Insights from a PhD Journey: An Interview with Tomaš Klimann

What better way to understand the life of a scientist than to hear directly from those who work in the field? Today, I am delighted to interview Tomaš Klimann. Tomaš is a PhD student in psychology whom I have had the pleasure of co-supervising. His research focuses on negotiation and conflict management, and he is about to finish his PhD.

In this interview, I asked Tomaš questions I’ve never asked him before, despite our many conversations about his research. We discuss his unique trajectory, the unexpected lessons from his PhD, the digital tools that helped him overcome writing blocks, and how he learned to handle null results. I’m sure you’ll enjoy his experiences as an almost-finished PhD student!

A unique trajectory

I am very excited about this interview, Tomaš, because you have a special trajectory. Notably, you’re coming from a traditional community in Germany called the Sorbs. Would you like to tell us about your community and what characterizes them?

Thank you for asking. I like to talk about it. The Sorbs are a Slavonic minority living in Eastern Germany, specifically in a region called Łužica, the Sorbian name, or Lausitz, in German. They have lived in the region since the big Slavic migration wave, which I think took place in the 6th century after Christ. The Sorbs have their own languages, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian, which are Slavic languages close to Polish and Czech. 

The Sorbian community celebrates Easter with a ride through the countryside.
(Image by Rico Löb from Pixabay)

How was it to grow in such a community and then move to Graz for your studies? Did you experience any conflict coming from a more religious, traditional community? Was there also some support that you got from your origins?

Even if we have a strong cultural identity, one shouldn’t think about the Sorbs as being anything like the Amish people who live in isolation. The Sorbs are living with the German-speaking population. For example, my mom worked in a German-speaking hospital as an intensive care nurse, and my dad was in a tech company where the standard languages were German and English. So, even if we have our own schools and traditions, we‘re not an isolated group.

The hardest thing for me was and still is being so far away from home, 800 kilometers, to be exact. I grew up in a very traditional setting where culture and religion are central. This gave me a strong perception of where I’m from and my roots. Being so far away from home is quite hard. 

The second thing that is specific to your trajectory is that before studying psychology, you had a career as an actor. Could you tell us about that? How did you become an actor? How did you transition to studying psychology?

I wanted to study acting since I was 14 years old. For me, “Tomaš was an actor,” and I completely focused on my acting career. So, after my civil service, I started a full-time internship at a theater and prepared myself for castings at drama schools. Then, I got a place at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Graz. That‘s why I moved to Graz. 

I worked as an actor for three or four years, and my perception started to change. I realized that even though I had been wanting to be an actor forever, it made me unhappy. But if “Tomaš was not an actor anymore,” who was he? It was hard to let go of my self-concept because I had no idea what I could do afterwards. During this time, my reorientation process revolved around what I thought I was able to do. I realized that I’m interested in communication and conflict management and want to contribute to society. Two options started becoming clear: law studies and psychology. Psychology felt right.

Your PhD thesis is about negotiation and conflict management. You also have training as a mediator. Do you think it’s helpful to be a good actor when having difficult conversations with others?

Not really. My philosophy is that good negotiation is about building trust and relationships that aren’t fake. I find it’s important to be authentic and honest rather than play a role. However, some skills you learn as an actor are helpful. For example, the communication skills I learned as an actor help me teach and present my research. But it’s not about faking, playing a role, or being someone else. 

Unexpected lessons from your PhD

Now, you’re reaching the end of your PhD thesis. It’s been four intense years filled with challenges that you’ve had to overcome. Imagine you’re talking to someone just starting or still in the middle of their PhD. Looking back at those four years, what surprising lessons did your PhD teach you?

I didn’t expect it would be so important to focus on the story of my research. Working on a project for four years brings lots of distractions. And by distractions, I don’t just mean procrastinating on Amazon or Google. I’m talking about distractions like: “Oh, this field of research is also interesting. Or I might also look into this topic?” 

No! It’s essential to focus your energy on what is important for your research, especially when doing literature research. There are so many interesting articles out there that are just slightly connected to one‘s topic; it’s tempting to dive into them. But you should stay focused on the story of your research because other things may be interesting, but they are not important at this moment. 

Another lesson I learned was to turn down the voice of the ego. I had to stop wanting to always appear smart and clever because this prevented me from asking the right questions. Throwing away your ego would be even better but it is rather hard. So, just turn it down a notch, and be opened to learning. 

