‘A good beginning makes a good end’ – Thoughts on getting the best possible start on your PhD

UPDATE: I posted a revised and updated version of this advice here

Some tips if you are thinking about doing a PhD… or are starting one… or, indeed, have been doing one but are not making as much progress as you wanted to.

Recently, I co-chaired the ICISO2010 doctoral consortium, and was reminded that while each candidate’s research project and personal journey are unique, candidates face common challenges. This post focuses on some of these hurdles and pitfalls, namely:
This posting is not meant to provide an exhaustive list of all the difficulties you may encounter. Rather, it is a short (and, decidedly, incomplete) overview, which draws on my and some colleagues’ experiences of conducting doctoral research in social sciences, and refers to the initial stages of the PhD. I would love to hear about your own experiences – please do contact me with your war stories and survival tips.

Before starting your PhD
You are about to invest the next three (or more) years of your life – and considerable money – on a doctoral programme. Have you done your homework? Make sure that you consider (at least) the aspects mentioned below.

Why do you want to do a doctoral programme? The PhD is, essentially, a stepping stone into an academic career. It is an apprenticeship, where you learn the tricks of the trade about conducting academic research and about disseminating your work via publications (e.g., articles in academic journals) and presentations to your peers (e.g., at conferences). Sure, you also investigate a topic that interests you, in depth… but if it is only the topic that interests you, not the process, than you might be well advised to do something else.

What is the best programme for you? PhDs are individual experiences. You will be working closely with your supervisor on a research project that interests you; not as part of a class who sit together in lectures, have the same readings and assignments, etc… It is your PhD, so you want to make sure that you find the right programme for you. For instance, would you perform better on a PhD based on essays / papers, or one based on a thesis? A programme with coursework and exams, or a less structured one shaped by your own progression? And would you benefit more from being part of a large intake, or from joining a small programme?

Who should be your supervisor? This is the person you will be working with, and who should be showing you the tricks of the trade. Don’t leave it to chance. Identify someone who shares your research interests so that you learn as much as possible from him/her. Moreover, you should remember that supervisors are very busy people with lots of demands on their time and, usually, getting very little formal reward for supervising your doctoral study – so, the closer both your interests are the more willing and engaged s/he will be. A tip from Alan Rugman, Director of Research at Henley Business School and Professor of International Business, is that you should ensure that the supervisor is an active researcher and writer in the chosen field – after all, this is the person meant to teach you the tricks of the (academic) trade. One word of caution, though: be wary of very famous or popular supervisors, who have so many commitments and demands on their attention that they are unlikely to have much time for you or your project.

Once you start your PhD
You did your homework and have now started your doctoral programme (or you didn’t really do your homework, and you are now trying to make the best of your PhD). My first advice would be to give your self a deadline. Yes, it is right: set an end date. When you did your masters programme, you knew that there would be a final exam, or a submission deadline for your project. Yet, most embark on this major programme with nothing but a vague intention to finish in 3 years’ time. Get hold of a calendar, and mark the date (not just ‘Spring’ or ‘Christmas’). Of course some things may go wrong and set you off track. But if you do not have a plan and milestones, you will never have a true perception of your progress (or lack of it).

Next, give yourself a reason to finish by that date. In my case, I had a job offer that was conditional on finishing the PhD. My friend Paula was adamant she would finish the PhD before her child was born – and, sure enough, she went on to deliver her baby shortly after the Viva exam. Perhaps you could book the holiday of your life? Or, you could set a visual reminder of how much money this adventure is costing you in fees, living expenses and foregone income – my co-chair in the doctoral consortium, Stephen Gulliver, estimated that it costs you about £40/hour to work on your PhD. If you were paying someone else £40 every hour, you would demand VERY good progress; so why not be equally demanding of yourself?

Ray Paul, founder of the European Journal of Information Systems (EJIS), warned against research projects that are too broad and ambitious for the PhD. ‘You are not going to solve the world hunger in 3 years’, he said. While you want to investigate something interesting and relevant, you also need to narrow down the scope of the research to something that can be accomplished in three years and reported in less than 100,000 words.

Your PhD should address a relevant problem, have a strong conceptual basis, draw on appropriate methodologies, and deliver real insight. Knowledge (of topic, concepts, methods, etc…) will not just descend on you – you need to read widely and intensively. Specifically, make sure you are familiar with the key journals in your area, which will both provide insight into the latest ideas and guide you on how to present your work in academic journals.

In addition to reading, you need to write, write, write. There are various reasons for this, including the following:
– Writing is a skill – the more you write, the better you get at communicating your ideas clearly and effectively;
– Write to think – the ideas and arguments may seem very strong and clear in your mind, but when you try to commit them to paper you will soon identify gaps and contradictions;
– Write so you can share – once you start writing, be it short summaries for yourself, a blog entry, a conference paper or a full-fledged article, you can start sharing your work with others. In turn, this will enable you to identify networks of like-minded researchers, and benefit from their contributions, too.

Finally, I would like to emphasise the importance of socialising, not just as a mechanism against isolation, but because research is a social process. Meet regularly with colleagues in your institution to discuss ideas informally or in seminars, and attend conferences in your area. And, of course, make good use of digital resources such as discussion forums, mailing lists, and social networks.

Final thoughts
In this post, I presented some suggestions that should help you start your PhD on the right foot. You may also wish to consider the following books:
– Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh’s book entitled ‘How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors’ published by the Open University Press
– Patrick Dunleavy’s book ‘Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation’ by Palgrave Macmillan
– Joan Bolker’s ‘Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day’, published by Owl books

Doing a PhD may fill you with self-doubt and anguish, but also has the potential to be extremely rewarding. In the process, it is too easy to get caught in the detail about how to conduct a literature review or collect data. Instead, take a step back and remind yourself of ‘what’ it is exactly that you are researching, and ‘why’ it is important that you do so. The why drives the what, and this drives the how – not the other way around.

8 thoughts on “‘A good beginning makes a good end’ – Thoughts on getting the best possible start on your PhD

      1. You are probably right. It’s more about ‘when’ now after my recent performance evaluation. Eventually, PhD is the next big thing for me. Getting started is hard, though. I may need more advice from you soon.

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