starting the PhD – don’t panic

I was sitting in my office the other day talking with a beginning PhDer. A nearly-finished doctor popped her head around the door. I asked her what advice she would give someone just starting out on their doctorate, and her first words were “Don’t panic.” This is great advice and it seems fitting to end this set of posts about starting the PhD by focusing on them.

Why? Why Are the words “don’t panic” so helpful? Well, it’s because there are lots of places and times in the PhD when it is quite possible to panic. But some of these places and times are also predictable. So if you know that there are some likely sticking points coming up, points where your first response might be – well – panic, then maybe you won’t. Panic, that is.

Mary just couldn't help feeling panicked by the sheer volume of literature she now had to work with...

Mary wanted to run away from yet another discussion about her research question.

Here’s a list of four potential, predictable panic points.

1. The research question. You can’t get the words of your research question right. They slip away from you, never quite encapsulating what it is that you really want to find out. You think you have it and you take the wording to your supervisor(s) and they point out problems with your terminology and unhelpful inferences. They might say the question is actually un-researchable or that it’s just too big, or conversely, too narrow, or that you have an answer already implied in the way the question is formulated.Back to the drawing board.
Don’t panic. Research questions are hard to get right. Many people, and very experienced researchers too, struggle to put their research question together.
Don’t give up. Keep at it. You have to keep playing with the sense and syntax, taking the advice on offer, and trying different combinations out. It – and you – will get there.

2. The literatures. There’s just so much. No sooner do you think that you have a handle on what there is, when more turns up. How to discriminate what’s what? How to wrestle it all together into something that makes sense? How can you possibly turn this unruly mess into something readable, and something that will pass muster?
Don’t panic. The purpose of reading is to open out the possible resources you might use in your study, to challenge your taken-for-granted assumptions and to fill the gaps in your knowledge about your chosen area. Reading is meant to be eye–opening. It’s intended to produce insights and ideas you hadn’t thought of before. Most people find getting the review of literatures into shape a daunting task – but they do actually do it. It’s not impossible, just hard.
Don’t give up. You just need to find the strategy that will allow you to sort, map and categorise the field(s) of literature you are drawing on, and then to isolate those texts that are most germane to your study – these are studies like yours, texts that offer useful concepts and approaches to draw on, and literatures which help to explain why your study is important, what is already known and thus what you will contribute. There is now lots of advice about how to manoeuvre the literature into shape, and your supervisor(s) should be able to point you to some starting strategies.

3. The data. There are two kind of difficulties with data – (a) There’s so much of it  and/or (b) what you have seems inconsequential.

(a) A mountain of data is very off-putting. You’ve spent quite some time getting it together and now here it is. You need to make sense of it all. But this is so much easier said than done. Where to start?
Don’t panic. You just need to find a way in. Usually this is either by scoping and auditing what you have – mapping the pieces so that you can then order them – or it is taking a piece of the data and trying out some ways to do the detailed analysis. There is often not as much help in the methods literatures as there might be about analysis. The books tend to give technical advice about how to analyse, but don’t often show you examples. Don’t give up. Talking to your supervisor(s) and to completed doctoral researchers about their analysis can really help at this point.

Rosa didn't know what to make of her data...

Rosa didn’t know what to make of her data…

(b) You have data which seems to say the blindingly obvious. All this time spent generating material in order to confirm what the literatures already say. What kind of original contribution is that?
Don’t panic. There may be something in the data that you haven’t found yet. Alternatively, perhaps your contribution is going to be theoretical, or methodological – maybe you can use the material to say something different about the topic. Either way, you can’t give up now. You just have to get on with the analysis, and start talking with your supervisor(s) and thinking about various possibilities for making your contribution.

