It’s little tricky to write generic advice about the PhD. That’s because every PhD is unique, as is every doctoral researcher. Not only are there clear disciplinary differences in the ways in which PhDs are accomplished, but the methodological choices that are made frame the various ways in which a PhD proceeds. Nevertheless, there are some potential patterns in the way the PhD goes – and it helps to get a sense of what these are at the start.
I’m a big fan of anticipating the shape of the three years, understanding what’s to come. Anticipating the PhD means knowing about the text you have to produce at the end. Cultivating your sense of anticipation means that you can plan and know, roughly, the kinds of tasks that you will need to undertake, and in what order. Understanding the PhD in its entirety means that you can get a sense of timing – when you have to have particular things finished – meaning that you’re not completely surprised by the activities as they arise.
So, anticipating the PhD text, tasks and their nature, their order and their timing… This all sounds a little abstract and I want to make it a bit more concrete. You can get a handle on the PhD by checking out:
(1) the rules about theses and examinations
Suss out the regulations from your university. This means not only reading what is required – how many words, how they are formatted and the like – but also the criteria that will be used to judge whether the text ‘passes’.
It’s not unhelpful to have a conversation with your supervisors at the start about what ‘a contribution to knowledge’ means, and how the notion of ‘original’ is usually interpreted in your field. This discussion can alleviate some of the fears you may have about the magnitude of the task ahead.
And if you already have a sense that you may want to vary your text from the dominant pattern, then it’s good to know what leeway there is in the regulations. Some universities stick rigorously to formatting rules, and require all PhDs to follow a thesis template. Other universities and/or faculties/departments are much more relaxed about the rules and allow, for example, the inclusion of digital content or the use of a different kind of writing genre or strong practice elements.
(2) the set of activities that you need to accomplish
A discussion about the final text allows you to focus on the things that always go into a thesis – a rationale, some kind of literatures work, something about the ways in which you approach the research and the methods you used, your actual results, some kind of discussion about what these results mean, and how they constitute a contribution. Thinking about the customary elements of the final text, at the start, positions you to think about how you will get them done over the next three full-time years/six years part time.
You can then consider the order in which the tasks associated with each piece of writing are done, and how they might be staged over the time period. Is there an initial internal hurdle with a viva – when is this and what needs to be done for it? This is often writing the first version of the rationale, literatures work and research design, but it might also include a piloting or proto-typing stage. If you are doing action research, this early work will cover initial reconnaissance activities; if participatory research, there will be joint planning; if archival work the first stage may include scoping the texts to be used – and so on.
It’s possible to consider at the outset how long you are going to have for field/library/lab work, how much time you need for analysis and how much time you will need for writing and crafting your text. Many doctoral researchers are surprised by the amount of time it takes to analyse data and to produce a good text at the end, one reason it is helpful to have this discussion with your supervisors now! If you are doing a PhD by publication, then beginning to map out the stages of paper production is crucial in order to complete in the time allowed.
All of these – first hurdle, field work, analysis, writing – can tentatively be mapped onto a calendar of activities. You can also include on the calendar other known deadlines – annual reports for example.
(3) the ways, times and places where you might start to put your work out
It’s a good idea to plan at the start to attend some relevant conferences. There may be postgrad conferences in your university or region. There may be events run by relevant learned societies. There will be one or two general conferences in your field that are good for networking and which are the right placers for you to talk about your emerging results. Its helpful if one of these is national and another international – you get to have that conversation about financial and other support right at the start. You can also think about what and where to publish.
Having done these three things, you can now see how the time and your energies have to be organised.
The photo below shows an example of anticipating the PhD in its entirety – it’s not a model to copy, it’s just an example of how this kind of planning can take shape. The white board in the (poor iPad) photo is the record of a conversation between supervisor Chris and doctoral researcher Helen (University of Nottingham) – and a big thank you to them both for letting me use it.
So what’s here on this board?
- At the very bottom of the whiteboard are some refinements to the research question – fiddling with this might go on for some time yet, or this may now be ‘right’.
- On the left hand side of the whiteboard is a sequence of tasks with calendar months attached to them. These go from the very start to the hand-in stage of the PhD.
- On the right hand side of the board is a working list of chunks of material for the thesis with some connections between these and tasks to be undertaken. This ‘chapter’ list has approximate word counts attached to each chunk, which also helps thinking about how much time must be allowed for writing.
- In the middle of the whiteboard are some of the things that the researcher will need to think about and do in order to get the field work completed.
These details might change somewhat over time, and they probably will, particularly in relation to the results chapters in the actual thesis. But the white board exercise isn’t meant to be exact, it’s not an ordinance map. It is a guide to thinking and acting. It’s knowing what’s to come and what must be done.
An anticipatory schema allows the doctoral researcher to have a clear sense of the frame for the next three years. Understanding the shape of the PhD to come means that the doctoral researcher has, at the very start, a good idea of the overall as well as the tasks ahead, a rough order of how they are staged across the three/six years, and the various types of activities that they must be engaged in.
This kind of anticipation removes some unnecessary PhD fear – of not knowing what comes next, of a huge unmanageable unknown thing, of running out of time. The shape of things to come… it’s good to know.