Guest article: Advice for people thinking of doing a PhD

Guest article by Daniel O’Neill.

I am writing this article for the benefit of people considering doing a PhD. This article is written for a general audience, regardless of profession or discipline. It is an account of undertaking postgraduate research, and all views expressed are based on my experience. It should be noted that this is a general brief overview.

Deciding on your Topic

At the start of any research project, the topic is generally broad. The topic usually needs a lot of refining. The extent of the refining is noticed when the research is finished, the book is bound, and the researcher compares it to their original proposal. Refining is a necessity! A research project must be manageable, and the researcher must note this, or it can lead to difficulty. Generally, most people allocate themselves a specific period of time in order to complete their research. Do not leave the scope too broad, or it can become unmanageable. It should also be noted that some people will put a boundary on their research, but will dig too deep in that area, going beyond what they have to do.

I undertook postgraduate research in order to broaden my job prospects and develop new skills. On the first day I met with my future supervisors, I was given advice on the differences between an undergraduate thesis, and a postgraduate thesis. I was told of how hard it is, and the dedication required to progress to graduation. The topic I had was broad. I wanted to do research on the retrofit of local authority housing. Over time I refined it down to focusing on the cost efficient retrofitting of old local authority housing. The real title is more technical than this, and I will not trouble you with esoteric terminology here.

Necessities for a PhD

There are four main necessities needed for to undertake a successful PhD. These necessities are as follows:

  • Financing;
  • Interest in an area;
  • Determination;
  • Good Supervision.

It is essential that you have financial security while doing your PhD. This can be from personal resources, work sponsorship, or from a scholarship. Interest in an area you are about to research is essential. This seems obvious, but many think you can be passive and just piece together information. I don’t think you can. After three months of literature review, when it’s 2am on a Tuesday morning, and you are looking for information after getting a reference from another document, you will need to have interest. Determination is essential, some people associate PhD research with high intelligence. This can be debated, but a PhD is a test of mental strength. I found I had to have reserves to push on when I got caught on an issue or idea. One thing a PhD will test is the mental strength of the candidate. Good Supervision is essential. I was lucky to have great supervisors, who gave me critical feedback from the start, and motivated me when I needed it.

The support available for researchers at the university or institute is also something someone should consider. Some universities have staff with specific interests which may suite your area of study. A university may also have a reputation for research in a specific area. The opportunities available upon graduation should also be considered. The questions of what do you want to do, and where you want to do it should come to mind.

Lots of papers, paper everywhere!

To do a research project, you have to like/love reading. In doing a literature review, you will read a lot of information. You must have or must develop analytical reading skills. There will be lots of academic papers to be read, as well as books, articles, and websites. Prior to developing a boundary to my research I reviewed a broad amount of literature, with journal and conference papers being my core literature. Once I had my scope developed, I began reading more extensively, and intensively. I thought my reading list would be big, but I never imagined how big. Since starting my research I have read dozens of books, hundreds of journal and conference papers, hundreds of magazine articles, websites and blog posts. I have read academic books, business books, technical books, articles on associated areas of research, pamphlets on products and services. I have read formal texts, informal texts, and texts in passive and active writing styles. There have been several occasions where I have fallen asleep reading. When it comes to paper, have a good filing system! Have a hard copy of your core files, a desktop file folder, and a cloud backup. I used cloud storage, it’s free! I would recommend storing references online; it’s secure, fast, and efficient.

Rewards

Some people do a PhD to progress in academia, while others do it to rise through the ranks in their place of work. Some people do it for the status it gives. A PhD is viewed by some as a status symbol. It must be remembered that a PhD is rewarding. Obviously for some it will be financial reward, with career and broader work prospects arising from their studies. For others it will be pride in the work that went into the document, and the other publications. A PhD is far removed from the other academic qualifications, it is a marathon. It can take four years, or in some cases many more. The PhD route is very challenging, you gain life skills, you start to think more analytically, and you get to meet people and visit places you would never have had, had you chosen not to go down the route. Sometimes the skills obtained from a PhD can be overlooked by the candidate, or observers. Personally, I have obtained great research skills, improved writing skills, improved analytical thinking and reasoning, and greater cost and time management skills. These skills are transferable into any work environment.

Be Aware!

When/if you graduate, I don’t think many people seeing you accept your degree will think of the hours, days, and weeks of reading, research design, data collection and analysis, writing and editing that went into it. They will not think of the late nights that turned into early mornings, or the early mornings that turned into late nights. This needs to be considered by anyone going down this route. There is an image of the person achieving a PhD, walking confidently up to get their parchment, dressed in a suit, and robe. The observers, those who have not been down that road, do not think of the times that the person had no confidence, and/or had major doubts regarding their work.

Publishing Material

In recent times, dissertations have been published online, after the award has been given. From a significant body of research, most career researchers publish a number of academic papers and articles. The main platforms for publishing research are academic journals and conferences. The two significant things to consider when submitting to a journal or conference should be the chance of getting accepted, and the prestige of the publication in question. Aim for high ranking journals when submitting to papers. Attending conferences can be expensive – remember this. Articles can be submitted to magazines or websites which require such content. They usually take the material at no cost to you, as they need content for their publications. The idea of publishing research material was alien to me five years ago, but through the PhD, that changed. I have published two academic papers, and a number of articles. I hope to publish more material, including two journal papers in 2015. The quality of a researcher’s output improves with experience and time.

What may be ahead!

A PhD researcher can unearth many areas of interest outside academia. Researchers discover many different employment routes. Some people in the sciences and engineering develop programming skills and go working as programmers. Those in the social sciences and humanities may develop their analytical and editing skills and go into media or publishing. These are vague examples. A look through PhD graduate profiles will show the different routes people have taken after finishing their PhD.

I hope I have given a realistic view of what a PhD is like. This article is just my opinion. I am sure you will find others who will tell you different. However, I would advise you not to believe the very good or the very bad, when it comes to what a PhD route offers. One recommendation for a guide on PhD research is The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Gordon Rugg and Marian Petre. This book is easy to understand, and offers great advice to people thinking of doing a PhD. Before you make a decision on what to do, consider what you are choosing, and what may be ahead. Best of luck!

Daniel O’Neill is a PhD graduate, with academic research interests in construction. His PhD was on the retrofit of local authority housing.

 

There’s more about the realities of a PhD in this by book by Gordon Rugg & Marian Petre:

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research:

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

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