Notes for those considering doing a PhD

I met someone recently who expressed interest in doing a PhD. Having gone through the process, I gave her some of my thoughts about what is involved, which I subsequently expanded on in an email. Since some of you reading this blog may yourselves be considering doing a PhD, or perhaps even in the early stages of a PhD, I include my advice here also. Note that I did my PhD under the UK system in the early 2000s.

Firstly, you should do some reading around the idea before committing yourself. I found the following book very helpful:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-get-PhD-handbook-supervisors/dp/0335242022/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

(I read an earlier edition, but I’m confident that their down-to-earth approach remains the same in this current edition). The Guardian took an extract / summary from the book here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/nov/08/highereducation.books

There are other books/guides I have not read, but which might also be useful:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Unwritten-Rules-Research-Study-Skills/dp/0335237029/ref=pd_sim_b_1

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Survive-your-Doctorate-Study-Skills/dp/0335234445/ref=pd_sim_b_20

In general, the things you need to be aware of include these:

Initial Considerations:

You will likely have to self-fund, since scholarships/funding opportunities are rare. In Europe, the best you might hope for is that the tuition fees (usually nominal anyway) are waived, you may also be able to get a small stipend (perhaps €1000 per year) from a discretionary fund from within the university itself. You may also perhaps get access to university hostel/dorm accommodation (often not much different from market rates, but at least you are living in an environment composed of other research students). In the first year of the PhD in London, at one point I had four simultaneous part-time jobs (exam invigilator / hall-of-residence IT support officer / part-time librarian / painter & decorator) to pay the bills. Even when I moved overseas at the end of the second year, where living more frugally was possible, I relied on regular English-language tuition work, a supportive partner and some support from my family, and a very simple material lifestyle.

Only do a PhD if you want to get a university position. If you just want to become knowledgeable about a topic, or teach/train in non-university settings, in these days of the Internet you can self-study, and avoid the petty politics and disciplinary boundaries etc. that a formal PhD imposes (see more below). Having a masters degree, and having a good track record of on-the-ground projects and teaching/workshop-hosting experiences, will likely be more than good enough for establishing yourself as having expertise in your area of interest for many practical purposes. (This point was specifically made to someone who had a masters and had got some satisfaction from doing her masters dissertation; was interested in permaculture both theoretically and in practice; was in the early stages of setting up a permaculture farmstead in rural northern Spain; was planning on conducting workshops and training on this topic).

Aspects of the Process:

Successfully completing a PhD is not a psychologically easy task. More than half of the PhD students that started with me at the LSE dropped out at some point (often several years into the process). This was apparently still the case as recently as 2007 – http://www.npc.org.uk/media/press/PhDfailurerevealed. These were bright people, but nevertheless not able to see the PhD through to completion. To finish, you have to be obsessive, relentless, deeply impassioned by your topic (but nevertheless be flexible enough approach it in the narrow way your disciplinary culture/your supervisor/s deem acceptable), and to continuously negotiate and haggle throughout with your supervisor/s and department bureaucracy.

Despite your initial passion about your particular subject matter, you also have to position your research clearly within the theoretical framework of your wider discipline (despite the fact that such theories will usually be complex, unclear and ultimately perhaps contradictory). To do this successfully, you have to have a head for theory and to be able to adopt a philosophical/analytical perspective, even if your ultimate intrinsic motivation is for your research to have some practical use for regular people.

The first two years or so (at least) will involve getting up to speed with the existing research and theories within your field. Since the precise details of ‘your field’ are required to be somewhat unique and original, there can be no pre-defined guide-to/path-through precisely what literature you will have to get familiar with. In reality then, this is a boot-strapping exercise whereby you have an initial idea of what you would like to study, and some notion of the theoretical framework via which you intend to approach it. Typically, your supervisor will anyway try to convince you that you should be looking at x, y or z (their pet research project, which they haven’t got time to undertake themselves). This will not be your passion, so you will diplomatically battle with them over this for a couple of years. You will meanwhile immerse yourself in the existing literature that seems relevant, only to find that much of it is not really relevant. You will also find that much of the academic papers/chapters/books that you read are either poor quality/mundane (at best, not saying anything definitive) or out-of-date, or undermine the validity of your proposed research question. Take-heart, this latter disappointment is supposed to happen (see below), and ensures that in the end, your final re-formulated research question is in fact relevant, valid and ‘of value’.

Finally, after two or more years, you will hopefully start to become familiar with some of the relevant literature, data and theories that are related to your research topic. You will then, in the third and fourth year, be able to define your research question more closely. If you are doing theoretical work (as I was), at this point you will be able to narrow down your reading and investigation to material that is more relevant/specific. If you are doing original field-work or experiments, around the two year point you will hopefully be able to define clearly what kinds of evidence gathering is going to produce suitable data and potential results that are pertinent to not just the asking of, but hopefully also the partial answering of, a valid research question. It is common, once your experimental phase, field work, or other form of evidence gathering has begun that you realize – often precisely because an initial pattern of findings is starting to emerge – that your original research question is either wrongly framed or partially redundant (vis-a-vis the established framing of questions/problems in your topic area) so you have to adjust your approach and find a slightly different research question. If you have taken a broad enough variety of measures when gathering your data (let’s hope you have), then the same data – perhaps with e.g. different statistical techniques applied to it – may still be of use in answering this new research question. You will also likely have to jump through some more administrative hoops in your host department/institution to formally make this adjustment to your research question. The upside is that at this stage, being pretty familiar with the research in your field, and/or the data that your initial investigations have produced, a pertinent way of re-framing your research question should make itself apparent. In short, the research you have already done starts to point the way to the right kinds of questions and answers.