4. The text. Well the analysis is done but now…. putting it together? You must be joking. There is no way that you can organise your analysis into chapters. It doesn’t fit together nicely and neatly. It feels and looks like a list of miscellaneous chunks and there seems to be no sensible way to make it into a readable thesis.
Don’t panic. The Ph in PhD is about the kind of thinking that you have to do in order to analyse and make sense of your material. It isn’t meant to be easy. You don’t make a contribution to knowledge by following a mechanical set of processes. You can’t get the PhD just through exemplary use of someone else’s technique. Getting the doctorate is ultimately about the thinking. And this thinking is, by definition, at the edges of what you can do. You are going/thinking somewhere you haven’t been before. It’s going to be foggy for a while and so yes, you just can’t easily bring it – whatever it is – into focus.
Don’t give up. This thinking process is likely to be baffling, frustrating, and scary. But keep hanging on to the fact that, at the other side, is the exhilaration that comes with having arrived at somewhere new. No, you won’t necessarily have made a great Nobel prize winning breakthrough, but you will have something to say. You just have to know that this happens, the fog lifts for the vast majority of PhDs.

Once you understand these one, two, three, four sticking points, you can recognise them as common problems when they happen. They are not just your issues. You are not the only person to have ever found it hard to get your research question or your thesis text organised. You aren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data you’ve generated. And you are in good company if you find that you are muddling around finding a generative place to start data analysis.

The fact that these sticking points are predictable won’t necessarily make them any less difficult to work through. But knowing them as predictable possibilities might also help you accept that the PhD is intellectually challenging, not because you are deficient, but because it is just hard. It’s hard for everyone at some point or other.

And the fact that so many people do get through their PhD ought to give you encouragement to persevere at the times when a resolution doesn’t seem obvious. Just don’t panic.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in data, doctoral research, literature review, panic, questions, research question, thesis and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to starting the PhD – don’t panic

  1. Pingback: starting the PhD – don’t panic « delightinwords

  2. Sharonnz says:

    This is a great read at the midway point also.


  3. waylandia says:

    I’ll be forwarding this to any new PhD students!


  4. Turki says:

    This is really a great piece of experience, thanks Pat!


  5. Pingback: Link Round-Up: PhD Advice - How To Do A Literature Review

  6. Chrissie Stevenson says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Great advice for new PhD students


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  8. Frank Gado says:

    George Parsons once again proves he has a wise head. Amen to all he says. I would add one word from my experience. I began with the intention of writing about Dos Passos. It was clear to me that Dos Passos had been misperceived, that he was basically a conservative in protest against the the perversion of the Constitution by the concentration of power. But a year into my research a book appeared based exactly on my point. So I abandoned Dos Passos for a writer who had been virtually overlooked by the scholars: Kay Boyle. I wanted to explore a different aspect of the Lost Generation writers from the Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Pound linkages.

    My thesis director warned against a walk into the woods where there were no paths. I rejected that advice, but learned, to my detriment, that he had been right. I simply did not have the resources, or the time, to engage the material properly (and Boyle gave me a cold shoulder when, In a surfeit of candor, I told her I would not be her claque.) And in writing the dissertation I chose, I realized that there was a great deal of room for originality in the topic I had abandoned.

    Writing a dissertation should be an exercise in learning how to deal with a major project. I was urged to turn my Boyle thesis into a book, but I felt it had done its job: it was time to apply what I learned in a project that would enable me to learn more. That approach became characteristic of my career. From Boyle, I went to Ingmar Bergman; after a long study that began with my learning Swedish, I finally published a book in 1986 that still sells about 50 copies a year. A chance discovery that William Cullen Bryant wrote short fiction then led me into closer consideration of the critical decades in the early nineteenth century in which a distinctively American literature began to coalesce. I continue to be amazed by how shallow our understanding of that period is.

    The dissertation is not the stopper of your education: it is the beginning. I have always given priority to my teaching, and my most important student has been myself. Continue to learn by following your curiosity with passion. Love should never lapse into routine; neither should your engagement with your profession.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is very helpful as my 1st supervisor has just asked me to send her my proposal. We haven’t met yet and my proposal is vague. My research question is developed from previous research and I find myself moving into different waters only to be pulled back to my original theme. I have a full time role which means I’m ultra busy over the summer I have madeitE progress over the past 2 months so feelin g a wave of panic. It really helps to know i’m not alone. Thanks.


  10. Pingback: starting the PhD – tech matters | patter

  11. SUAD says:

    thank you this soothes me a lot..i will read it over and over…i am doing doctoral research not PhD but i am on the same boat


  12. Kat says:

    Every new PhD student should read this! I’m only four months in and have already had a panic about research questions and the literature.


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