Interview season

It felt like the most important presentation in my two years as a PhD student: a meeting at the municipal Environmental Department, attended by me and six people who I want to interview for my research. How to present my research in a clear way, without too much jargon, and make it interesting enough that they want to participate in my project? It’s not something that we are taught in courses.

My presentation was well-received. And now it’s high season for interviewing so that I can get a good start to the autumn. With any luck, several of my upcoming interviews will lead me to relevant colleagues who I can also interview (which, in academic terms, is called nothing other than the snowball method). It looks like I’ll be travelling to Malmö every week for September and October. Twice this week.

This autumn I am hoping to do most of the interviews that I will need to write my thesis. In addition to the interviews, I have been invited to a monthly meeting where planners meet with the local energy company discuss their work in Hyllie, the new city district that I am studying. It’s very helpful to attend the meetings and hear how they discuss the issues they are working on—I can learn a lot more by listening than by reading meeting minutes. (That being said, I have also been building a huge collection of documents—meeting minutes, project reports, promotional material, website captures…)

As I do my interviews, I am also starting to write my first article. My idea is to study what it means to develop a ‘smart’ city district, whether it’s any different from the work to make a ‘sustainable’ city district. This article should eventually become the first of four that I write for my thesis. So far it’s a pretty short article. All I have is an 200-word abstract for presentation I will make at a course in October. I will base much of the article on what I learn through my interviews between now and then. But I also need to remember that my thesis is more than this article. My interviews need to keep the broad aims of my thesis in mind, not just narrower aims of the article I am writing.

Tomorrow I have my next interview, the fourth of the six people who I presented to at that meeting three weeks ago. He was nice enough to invite a colleague of his who is working on the same project. Before long I should have finished a first round on interviews, which—combined with comments from my course in October and a seminar in November—could be on their way to becoming an article.

Picture of Stadshuset Malmö (Malmö City Hall) by Håkan Dahlström Photography.

Field work (no safety equipment required)

For the last second half of the spring semester, I am focused my field work. It goes by other names too: data collection, empirical work, or just “doing interviews.” Still, I have been spending most of my time at the office. My colleagues might notice that I am on the phone a bit more, but beyond that it’s hard to tell the difference between this work and the writing that I did during the winter.

It turns out that doing interviews involve a lot of time at my desk. You could divide up the work into four steps:

  1. Figuring out who to interview
  2. Booking meetings and preparing
  3. Doing the interview
  4. Transcribing and next steps

Of these four, it’s only #3 that gets me out of the office.

1. Figuring out who to interview. This step varies in difficulty. Sometimes I want to learn about a specific project and I can find a contact person on a government agency’s or company’s website. Other times I am reading a newspaper article from a few years ago and that person has a different position inside the company. Or maybe I know about a company but don’t know the name of anyone there. Do I call the main office, take a guess and send an email, or should I wait until one of my upcoming interviews to get a reference to the right person?

2. Booking meetings and preparing. Once I  know who to interview, I usually follow the same steps. First, I send an email explaining who I am and what my project is about and why I want to interview them. Then I wait a few days and follow up with an phone call; that way I don’t need to explain my whole project over the phone to someone who might be running between meetings. (In rare cases, I do get a prompt reply to my email.) If all goes well, I can book a time right away. But they might not want to participate in my project, or they might not answer the phone or return messages. Recently it took my a month of trying…only to realize that the person listed on the website retired six months ago! Once I book a meeting, which is usually two or three weeks ahead, I have the time to plan my interview in more detail and book my trip.

3. Doing the interview. Most of my interviews require travel to another city, so I take the train. If I have an early interview in Malmö, for example, I have to travel the day before and spend the night in a hotel. Once in the right city, I have to get to the right place at the right time (taking into account the weather). Thank goodness for Google Maps.

An interview often starts with some small chat by the coffee machine. Normally I start by explaining my project a bit more, to give the person a better understanding of my interests. However, I don’t want to get into too much depth at the coffee machine, especially if the person starts giving useful information—I want to wait until we are seated at a table and I can turn on my voice recorder. Once I start recording, the interview usually lasts between 30 and 90 minutes.

4. Transcribing and next steps. The best way to celebrate a successful interview is to find a quiet place and start transcribing. Not because it’s fun—transcribing is painstaking—but because the pain is duller when everything is fresh and my brain is processing what was said. It’s also easier to write some notes and start doing analysis when the interview is fresh in my mind.

Transcribing is often mixed with a few other tasks. My preliminary analysis includes marking up the transcription with links to other information that I have collected, such as documents and other interview transcripts. There’s usually an expense form to fill out. And quite often, especially in the early stage of my project, I get suggestions of other companies or people to talk to. A reference is always a helpful outcome; it means I can start the process at step 2 and it’s easier to get the next person to agree to an interview.

Photo of Malmö Central Station by Håkan Dahlström Photography


I’ve noticed a change in the way people are talking about me at work. At least I think so—it could just be that I’ve started to see myself differently. It seems that I’m no longer one of the new PhD candidates in my department.

A couple weeks ago, I was asked whether I would speak at a seminar for new PhD candidates. Normally I attend those seminars to listen. Then, after a colleague’s 60% progress seminar, I asked whose 60% seminar was next…and it turned out to be me! (Though to put it in perspective, I have only used about 30% of my four years of funding.) Finally, another colleague asked me about experience in publishing a journal article. I haven’t even considered writing something yet, but he figured that I have been around long enough to have something published!

Have I done anything at all?

Yes, I have. It is starting to feel like I am getting somewhere. Not so much in the grand scheme of things; I would say that I have made a transition from being thoroughly confused to having an idea of what I will study. During the past two weeks, I presented a research plan at two different seminars. My research plan has been under construction for a few months and it’s my first attempt to write something cohesive about my project: stitching together a literature review, background, aim and research questions, theory, and how I will “go out into the field,” as we say.  (Note to engineers and natural scientists: no safety gear or rain clothes required. )

My research plan describes not only how I will do my research, but also why. Practically, I will interview municipal planners, politicians, and representatives of companies that build infrastructure in a new district in the city of Malmö. The aim of my research is to understand why things turn out the way they do—by analyzing who is involved in the process, which ideas are given priority over others, and how social and technological problems are resolved in practice. For example: why the focus on a ‘climate-smart’ city district in the first place? What other options were considered?

For the rest of the spring, I will focus on ’empirical work’ in two ways. The first is to get in touch with planners, politicians, and various companies to interview them. These interviews will form an important part of my thesis, but they’re not the only material that I work with. The second task is to systematically analyze the documents that I have been collecting over the past year, such as reports, press releases and web pages. Analysis means piecing together the history of this city district, looking for patterns in the way people write and talk, and looking for traces of tensions and conflicts that could have influenced the process. It also involves comparing my tentative findings to previous research, coming up with unanswered questions and getting back into the field.

For the next few months, I will likely be at the office a bit less. Instead, you might find me sitting on the train, dressed in a suit jacket, nervously double/triple/quadruple checking that I didn’t forget my voice recorder and interview questions. Or if I am at the office, I might have the door shut, carefully reading documents and transcribing interviews. With any luck, some ideas for that first article will be developing in the back of my head.