to move out of MIT with the end of my term there, my digital nomad week in DC and Philly, and coming back to Portugal, attending a PhD conference and then having to rest a lot, it seems it flew by. I traveled so much and it feels good now for a few days to be able to rest.

Being on the move is something that the #STEMazing person of today knows very well. Gokcen is a Turkish PhD student who splits her time between Ankara, where she has a full time job as an engineer and Istanbul, where she goes frequently for her PhD to track her progress with her supervisor. When I saw her IG account (@phd_adventurer) full of cafeterias and remote working locations, I knew I had to interview her for this month’s theme of digital nomadism. Even though doing a part time PhD is a slightly different matter, still it involves a lot of organization and choosing what is really important in life, which is what digital nomadism and minimalism is about most of all for me. Let’s hear from her!

1. Tell us about your research field and academic background

I am an engineer with a focus on control theory. In my undergrad I studied Control Systems Engineering. It can be briefly defined as controlling the behavior of any kind of complex dynamical systems. I really enjoyed studying it because it is a combination of engineering and applied mathematics. And I love them both!

In my Master’s degree, I started to apply my control theory knowledge on wind turbines. And I still work on them for my PhD research.  I am trying to design a system to predict any faulty behavior of wind turbines in advance. By this way, we aim to make contribution to reduce maintenance costs and increase the lifespan of turbines. So, hopefully my research will help wind turbines becoming more competitive against other energy conversion systems than they are at present.

2. What were the most relevant moments of your academic career?

I think being accepted to work as a research assistant in one of the best engineering schools in my country is the most relevant one. It was an important opportunity considering most graduate students in Turkey cannot find this chance because academical positions are so limited in number comparing to the overall number of Master’s and PhD students.  I started to work as a research assistant during my Master’s studies, and continued it for the first years of my PhD. Then I decided to make a change and left my job in academia to work as an engineer in the aerospace field. So now, I work in an independent job from my thesis and at the same time I continue my PhD as a part time thing. Being a part of the research environment not just as a student but also a university employee has been very beneficial for both my career and my general perspective.

3. For how long have you had your IG account? What inspired you to share the moments of your PhD journey with others?

I started it in June 2017. Before that, I have just had my personal IG account and I came across with and started to follow other PhD/academia themed accounts. I noticed that observing other PhD candidates’ posts about their lives, thoughts, opinions and recommendations had a positive effect on my motivation towards my research. So, I decided to start an account myself and be a more active part of this community.

It is even more important for me because as I don’t work in the university anymore, I am not surrounded by other PhD candidates or academical researchers. So, from time to time it was possible to lose my focus from my grad school and leave it behind the other parts of my life. By starting my PhD account, it got easier to remember the value of my research and set my priorities in a better way.

4. Nowadays I feel that having a full time job and a part time PhD is uncommon but it’s a wonderful feat! One of my former supervisors did his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at the same time as he was working in industry. How can you manage?

I am trying to plan my time in an efficient way. Fortunately, my company supports employees having graduate degrees and I am able to plan my hours at work flexibly. I generally take one day away from work each week. I use that day for my research, I also continue my research at least one day of the weekends. By the way, my university and the company I work in are in different cities. I go see my supervisor once in every two weeks. Which means I also have to travel constantly. But it is totally worth it because I think regular meetings with my supervisor is the key effect to be in line with my time plan. I strongly recommend it to all PhD candidates. It prevents me to get stuck in some not so necessary details and our discussions help me to speed up my research.

Both my work and thesis require a big effort and in certain times one of them becomes the top priority but at the end I try to find time for both of them in a balanced way. Although deciding to pursue my PhD in a part time way resulted in a very busy schedule, I like doing them both. It gave me the opportunity to gain industrial experience besides my academical background. After experienced them both, I know myself much better so I am more confident with my future plans and decisions.

5. Do you feel that having the IG account and looking into other’s experiences helps you relax? What other activities do you do to unwind?

Absolutely! Although we all know that doing a PhD is a very demanding job with many ups and downs, I think most of us forget it is normal to experience difficulties on this way and easily start to feel sort of desperate. However, seeing both the good and bad parts of fellow researchers’ experiences and realizing that we are all struggling with similar difficulties reminds me it is natural when things don’t go so well.

As for other activities, travelling has been my favorite activity ever. I try not to miss any chance of travelling in Turkey or abroad even in the busiest times of my program. It gives a very refreshing feeling and I especially like visiting and exploring somewhere for the first time. I have also been taking photographs for years in an amateur way which is also very helpful to relax. I am a bit lazy when it comes to regular physical activities. But although I still couldn’t manage to do them in a systematical manner, I go to swimming and pilates from time to time.

6. You are from Turkey, a country I’d love to visit! Yet, the PhD gave you the chance of traveling to different locations. What was your favorite place in your travels? Tell us about it.

One of the most significant opportunities I gained from my PhD was to spend a year abroad and continue my research in another university. I chose to do this external research part of my thesis in Denmark as I work on wind turbines and Danish universities have great knowledge on this subject. I spent a whole year in Copenhagen which has become one of the most special cities for me. It has been a valuable part of my life both in academic and social points of view.  Getting to learn a different culture, being a part of that academical environment were very valuable. Thanks to the international environment in Copenhagen, making friends from all over the world has brought unforgettable memories. Moreover, I knew about “Hygge” before most of the world 😊

Copenhagen, Denmark

For touristic purposes, my favorite cities are Barcelona and Porto. When it comes to choosing destinations for my future travels, I tend to opt for the places I haven’t seen before. But these two cities are exceptions for that. Even though I have been to both of them for several times, I would still be very happy to visit them more.  

Gokcen in Barcelona, Catalonia

7. I see your feed all the time working from nice cafeterias, I assume most of them in Ankara and Istanbul. For someone who wishes to work remotely from those cities, what are the best spots?

Yes, I generally share moments from different cafeterias. Both these cities have beautiful places to study. I would recommend library-themed cafes which become more widespread every day. They have sections like book stores or libraries inside them. The background noise which is not so distracting helps me to focus better on my work. It is good that there are such studying-friendly places especially when it gets harder to focus at home.

8. What were the main opportunities that sharing on social media opened for you?

Being a part of this community, contributing and learning from other members has been a rewarding practice for me as there is a very supportive environment formed by other or former grad students. Sharing parts of my grad school keeps my motivation up. Besides, I benefit from some techniques I see in other researchers posts. For example, lately I started to use the bullet journaling method which I’ve noticed from fellow researchers’ posts. And it really works!  

9. When will you finish grad school? After this, what are your career expectations and goals?

My due date is February 2019. But there is a slight chance that I may finish it before. After finishing grad school, I want to keep on working in Research and Development positions in control engineering field. I also would like to sustain my connection with academia.

10. Where can we follow your journey?

You can follow it from my Instagram account phd_adventurer.

Thank you very much for the opportunity of sharing a part of my journey in your blog. It was really enjoyable to answer your questions!

My pleasure Gokcen! It was nice to know that we have the similar appeal for traveling and we also share the same due date (my department requires me to finish without paying additional tuition by February 2019, will I make it?) and it is inspiring to see someone who can have such a nice balance between a full time job, a PhD and several hobbies. Definitely something I want to learn more of 🙂 Btw I also love Porto, I hope you like Lisbon if you ever come too haha.

With this post my Digital Nomadism and Minimalism February 2018 is over! The next post will be the review of The Happiness Project goals for February. How did I do? I guess quite well, I’ll share it with you very soon!


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