So, you want to do a PhD?
Updated: Aug 19
Since the economic downturn due to coronavirus, I’ve received messages from past students, colleagues, and connections asking about how a PhD works and whether they can do one. I’m going to try to answer some of these questions below. I want to be helpful and supportive, but also quite frank from the perspective of a potential supervisor.
I’m an academic in the area of industrial and organisational psychology. My advice could be rather Australian, psychology, or even institution centric.
Can I do a PhD?
Am I eligible? Any specific eligibility questions should be directed to the Uni you plan to apply to. I suggest checking out the future student sections on Uni webpages, and emailing administrative staff if you need further clarity.
What does it involve? In essence, a PhD involves generating new knowledge. A more specific question might be... "how big is a PhD?" and we might answer that with how many studies, datasets, or papers are expected. But, these expectations vary considerably discipline to discipline, and university to university.
At my university, the planned scope for the PhD project (i.e., the size and contribution) has to pass three reviews:
Getting started involves an application to get into a PhD program, which usually evaluates the student, supervisors, and project. This application is reviewed by academics and administrators. If they think it is a PhD-sized project on a worthwhile topic, then they will approve it to commence.
Getting real involves attaining the confirmation milestone, which evaluates the plan and progress on the PhD at the end of the first year. Confirmation is considered by a panel of academics and invited experts. If they think it is a PhD-sized project on a worthwhile topic, and that good progress has been made, then they will confirm you as a PhD candidate. If you continue on, then there are smaller yearly check-ins, to make sure the project is on track.
Getting a PhD involves passing a thesis review and defence, where the thesis is evaluated by two independent, usually international and esteemed, experts in the field of research. The evaluation of the thesis itself (~80,000 words, 5-6 chapters, 3-4 papers) can be accompanied by a presentation where you defend against any criticisms or concerns raised. If the experts think it is a PhD-worthy project (i.e., significant and innovative research of a publishable standard), then they will pass it and you have attained a PhD.
Many PhD students find the confirmation stressful. It is an important milestone and hurdle to get past. The feedback at this stage is invaluable, and can help both student and supervisor get clear about the PhD. Usually there might be a chance to revise and resubmit at this stage, if you have a plan to address the concerns raised. If not, if enough work already has been done, then the project could be passed as a Master of Philosophy.
During a PhD, your supervisor is there to guide you through the research itself and these review processes. Your supervisor has knowledge of the discipline and institution specific norms. Most supervisors would not let their student work towards a project that is not PhD-sized or worthy.
Regarding the question… Can I do it? This is a big question.
There are many abilities and attributes that might help one be more (or less) successful. Certainly, you need to have excellent oral and written communication skills, be able to grapple with new problems and challenges (i.e., statistics, programs, etc), see critical feedback as developmental, and identify when you need help and ask for it.
At the same time, there are a multitude of factors beyond you - to do with the context and support around you - that are also make or break.
As I’ve alluded to, finding the right supervisor to guide you along the way is key.
How do I find a PhD supervisor?
A colleague of mine, Tim Bednall, also an I-O academic, wrote an open letter about how to approach potential PhD supervisors. It has valuable practical advice on how to do this.
When you ask someone to be your supervisor, you are asking them to collaborate with you and to help guide your work and development as a researcher. A PhD is usually 3-4 years full-time, but the commitment as a supervisor can be far beyond this time frame, potentially for the rest of your career.
I do not make a commitment like this based on an email exchange - would you? I tend to collaborate with students I’ve worked with before or that I’m aware of (i.e., via colleagues, at my institution or beyond). That said, I’ve also taken on students I have no history with or awareness of, based on our discussions and the strength of their initial research proposal.
The point here is that this process of finding a supervisor takes time and forward planning. If PhD applications are due next week or next month, then there might not be enough time to cultivate a relationship with a potential supervisor, nor develop a proposal together.
A PhD supervisor’s perspective:
Below is a list of things I consider in a potential PhD candidate. I hope these insights might help answer the question: Can I do it?
Of course, this is my personal thinking, the factors that guide me towards saying yes (rather than saying no). Other supervisors might have different priorities or concerns.
What’s your motivation? Do you want to do a PhD because you are intellectually curious and interested in the process of research? Or, because you are interested in a particular phenomenon, which you hope to discover something about and share with the world? These are good reasons. Of course, those of you who know my research area will know how potentially biased this statement is coming from me! But, I really do think these sorts of motivations are crucial, because when you encounter hurdles along the way (of which there will be many), your motivation for doing the PhD can help you persist. Enjoying the process of doing research, or identifying with the goal of it, can make doing the PhD feel less like something you have to do, and more like something you want to wake-up and do, day in and day out, for several years.