I love that you’re saying that because I also find that doing science correctly—and by that, I mean using the tools of science to understand something useful about the world—teaches you a lot of humility. You realize how much there is that you don’t understand, especially when you make a hypothesis and this hypothesis turns out to be unimportant. 

Oh, I am very familiar with that. (laughter) 

I believe that significant personal growth can only happen when our egos are in check. A big ego can convince you that you already know everything and there’s nothing new to learn. It can prevent you from learning from others, making you think you’re the smartest person in the room. That’s why staying humble is so crucial. 

The researchers who inspire me the most are those who are successful but remain grounded. For example, I was lucky enough to talk to the famous German conflict researcher Friedrich Glasl. Despite his achievements, he was down to earth and spoke with me as an equal. I won’t forget it.

Useful tools for writing

Like many young scientists, you struggled with writing at the beginning of your PhD. What were your biggest challenges?

One of the major challenges I encountered with writing was dealing with the literature, or rather, with the mountain of studies and theories that have been published on my topic. How do I connect them to my research? What to keep? What to leave out? How can I make it flow together? I used to struggle so much with these questions!

You don’t seem to be having such a hard time writing anymore. How did you overcome your writer’s block?

What helped me a lot were your workbooks and your step-by-step approach. Writing a paper is a journey of thousands of miles, and you need to know where to start. With the workbooks, I learned to have an efficient writing process. 

First, you focus on the story! Once again! (laughter) Then, you consider how you want to structure your text and which ideas you want to develop. Each idea should have its own paragraph, and each paragraph should have a clear structure. The paragraph starts with a topic sentence and finishes with a concluding sentence, which bridges the next paragraph. And between the two sentences, there is the filling stuff (laughter), the explanations and the evidence. It’s a bit difficult to explain it like that, but the course and the workbooks clearly explain all these little steps. 

What also helped me a lot was getting feedback from experienced colleagues. In our research group at the University of Graz, professors are critical but in a positive way. This has helped a lot when writing. If I felt unsure about something, I could bring it to our community and discuss it.

Were there any resources and tools that made writing easier for you?

Besides your course and workbooks, I use several digital and AI-powered apps and software. 

To find articles relevant to my research, I use Connected Papers, Research Rabbit, and Elicit. These platforms show connections and list related articles, which helps me determine whether I‘ve overlooked essential papers.

And to take notes, I use Obsidian.

Obsidian is a noting software like Evernote, Notion, or OneNote, right?

That’s right! It’s very useful for organizing and connecting my notes and citations. I create separate files for each experiment, and Obsidian finds connections between all these different files. It’s invaluable for drafting and consolidating my research in one place. 

For literature management, I use Zotero. There’s a plugin for Zotero in Obsidian. You can copy and paste Zotero’s text or screenshots into Obsidian, so you know which information comes from which paper. It’s so cool!

For generating ideas and improving my language, I mostly use ChatGPT. ChatGPT helps me convert my bullet points into coherent paragraphs quickly. As a non-native English speaker, I find this to be a huge support. I also use other AI tools specialized in language improvement, like DeepL.

Tomaš and I (Gaya) on our favourite bench in the city park, where we spent hours discussing his research.

Dealing with null results

Your doctorate was funded by one of your supervisors who wanted to test a specific hypothesis. He thought that the lighting environment would affect how people negotiate. You worked on this hypothesis for four years, but your experiments did not verify it. How did you deal with these null results, and what did you learn from them?

Well, at first, it was a great lesson in acceptance. (laughter) When I started investigating the effect of light on negotiation, there was almost no research on the topic. During my PhD, I conducted six experimental studies, and five of them didn’t show any significant effect of lighting. So now I doubt our initial hypothesis was true. But I believe it’s essential to publish these results.

Other researchers might have the same idea and want to conduct similar experiments. We invested time and resources to test these hypotheses, and our null results show that this approach might not be the best. By publishing our findings, we can save others time and effort. So, I strongly advocate publishing null results to fully understand science, not just the spectacular findings.

Yes! Null results are not discussed enough in science, even though many studies do not lead to the expected outcomes. But null results are normal! They are the essence of scientific inquiry. If all our hypotheses were true, we wouldn’t need testing. When scientists empirically test their hypotheses, they often find that the world is more complex than they thought or that they have missed something. Null results are valuable because they push us to think deeper and more accurately. In fact, we have learned a lot from your PhD, even though it didn’t confirm our initial hypothesis.

Thank you so much, Tomaš, for having shared these insights with us!

My pleasure!

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