I recently read an article in the Guardian reporting to students “top tips” from experts (supervisors) on how to finish a PhD. While many of the tips are useful, it occurred to me that many other important points are missing, including some that, after decades of research, seem pretty obvious to me. So here I produce my own list, in a kind of rough chronological order (I put quotes around the few I’ve lifted from the above article):
1. Sort out why you’re doing a PhD. What stops more students from completing a PhD than anything else is an eventual failure of purpose, in particular a slacking of motivational drive. If you don’t have a clear purpose from the beginning, one that will stand the test of time, you are probably wasting your time. You can test out your motivation by doing research prior to commencing a PhD, in an honours project, summer internship or something similar. It may also help you obtain a scholarship.
2. Find the right supervisor. Your relationship with you supervisor may be the most important one during your PhD. Ask around other students and ex-students before committing yourself to anyone. There’s a lot of emphasis on getting the right supervisor, the right “Master” in the traditional master-apprentice model, that is, someone who knows the craft best. That’s the easy part, since academics routinely reveal their understanding, or misunderstanding, of their fields by publishing their thoughts. Learning about their eccentricities and how they may affect you as a student is harder, but important. You may luck out by landing with the best possible researcher while sticking yourself with a supervisor who ends up undermining you, blocking you, usurping your work or simply harassing you for years. It’s best to avoid ever landing there, but if you have, you may have a chance to change supervisors; in that case take it. For that reason, it is risky to start a PhD at an institution that has only one potential supervisor for you.
Another common failing in supervisors is an urge to claim ownership, or co-authorship, of anything one of their students writes, regardless of their own contribution. At my institution “honorary authorship” violates regulations; at every institution it violates integrity. You should be able to discover whether a potential supervisor suffers from this ethical malady before signing up.
Less extreme difficulties are more common. It can be difficult establishing the right degree of autonomy, for example. You and your supervisor may have different ideas about what your project is and, more problematically, what your role in deciding its direction and content is. Usually these are sorted out implicitly, but it may be worthwhile to treat them explicitly and at the beginning.
3. Learn about the process of doing a PhD. Most students just do (or try to do) a PhD. Many fail who may have benefited from taking the process of doing a PhD as a subject of study in its own right. I teach and do argument analysis. I take it as a part of that effort that I ought to be spending some of my time learning something new about writing and argument analysis. PhD students ought, I think, to similarly take their own efforts seriously enough to study and think about them.
So, for an example, you will have done one or more literature searches in your area of interest (duh!). Try doing a literature search in the area of: how to do a PhD. <break> If you haven’t yet found at least the following web sites, you haven’t tried hard enough (I provide links, in case that’s intentional):
- Marie desJardins: How to Succeed in Graduate School
- DMOZ: How to Study
- Ronald Azuma: So Long, and Thanks for the PhD!
- How to Write a PhD Thesis (English, French, Spanish, Italian… or use Google translate).
- Tara Brabazon: Ten Truths a Supervisor Will Never Tell You.
Of course, the meta-effort of learning about the process and the effort of the process itself needs to be in balance, with the overwhelming bulk on the latter. But a little bit of looking around before you dive in will pay off.
By the way, if you look at these sources and at some of my own writings (e.g., Research Writing in Computer Science — which is actually quite general), you will see that I don’t endorse everything the references above have to say.
4. Governments and institutions insist that PhDs take three years, or four years, or whatever, to complete. What’s pretty certain is that scholarships take three years, or four years, or whatever, to complete. PhDs take whatever time the research takes, plus whatever time being distracted by the need to earn additional money takes away. Some outside work is positively useful, such as research or tutoring in the same field as your PhD. This kind of work should be pursued, in moderation. It’s best to avoid other work until you finish your PhD, if you can. But be prepared for a longer haul than is advertised.
5. Build up a network with other students. The pain, stress and tedium of years of work on a PhD can be ameliorated by a little sharing. You might consider structuring the network on a regular meeting, like a biweekly brown bag discussion of readings or research.
6. Don’t “write up” your thesis. Most people, including supervisors, talk about a “writing up” period: after the research is over, the experiments are finished and the ideas are exhausted, it’s time to put it down on paper. This is a mistaken attitude about both research and writing. Writing is an integral part of thinking, of clarifying, testing and improving ideas. You should be writing from the beginning of your research to the end. A part of this is avoiding perfectionism: you should rewrite what you write, but not endlessly; instead, set at an end and meet it. There are always other things to move onto.
7. Enjoy your time as a PhD student. It won’t return. There are certain freedoms that you have with your time and effort. Use them to establish work habits, and break habits, that are useful in both achieving your targets and avoiding burn out.
8. “Write the introduction last.” This is generic writing advice that applies to anything with an introduction. You may also want to write your introduction first, which is simply a free choice. You should always (re)write it last, as, unless your writing is trivial, you will have learned something during the writing and changed your mind about something along the way.
More generally: since writing a PhD requires a fair bit of writing, go and learn something about how to write. My paper Research Writing in Computer Science is an OK starting point, with references to argument analysis, writing methods and style guides, but does need updating.
9. Publish and present along the way. Publishing good work is nearly essential for obtaining academic work after a PhD. The older model of publishing papers out of a completed dissertation, whatever its merits, will be more likely to lead to a prolonged period of unemployment. Attempting to publish, successful or not, will also usually provide valuable expert feedback along with any rejection letters. Of course, getting published also provides some evidence that your contribution to knowledge is real.
Giving seminars and presentations at conferences and neighboring institutions is an essential part of the whole process. Presenting complex material intelligibly is almost the definition of an academic lecturer, and the more practice you can get the better. Seminars also provide valuable opportunities for getting intelligent criticism of your ideas, and especially criticism from those with distinct points of view from your supervisors and peers at your home institution. Attending conferences regularly, whether local, regional or international, will help you build up connections that may last, supporting collaborations or providing job opportunities throughout your career.
Another worthwhile activity might be to assist your supervisor or other academics to write a grant application. As writing grants is an onerous, and in many respects a time-wasting, exercise you can probably find an opportunity within your general area of research — i.e., an academic is unlikely to turn away a qualified volunteer. The benefit to the volunteer is an increased understanding of the process, the gratitude of an academic, and possibly post-doctoral employment if the grant is successful.
10. “Make sure you meet the PhD requirements for your institution.” This is a no-brainer, but I suppose some students violate regulations on occasion. In my experience university bureaucrats tend to see their mission in life to be enforcing regulations rather than meeting the real goals of their institutions (e.g., graduating students), so you violate regulations at risk. As Tara Brabazon wrote, “Bureaucracy is infinite.”
11. “Prepare for the viva” as you would for a job interview or a politician would for a campaign debate. Take care of the basics, such as knowing how you will start out, e.g., summarizing the thesis and its contributions. Figure out five questions your examiners will most likely ask you and prepare answers. Practice them in a mock viva with fellow students or supervisors. If nothing else, a mock viva should reduce your stress level in your real viva. (Australians don’t have vivas, presumably because getting external examiners to sail over from England takes too long — which is related to the delay Americans have between Presidential elections and the swearing in, as a couple of months are needed for the horse ride to Washington, D.C. In any case, similar considerations to the above apply to candidature reviews, etc., which do occur in Australia.)