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A PhD is not an extension of studies, but taking matters into one’s hands

Currently in the first year of his PhD, Maciek Naruszewicz shares his thoughts from the early days of his academic journey. After studying for a master’s degree in applied psychology at Jagiellonian University, he decided to stay at the same institute and start his doctorate. He says the decision to pursue his research career at the Jagiellonian University was based on the fact that he already knew the professors and the good reputation of the university. Studying for a doctorate in psychology is a chance to continue his passion and a perspective for his own professional development.

“The context of the human being as an individual and how this affects his or her functioning in the social world was an important research goal for me.”

Maciek says of his choice to pursue a doctorate in psychology with a social specialization.

He has always had a researcher’s mind, and he also enjoys teaching and often finds himself explaining complicated things to people.

“I have a lot of ideas for creative teaching,” he says, referring to the teaching part of his doctorate. However, he knew that he didn’t want to become a school teacher, as he prefers to teach older teenagers and adults. He decided to pass his knowledge to students. This combination of his passion and skills led him to his doctorate.

Psycholinguistics and its application

Maciek’s PhD is a mixture of social psychology and psycholinguistics. Since his master’s thesis, he has been working on the concept of psychological distance.

“It’s a general formulation regarding our attitude towards other people, objects or events. Whether we feel a psychological closeness or distance toward them that affects how we perceive them.”

He stresses that it’s not about liking or disliking somebody. In situations where this distance is closer, people process information in a more concrete and emotional way. In contrast, where the distance is greater, people are more cool and abstract.

As part of his master’s thesis, Maciek studied the concept of social distance in relation to foreigners. For his PhD, he is going into the direction of psycholinguistics, focusing on the so-called distance and proximity language.

“It’s a specific way in which people speak about people or events when they feel a low or high level of psychological distance.”

As part of his research, Maciek and the team he is working with plans to reverse the relationship that currently exists in most studies. At the moment, studies create distance and test how the subjects’ language behaves then. Maciek plans to test how distance will be modified for subjects who will use the language of distance or proximity.

“We are reversing this relationship in the other direction. This is very unique research and stresses that similar studies have not yet been undertaken.” 

And how to explain psycholinguistics in simple terms?

“One can discuss the model of linguistic categories, that is how using different verbs to convey a message can make it abstract and create distance. For example:

When someone says “John beats Adam,” there is a lot of proximity, there is a concrete description of the situation and a lot of emotion. To make the message more abstract, an interpretive verb is used and the result is: “John harms Adam”. Here, the word “harms” increases room for interpretation. State verbs can also be introduced: “John hates Adam”. The state thus described – hates – removes the action performed against Adam. There is then a great distance and equally great room for interpretation. And you can also go to a specifically different level, that is, the level of traits: since John beats, John is aggressive. In such a statement Adam, the activity and the attitude towards him disappear. There is only a vague list of adjectives. This is how you can, with words, distance yourself from the event.

Practical use of the research

The practical implications of Maciek’s research are many. He says he wants to create a set of tips for people who speak in public or are in politics. This guide would advise on how to speak in order to shorten the distance with the audience. Of course, there are universal traits like body language, but some are not as obvious. These are the ones that would be discussed in the guide. And the implications would give a concrete workshop on what words to use.

Maciek adds that in the future he also wants to create a universal textbook on distance.

“This would also open a good front in working on calming techniques. With the help of the language of detachment, stress resulting from various situations can be significantly reduced. This happens by rephrasing speech so that the message is not so stressful for someone.”

Teaching at the university 

Maciek also mentions why he wanted to teach specifically at the university level, rather than in earlier education, such as schools:

“At the university level, individual interpretation of phenomena and concepts comes in strongly. It’s not about forcing basic knowledge into children’s minds, but rather entering into discussion, noticing complexity or even challenging something that has already been created and looking for alternatives with students.”

He is teaching his first classes this semester, so for now he is slowly implementing his ideas. These include conducting an Oxford debate and the so-called Jigsaw puzzle. It’s a method in which a big emphasis is put on group work between classes, where interaction begins in the first class and only ends in the next.