By around the fourth year of the PhD, hopefully you will be well on the way to seeing how all those loose strands that you have come across up to this point might start to be tied together. You may take another year or more to write up your research, with more adjustments, doubts, running to the library /the lab/calling interviewees, to check some position/theory or perhaps even to incorporate some century-old research/data you just discovered, along the way. As chapters get completed, you should be running them by your supervisor/s and other academics whose work you respect, and further rewriting and tweaking as necessary.

At some point, your final manuscript, formatted and presented in what is deemed an acceptable/established form, is complete. It typically has 6-10 chapters, dozens or hundreds of references, and several hundreds or thousands of words of footnotes, appendices or data tables. It totals around 80-100 thousand words (or even more, but you hope they don’t notice the excess). Your supervisor/s, this time, approve your draft manuscript, and between you, you get to work on filling out the necessary forms and finding two (or more) suitable examiners. Since your supervisor/s may have somewhat lost a full handle on what precisely your research is blathering on about, you yourself may have more relevant ideas as to which people might be suitable examiners, and undertake much of this part of the process yourself, even though your supervisor/s will have to get formally involved at some point. If your thesis is very novel, or interdisciplinary, this process itself can be tiresome. Since your topic is original, no single person is very familiar with all the theories, literature and new data you cover. You are the only real expert on your own research topic. You can hopefully find two people whose experience, put together, can more-or-less cover the area of your research. Strictly speaking, neither is supposed to have any personal relationship with you up to this point (they are neutral). They reluctantly sign-up to reading your manuscript and finding a mutually convenient day on which to sit down with you for a couple of hours (or more) and rip-it-to-shreds, intellectually if not literally.

The Viva or Thesis Defence:

In the UK system at least, the possible outcomes of the thesis defence are numerous (see also http://libweb.surrey.ac.uk/library/skills/Research%20Skills%20Viva%20Preparation/page_42.htm):

(Very rare) – The thesis is failed outright, with no possibility for resubmission: The candidate is diplomatically advised that the work, whilst perhaps having some merit, is not up to an academic standard, and may never be, and thus they might better focus their energies on some other pursuit. If the supervisor/s have been paying any attention whatsoever, this should not happen.

(Quite rare) – The candidate may be permitted to resubmit for an MPhil, rather than for PhD. Again, good supervision should make this outcome unlikely.

(Occasional) – An MPhil may be awarded.

(Quite common) – The PhD is not awarded. The candidate must revise and resubmit (within 12 months).

(Less common) – The PhD is awarded subject to minor amendments (within 6 months).

(Slightly less common) – The PhD is awarded subject to minor corrections (within 3 months).

(Very rare) – The PhD is awarded forthwith, with no amendments necessary.

I was very fortunate. When I entered the room the examiners immediately stated that I had passed and that no oral defence of the thesis was required. Nevertheless a friendly discussion about the thesis ensued. Note that this outcome was only possible because in my case, the thesis was a theoretical synthesis, and thus had to either make its case convincingly, or not at all.

My advice on the run up to submitting the thesis and preparing for the viva is this: Perhaps the main goal of the PhD qualification is ensuring that there is a quality check within academia. The process of going through all that tortuous hard work not only results in an original contribution to knowledge, but also in the forming of an individual who has – through trial by fire – understood what is required of quality academic research. If this process has been successful, you should be qualified to be your own judge of whether or not your thesis manuscript is up to the required standard. In my case, struggling through those prior stages of the PhD did have the result that I understood what was needed to produce an argument (a ‘thesis’) that holds water. Frankly, much of the existing academic output that I waded through was not always of this standard, but at least going through the whole exercise helped me to gain the skills necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. I am also a bit of a perfectionist, which probably helps in the successful completion of the PhD.

After you have completed the PhD:

Most PhD graduates have to go on to do a further 5 years or so of ‘post-doc’ work before starting to get proper university work. A post-doc involves continuing to do research whilst receiving a fairly meager salary, little job security and perhaps few teaching opportunities. There is also no guarantee of a university position at the end of it. Even if you think a university position would be nice, be aware that the older generation of established, tenured professors are not moving on very quickly (why would they?) and with their sometimes substantial salaries, combined with departmental budget tightening, there is usually little money around to offer up decent positions for emerging PhD/Post-Doc graduates. The norm for such incoming graduates is now one of short-contract based teaching or research positions (with low salaries, no benefits in terms of health cover, housing, etc.) and no contract renewal guarantees.

A continuing academic career today requires constant publishing (‘publish or perish’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publish_or_perish) even though this results in more research output being mediocre ‘for-the-sake-of-it’ projects/papers. For those of you whose goal is mainly university teaching, note that prior excellence in your teaching and evaluations will not necessarily help you keep a university teaching position if budgets are cut or priorities change.

Summary:

Given the above, it should be no surprise that ‘permanent head damage’ is a common alternative reading of the acronym PhD. The process, lasting at least 4 or 5 years in most cases, is not something to be undertaken lightly. There is little practical benefit from doing so unless you are convinced that you wish to pursue an academic career. Even if that is your goal, there are many fewer academic openings each year than there are PhD graduates. Thus one recent commentator in The Economist has suggested that doing a PhD is ‘often a waste of time’ (http://www.economist.com/node/17723223).

Most importantly, consider that many and sometimes most of those who start the process drop out along the way, usually because they have in some way misunderstood what is involved. Better then to be very clear about what you are getting yourself into before you decide to go ahead or not. Not for the lightheaded lighthearted. Please leave your comments and/or helpful links.

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One thought on “Notes for those considering doing a PhD

  1. Words of Wisdom.

    ‘We shall not cease from exploring and at the end of our exploration we will return to where we started and know the place for the first time.’ T S Elliot

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