One of the most popular posts on this blog is a piece that I wrote, back in July 2010, with some advice for people considering a PhD. I decided to revisit it, and write an updated post with my top tips of questions to ask yourself before you start your PhD (because, as someone said, a good beginning makes a good end!).
- Why do I want to do PhD?
In essence, the PhD is an apprenticeship for a research career. For instance, you are expected to learn about different research methods, not just the one that is relevant for your study. Sure, you will investigate in depth, a topic that interests you. But if the only reason why you are pursuing a PhD is because you are interested in the topic, and it is not because you want to learn about the process of research, then you might be better advised to do something else.
- Which type of PhD programme is best for me?
There are different types of PhD programmes. For instance, many UK institutions follow the manuscript approach, where you need to write one single, big piece of work. In contrast, universities in the US tend to follow a PhD by publications approach, where you write a number of journal articles related to one topic. Likewise, there are programmes take in a large co-hort of PhD students, while others admit only a small intake. And there are programmes that follow a very structured approach with coursework and exams at certain times, while others are more flexible.
- Who will be supervising me?
Choose your supervisor carefully. This is the person you will be working with for several years, and who will be showing you the tricks of the trade. Don’t leave it to chance. Research the public profiles of academics in your area, and identify someone who shares your research interests. This way, you will not only work with someone who knows your field, but you will also ensure that s/he is motivated to work with you. After all, supervisors are very busy people who, more often than not, get very little formal reward for supervising your doctoral study. So, the more research interests you have in common, the more willing and engaged s/he will be.
- What is my topic?
Sure, you want to investigate something interesting, substantial and relevant. However, you also need to get it down in three or so years, and reported in around 100,00 words. So, make sure that you chose a topic that is neither too narrow, nor too ambitious. And while we are at it, make sure that you can identify and articulate how your work will contribute to the overall field, not just to the particular empirical case that you are studying.
- When am I going to finish?
Yes, it is right: before you start your PhD, you need to have an end date in mind. When you did your undergraduate or masters’ studies, you knew that there would be a final exam, or what the submission deadline was for your final project. Yet, many PhD candidates embark on their programmes 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 when you should be finishing. Then, work backwards, and soon you will realise that a PhD is not a time for lazy reading. You need to keep moving. Making progress. Of course some things may go wrong and set you off track. But if you do not have a plan and milestones in place, then you will never have a true perception of your progress (or lack of it).
- How am I going to ensure that I finish on time?
You wouldn’t run a marathon without having the right equipment, without planning your nutrition and hydration, or even without ensuring that someone will be there to cheer you on from the side line. Do the same for your PhD. And keep your eye on the medal – i.e., give yourself a strong reason to finish your PhD! In my case, I had a job offer that was conditional on finishing the PhD. But, perhaps, you could book the holiday of your life?! A friend of mine set a visual reminder of how much money the PhD was costing him, daily – knowing how much money he was ‘paying himself’, spurred him on to get the job done.
And, I also created an infographic. Well, kind of (it’s my first attempt at this!).
So, there are my tips. What else would you add, or would you like to know about doing a PhD?