Are we a good fit? It’s important our research interests align: philosophically, morally, strategically, but mostly in terms of the specific topic and methods (also see Tim’s post about this). In relation to fit, I also consider if we could be compatible in our work preferences, that is, do I think we are going to get along professionally and be productive? Being mutually interested in the project and able to work well together is important, because a good working relationship will pave the way for the other factors below.
An example of what I mean by work preferences: I research employee wellbeing. Unlike many other academics, I try to get work done in work hours. Healthy working is achievable, and makes for more sustainable productivity over the long haul, it just takes a little planning and coordination. I know I will work well with students who can share this preference. I also want to encourage others to have a healthy balance between work and life.
Can you work independently? I want to be very honest about the workload and the nature of PhD work. A PhD is a formal qualification you are seeking to attain. It’s your PhD, not our PhD. We will collaborate on it together, but you will do it. There is no admin support, everything that needs to be done, you need to do it. Of course, you can build on and use all the existing resources I have, and also, build on the work of others before you. I can also connect you with others who can help you. In my experience, academia is open and collaborative in this way. However, as a PhD involves generating new knowledge, there will be many new things you need to work out how to do along the way. As your supervisor, I’ll help steer you in a good direction. By this I mean, trying to strike a good balance between doing ground-breaking world-class research and getting the darn thing done! Please don’t misunderstand me here, if I take on a student, then I’m in it with them until the end. But, at the end of the day, it’s you who do it, write it, and submit it (or not).
Can you take on feedback? Whether it is the design for a study, survey, analysis, piece of writing, etc., the work can go back and forth between student and supervisor through many iterations. We are striving to make it the best it can be - is it right (i.e., correct, what we mean) and does it add value (i.e., move us beyond what is already known, or has already been done)? You need a little bit of a thick skin, or rather, you need to be able to see feedback as not critical of you, but developmental and targeted at improving the quality of the work. The sooner you can make this transition, the less feedback will sting. Of course, I still sometimes feel sad and frustrated when something I’ve worked on is critiqued or rejected. But, mostly these days it’s like “oh that’s a fair point, we should do that better next time”, or “good pickup, how do we fix that?”. And yes, we can’t respond perfectly to criticism all the time, but this point is more about trying to respond in a useful way most of the time.
I asked some of my current PhDs for feedback on this article. They suggested I highlight that as a PhD student you have the power to 'say no' to a supervisor's suggestions for the scope of the project or feedback on particular aspects of the work. Remember, it's a collaboration, but ultimately it is your thesis, so you have the final say. They also suggested that students be proactive in setting meetings and the agenda for these, so they are getting what they need out of supervision.
Do you seek help when needed? Or, do you suffer in silence? The latter is not conducive to PhDing. The journey is long and a little tumultuous – there will be times when you need help. PhD supervisors are not mind readers (and we are also spread very thin). As a supervisor, I see my job is to help you get it done and hopefully get out of it what you wanted to. So, if something isn’t working, let us know, let’s work it out. Also, make the most of the peer support available in your lab group or research centre. Especially if there’s an issue you don’t feel comfortable asking a supervisor about. If you can become a part of a meaningful research group within your department, then you have an army of colleagues and friends who you can also seek support, resources, and feedback from. Making these kinds of social connections really adds to the PhD experience (and makes it feel less lonely). When you finish, you’ll not only have a qualification, but life-long friends too.
Why a PhD?
If you are thinking of doing a PhD, something to ask yourself is, why? What are you hoping to get out of it? What opportunities do you think it will open up? Is it to...
Gain research skills? We will achieve this.
Advance knowledge? We will achieve this.
Improve job prospects in industry? We might achieve this.
Get a job in academia? Unsure, unfortunately I cannot guarantee that we will achieve this. That said, if you want to pursue a career in academia, as your supervisor I will help you as much as possible.
The academic job market is competitive. Success depends on the outcomes of the PhD (i.e., good results and publications – which are not guaranteed in scientific endeavours). However, there are many good news stories about making the transition from PhD study to industry. In my Centre for Business and Organisational Psychology, we do find that our PhD alumni can have really amazing careers in industry, but they are quite strategic in how they leverage their training and frame their expertise. It's not an automatic benefit, it depends on how you use it.
Perhaps a different type of training or qualification might help you achieve your goals?
Again, the advice here is from my own experiences and perspective. Ask others who have done a PhD about their experiences too (e.g. why they did it and how they think it has shaped their career). This is also a good way to find out about potential supervisors. Indeed, getting insights from our students is far better than getting insights from us! And, if you still want to do it, then perhaps that is a good sign.