Currently, in his classes, Maciek creates imaginary situations where students take on different roles, such as radical defenders of a given statement. Recently, in a class on the psychology of power, students played extreme representatives of views on power, with completely different views. They had to come up with arguments that such people would use, and hold a discussion among themselves – whether power is necessary or corrupting.

Transitioning from the role of a student to a teacher

“The transition at the beginning of a PhD is difficult.”

He says that a large number of doctoral students have the illusion that a PhD is an extension of their studies. However, this quickly passes, and it turns out to be a very serious and “adult” life. He also notes that at the beginning one is in a kind of role suspension between student and researcher.

“That MA and PhD in front of your name changes a lot in your sense of authority,” Maciek adds. He himself tries to approach grading transparently and sticks to the rules. He also tries to strike the right balance between overly distancing himself from the students he teaches and “socializing with them.” He also hopes that students understand everything during his classes. There is a lot of self-doubt, he says, referring to the start of the new role.

He is currently teaching a subject in social psychology. He notes that these classes are different from those taught by other doctoral students at the beginning of their PhDs. Most of them do not strictly supervise the whole group, they only teach individual classes. And in his classes, in addition to the lectures and exercises themselves, students also have to perform replications of experiments. In addition, he leads the group all semester, from February to June.

“Taking responsibility for a group of people, leading them from start to finish, has been a challenge. It changes the perspective, but I think I’m coping, despite the stress.”

He adds that teaching in this way is also different from the one-time workshops on psychological education, which he conducted during his master’s degree with high schoolers.

“Healthy” mid-semester crisis

Maciek says he has noticed what he calls a “mid-semester crisis” in himself and other PhD students.

“Around February, there is a painful confrontation between these perceptions of the PhD and the facts”.

He talks about the idealized image of doctoral school. Only after starting, one encounters organizational chaos and finds that despite the small number of doctoral students, there is no individualized approach.

“But I think this is a healthy crisis. It’s the point when one begins to adapt very consciously to this new social situation. One begins to see where it is not worth going and where, on the other hand, it is worth getting involved”.

He also stresses that it’s a good idea to look for additional activities as early as possible during a PhD.

There are various initiatives organized as part of the Doctoral Society, which give experience and a valuable entry in the CV, he argues. 

He himself contributes to the editorial board of the Doctoral Student Society Monograph. By helping with published articles, he earns ECTS credits, which are also needed for doctoral studies. Maciek encourages earning them not only by teaching classes, but also at conference speeches or while writing articles.

“These are very valuable initiatives and also cool prospects to get your first experience from.”

He adds that learning the ins and outs of the article writing process, contacting reviewers or searching for them on the Internet are all very valuable skills that matter later on. “There are a multitude of prospects, but people lack the self-reliance to find these places. It’s a bit of a flaw that comes from the education system, which doesn’t develop a sense that you can take matters into your own hands.”

After his “mid-semester crisis,” he is trying to work out a balance between perfectionism and a more stable approach to his doctorate.

He gave up his part-time job, which he initially tried to combine with his PhD. It’s feasible, but it’s difficult to find time to engage precisely in such additional activities, he says. He laughs that he knows only one person which combines a full-time job with a PhD.

Further goals related to psychology

Maciek’s goal is to continue his teaching and research work.

“Maybe even more the didactic one than the scientific one.”

Maciek wants to accumulate as much experience as possible in his field and stay at the Jagiellonian University. He is also considering taking a one-year postgraduate course in transportation psychology. His aspirations for the future, however, are not limited to life at the university. Outside of it, he intends to conduct training courses and workshops, as he has always felt comfortable in this area. In addition, he is considering doing a course in solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), a type of psychological counseling. These plans are long-term, however, and he is currently focused on continuing his doctorate.

Fot. Pixabay

Barbara Niemczyk
I graduated from a bachelor's degree in applied linguistics and a master's degree in journalism. I have done numerous internships and fellowships in the past years, including a translation traineeship at one of the EU Institutions and a journalistic fellowship at Deutsche Welle. I have a big passion for telling stories, talking with people and exchanging ideas. I am proactive and have excellent writing skills and ease at making new connections. I like to spend my free time sailing, hiking and practicing Ashtanga Yoga.
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