The traditional ways of learning have never worked for me. As a child the only way for me to memorise countries and cities was to build stories. Who lives there? What do they eat? What do they learn at school? I was mediocre at high school and felt frustrated by the way things were taught. It wasn’t until university that I realised that with the right tools I really enjoyed learning. My learning approach completely changed because I started thinking about what learning outcomes I wanted to achieve and then designed my own path on how to get there. Four rules that guide my learning process.
“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” – Emma Goldman
Rule 1: Do what works for you
Everyone is different and has a personal learning style. Go and keep on discovering what this is. Explore what works for others and try different things out. My personal habit is to always map the main concepts and relationships visually. Furthermore, as doing research is a lonely process, I find it important to have structures in place. Decide on: where you work best; what time of the day you are most productive; what kind of nutrition keeps you alert; and how many hours (or in my case minutes) you can concentrate. For example, to keep my work focused I start my day by writing down my aims and objectives.
Rule 2: Always be curious
Learning needs to be fun. If it’s not, you’re doing something wrong. For me, this works by remaining curious about the issues that I study and constantly asking questions. This implies talking to other people about their research and to go to conferences to hear from practitioners. But it can also mean reading theories from different disciplines (that might be unrelated to my own work), diving into an unknown method that a colleague used or reading the latest policy brief on environmental standards. Although these things might not seem directly relevant to my work, in the long run this keeps my mind alert, creative and interested.
Rule 3: Work with your flaws
You are often your worst critic. But in order to develop the confidence to try stuff (and often fail), you also need to be kind to yourself. This starts by accepting your main flaws and work with them. For me, this means scheduling time to rest. I regularly overestimated by abilities and by building in time-off I make sure I allow myself to recharge. Furthermore, it is often difficult to see my progress. This is why I keep a log book to know at the end of the day what I have accomplished. Another tactic is that I write down in the beginning of the week ‘why I am motivated to do a PhD on my topic’. This helps me to feel confident in my abilities and work.
Rule 4: Have a support network
Without a supportive network, I would never have come this far. To me this is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of people believing in my abilities. These are for example people I met at conference or collaborated with. Don’t be put off building this network by sending an e-mail to introduce yourself or having a coffee with someone; connecting is part of everyday work. Mentors have a special role within this network. In every phase of my education I had at least one mentor that supported me. Don’t be put off too easily; the best mentors are at the same time your critics and your cheerleaders. They provide you with a good dose of honesty but show unconditional faith in your abilities. They keep you in the present but have an eye on your future as well.