Beginning your PhD.

Writing a PhD is different from any other academic exercise and that is why it continues to carry the greatest prestige of all degrees in any discipline. Indeed, it is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as the ‘highest academic award in any field of knowledge’. This sounds impressive and it is but between the dream and its realisation is a hard road akin to Thomas Edison’s famous definition of genius: ‘one per cent inspiration, ninety nine per cent perspiration’!

Unlike other academic work, with a doctorate you will have nothing other than your own wits to fall back on when beginning your research, as although you will have immeasurable help from your appointed supervisor later, initially the germ of the thesis has to come from you. The absolute essence of a PhD. is originality and this means that you need to try to find a niche all your own if you are to impress the research committee of your academic body sufficiently to accept your proposal.

In abstract, originality seems fairly simple, after all you are not intending to use anyone’s ideas but your own, are you? However, as with most aspects of the doctorate, familiar terms need to be redefined. Originality, when applied to a PhD., means something quite different from ‘all your own work’, it means truly original, that is, a topic or aspect of a topic that has literally never been studied in depth before: now that sounds more difficult, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, you can do it.

You need to find an area in which you are not only interested but enthusiastically so and remember that the thesis will need to be extended and developed over approximately, on average, 100,000 words. This means that you need to determine:

  • The precise nature of your research
  • What else has been written on the topic
  • What it will add to the body of knowledge on the subject
  • Whether you can sustain and develop the central thesis over the required length
  • Whether you can produce a sufficiently strong thesis proposal from your topic to impress an admissions board
  • Whether you can produce an original, imaginative, coherent and thoroughly researched piece of work of publication standard and an extensive bibliography to support it.

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Meeting your Supervisor

The first thing you must do after your research has been approved is to meet up with your appointed supervisor. It will be a great help in planning effectively if you take the list outlined above with you and use it as a basic framework.

Decide with your supervisor on the correct methodology for you. What works for one person does not always work for another and it is essential that you get it right. Your supervisor has the experience to guide you into the right way of working which should take account of:

  • Your personal way of working – you will have established this during your academic career up until this point and you should not discard the experience you have gained just because you are writing at a higher level.
  • The requirements of the academic board – you will have been made aware of these before you submitted your PhD. proposal but it is a good idea to clarify any points about which you might have queries. Your supervisor will be able to clarify this for you.
  • The methodology which is appropriate for your thesis – every subject and approach has its own particular requirements, which is why it is impossible to say definitively what methodology you should adopt. Again, your supervisor will advise you on this but you should know which direction you envisage your work taking, after all it is your thesis!
  • The basic structure you intend to use – this will be initially based upon what you said in your thesis proposal but you should focus more specifically, now, on which areas you feel you want to develop most.
  • The order in which you intend to write your thesis – this is not as strange as it sounds, very few theses are written in chronological order, unless the subject matter dictates it.

Most students focus first on the strongest and/or most interesting area, the one with which you feel most comfortable, the one which made you want to write the thesis in the first place! Beginning with the area of greatest interest can be a vital impetus to reawaken your first ideas and get you started.

Ensure that when you leave your meeting with your supervisor you arrange the next – it is vital to keep up the momentum!

Tips on Beginning a PhD. Thesis

As you begin to think about researching and writing a thesis it is a good idea to take on board a few tips such as these to help you get on the right track and stay there:

  • Ensure that you choose a topic about which you are enthusiastic – you are more likely to write and research well if you are really keen.
  • Find out as much as you can about how the research committee at your prospective college or university makes its selections – this will help with your research proposal.
  • You are more likely to be accepted to undertake post-graduate research at a university where you have previously studied for a degree, so unless you are convinced that your research will be more successful at another university, stay put!
  • Another advantage to continuing to study at a university or college with which you are familiar is that you will know the staff in the department where you hope to research your thesis - this will help when you are deciding whom you would like to supervise your PhD.
  • Familiarise yourself with library procedures for post-graduate students, you will often get similar borrowing privileges to staff – again, if you study at a university where you did your undergraduate work you may already know this so familiarity is definitely an advantage and you need every advantage.
  • PhDs are expensive and you are very unlikely to get state funding, so find out what, if any, funding schemes, awards, scholarships are available and write to everyone – what have you got to lose, they can only say no after all.
  • On the subject of funding, find out whether you can hope to obtain any teaching work in the academic department in which you are conducting your research whilst undertaking your PhD. – money will probably be tight (it is for most students, graduate or undergraduate) and this could help a lot.
  • Do not be over ambitious in your work schedule, it is much better to be slow and steady but to meet your deadlines than to rush ahead and be always frantically trying to keep up – also, you’ll probably have a part-time job, too.
  • Be confident that you are going to see the thesis through to completion before you start – expect the unexpected and keep going, you’ll get there in the end!

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