The Journey to the Hat

Sitting at your desk, night after night, weekend after weekend, writing a thesis that is slowly taking over your life… why would anyone ever embark on the five-year marathon of a PhD degree? Because, says Orsa Kekezi, it’s actually more fun than you think and totally worth it. Orsa is one of the twenty-six PhDs that will be conferred at this year’s academic ceremony and receive the coveted ‘doctoral hat’.

It was when Orsa was writing her bachelor’s degree thesis that she fell in love with research. She had moved to Sweden from Albania as a high school exchange student in Örebro, and then later to study economics at Jönköping International Business School (JIBS).

“Something clicked in my head, and I realised that this was something I enjoyed doing more than anything else. I just loved the idea of being able to pick a question, do all I could
to analyse that question and at the end of the day come up with an answer to it.”

So, after completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at JIBS, Orsa decided that a life in academia called to her. The first step on the career ladder? A PhD degree. Applying for a PhD is a bit like applying for a job. Candidates apply directly to a university department and those that are successful receive funding in the form of a monthly salary.

Charlotta Mellander sits to the left and Orsa Kekezi sits to the right. Both are sitting on the steps in JIBS' entrance hall.

Orsa Kekezi (right) with her supervisor Professor Charlotta Mellander.

Orsa applied for one of five PhD positions at JIBS’ Economics department and, upon successful selection, was teamed up with Professor Charlotta Mellander as her main supervisor. The supervisor is a key figure – a guide and vital support for the years ahead.

“As a supervisor, you help bring structure to the process, you can bring your networks, your academic experience of conferences, of communicating with journal editors and so on. It’s important to be sensitive to your PhD student’s needs – some need lots of help, others hate micro-managing and need to be given space. You need to find the right balance,” says Charlotta Mellander.

At JIBS, the support given to PhDs is also considered a team effort by the whole Economics department, something that Orsa appreciates.

“You have your main supervisors that you rely on a lot, but at JIBS the whole department is involved to some extent, and you can ask anyone for help. At ‘Friday tortures’ all the department professors are there to give you feedback on what you’ve been working on, to discuss how your courses are going and help you plan for the upcoming months.”

Getting past the major milestones

And so, with the Economics department behind her, Orsa was off on her five-year journey. There were many milestones for her to get past in her PhD degree, starting with the initial research proposal where you define your topic, the ‘raison d’être’ of your thesis. Thereafter there was the 120-credits worth of coursework to complete, then a year’s teaching practice to pass. Then for the final two years, writing took full focus, with a final seminar six months before the end where she presented the papers that made up her thesis.

"It’s hard to listen to criticism and let go of a paper you’ve been working on that has taken over your life and become your ‘baby’. But here’s my top tip – kill your darlings."

Orsa Kekezi stands facing a wooden board on the left. She has a hammer in her hand and is nailing  her paperback thesis to the board.

Orsa Kekezi nails her thesis to the wall at JIBS. The ‘nailing ceremony’ happens three weeks before a defence and symbolises the public release of a thesis.

“For me, figuring out the four papers that were going to be included in my thesis was the biggest milestone. Getting the questions down, rather than having the papers written was the hardest. There were some ideas for papers that I should have abandoned earlier, but it’s not easy to do that. It’s hard to listen to criticism and let go of a paper you’ve been working on that has taken over your life and become your ‘baby’. But here’s my top tip – kill your darlings,” advises Orsa.

Facing the fact that the work you are doing is going in the wrong direction, that you are finding it harder than you thought, is a bitter pill that all PhD students swallow at some point. Charlotta Mellander has some advice about this:

“Dare to expose your weakness; you don’t have to be the best. It’s when you expose what you are not good at that you can get help from others to strengthen the parts of your work that need it. And any criticism you get is not personal; it’s not about you, it’s about your work. A supervisor is there to help you identify which critical feedback should be acted upon.”

The final exam

Having made it past the major milestones, the end was in sight – the exam, the ‘viva voce’ or ‘defence’ (see fact box below), which for Orsa took place in June 2020, mid-pandemic. Gathering eminent international scholars at JIBS to participate as examiners for the public defence was simply not possible, and so, like many other PhD candidates that year, Orsa had to do a digital defence via Zoom.

"It’s an amazing personal journey; you invest in yourself and develop your structural thinking."

Printed copy of a blue paperback thesis nailed to a wooden board.

Orsa’s PhD thesis, ‘Labour Mobility Across Jobs and Space’, looked at labour mobility in Sweden, what happens when people switch jobs, the positive and negative consequences of this, and what happens when people move in space.

“I was nervous, yes of course, and I had thoughts before such as “I’m going to be the first PhD at JIBS to fail this!” But, actually, for me the final seminar before that was way scarier. There, an external scholar or ‘discussant’ reads your papers and gives comments – and you have no idea what these will be. There are nightmare scenarios where a discussant could say none of your papers are good enough, and then you only have six months left to fix that!”

Luckily this wasn’t the case, and six months later, on 9 June 202o, Orsa passed her defence. Looking back on her PhD journey, Orsa wants to emphasize that, yes, it was tough with long hours, but it was also a huge amount of fun.

“I got to travel a lot, attending summer schools and conferences, and met other amazing scholars from around the world and experienced other research environments. I also made some dear friends, especially with the other PhDs candidates at JIBS, whom I meet up and talk to all the time. It’s an amazing personal journey; you invest in yourself and develop your structural thinking.”

And as for the Academic Ceremony where Orsa will be conferred as PhD, she feels like she is closing the circle.

“It’s going to be different this year due to the pandemic, but I’m still looking forward to it. It’s a nice occasion, where you can stand up in front of your colleagues, your family and friends, and get your diploma and your hat.”

One thing is for sure, behind every person going up on that stage on 25 September, are hours and hours of hard work and effort. A PhD is about writing a lengthy dissertation on a piece of original research, but it’s also about personal growth, an intellectual journey and, at the end of the day, it’s a tremendous achievement.

What happens at a Swedish doctoral defence?

At a Swedish PhD defence, the candidates face an ‘opponent’ or an external examiner. This is always a scholar from another university, often from outside of Sweden. The chairperson of the defence opens the session, and then the opponent takes over. The opponent presents the PhD candidate’s thesis, giving their own interpretation of the methods used, and the results achieved by the research.
Following this, the PhD candidate is then questioned first by the opponent and then by the examining committee, which consists of three professors. Often the public audience is invited to ask their questions too. Then the defence is closed, and the examining committee is left alone to deliberate on whether the candidate has passed or failed. Their final decision is announced a matter of hours later.

Find out more....

Orsa's research

Orsa Kekezi talks about her Phd thesis "Labour Mobility Across Jobs and Space".

Academic Ceremony 2021

Orsa and the other PhDs at Jönköping University will be conferred at a lavish ceremony at Spira Concert Hall on 25 September.

Read more about Jönköping University's Academic Ceremony.