PhD, the final frontier – Part one: To boldly go

My final career? Facing the challenge

This is the first in hopefully a series of posts about a new phase in my professional life, in which I will try to pursue a scholarly career with a PhD as my first goal. My intention with this series is to document in detail the steps and activities needed to reach that goal. In this introduction I will describe the circumstances and considerations that finally led to my decision to take the plunge.


First some personal background. I graduated in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam in 1987. I received the traditional Dutch academic title of “Doctorandus” (“Drs.”) which in the current international higher education Bachelor/Masters system is equivalent to a Master of Science (MSc). I specialised in sociology of organisations, labour and industrial relations, with minors in economics and social science “informatics”. I wrote my thesis “Arbeid onder druk” (“Labour under pressure”) on automation, the quality of labour and workers’ influence in the changing printing industry in the 20th century.
The job market for sociologists in the 1980s and 1990s was virtually non-existent, so I had to find an alternative career. One of the components of the social science informatics minor was computer programming. I learned to program in Pascal on a mainframe using character based monochrome terminals. I actually liked doing that, and I decided to join the PION IT Retraining programme for unemployed (or underemployed) academics organised in the 1980s by the Dutch State to overcome the growing shortage of IT professionals. After a test I was accepted and I finished the course, during which I learned programming in COBOL, with success in 1988. However, it took me another two years to finally find a job. From 1990 I worked as a systems designer and developer (programming in PL/1, Fortran, Java among others) for a number of institutions in the area of higher education and scholarly information until 2002. Then I was sent away with a year’s salary from the prematurely born Institute for Scholarly Information Services NIWI, which was terminated in 2005. From its ruins the now successful Data Archiving and Networking Services institute (DANS) emerged.
It was then that I tried to take up a new academic career for the first time, and I enrolled in Cultural Studies at the Open University. I enjoyed that very much, I took a lot of courses and even managed to pass a number of exams.
By the end of that year, after a chance meeting with a former colleague in the tram on my way to take an exam, I found myself working at the Dutch Royal Library in The Hague as temporary project staff member for implementing the new federated search and OpenURL tools MetaLib and SFX from Ex Libris. This marked the start of my career in library technology. It was then that I first learned about bibliographic metadata formats, cataloguing rules and MARC madness.
I soon discovered that it’s very hard to combine work and studying, and because I started to like working for libraries and networking and exchanging knowledge I silently dropped out of Open University.
After three years on temporary contracts I moved to the Library of the University of Amsterdam to do the same work as I did at the Royal Library. I got involved in the International Ex Libris User Group IGeLU and started trying to make a difference in library systems, working together with an enthusiastic bunch of people all over the world. I made it to head of department for a while, until an internal reorganisation gave me the opportunity to say goodbye to that world of meetings, bureaucracy and conflicts. Now I am Library Systems Coordinator, which doesn’t mean that I am coordinating library systems, by the way. My main responsibility at the moment is our Ex Libris Primo discovery tool. The most important task with that is coordinating data and metadata streams. A lot of time, money and effort is spent on streamlining the moving around of metadata between a large number of internal and external systems. Since a couple of years I have been looking into, reading about, writing and presenting on linked open data and metadata infrastructures, with now and then a small pilot project. But academic libraries are so slow in realising that they should move away from thinking in new systems for new challenges and investing in metadata and data infrastructures instead, that I am not overly enthusiastic about working in libraries anymore. It was about a year ago that I suddenly realised that with Primo I was still doing exactly the same detailed configuration stuff and vendor communications that I was doing ten years earlier with MetaLib, and nothing had changed.
It was then that I said to myself: I need to do something new and challenging. If this doesn’t happen at work soon, then I have to find something satisfying to do besides that.

I can’t reproduce the actual moment anymore, but I think it happened when I was working with getting scholarly publications (dissertations among others) from our institutional repository into Primo. Somehow I thought: I can do that too! Write a dissertation, get a PhD! My topic could be something in the field of data, information, knowledge integration, from a sociological perspective.
So I started looking into the official PhD rules and regulations at the University of Amsterdam, to find out what possibilities there are for people with a job getting a PhD. It turns out there are options, even with time/money compensation for University staff. But still not everything was clear to me. So I decided to ask Frank Huysmans, part time Library Science professor at the University of Amsterdam, and also active on twitter and in the open data and public libraries movement, if he could help me and explain the options and pros and cons of writing a dissertation. He agreed and we met in a pub in Amsterdam to discuss my ideas over a couple of nice beers.

The good thing was that Frank thought that I should be able to pull this off, looking at my background, work experience and writing. The bad thing is that he asked me “Are you sure that you don’t just want to write a nice popular science book?”. Apparently scholarly writing is subject to a large amount of rules and formats, and not meant for a pleasant read.
An encouraging thing that Frank told me is that it is possible to compile a dissertation from a number of earlier published scholarly peer reviewed articles. Now this really appealed to me, because this means that I can attempt to write a scholarly article and try to get it published first, and get the feel of the art of scholarly research, writing and publication, in a relatively short period. This way I can leave the options open to leave it at that or to continue with the PhD procedure later. I agreed to write a short dissertation proposal and send it to Frank and to discuss that in a next meeting.

My decision was made. Although in the meantime a couple of interesting perspectives at work appeared on the horizon involving research information and linked data, I was going to try and start a scholarly career.

Next time: the first steps – reading, thinking, writing a draft proposal and how to keep track of everything.

One thought on “PhD, the final frontier – Part one: To boldly go

  1. Thank you for sharing this new phase of your life Lucas. You always provide interesting content so I look forward to more posts about this journey on which you have embarked. I wish you great success and I’ll be cheering from the sidelines. Best, Nikki

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