What You Need to Know About Your Doctorate before You Start

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If you want to work in a university as a lecturer or researcher a Doctorate of Philosophy is often essential. Your doctorate could lead to a PhD or DPhil, or to something more specialised, such as DBA (business) or DEd (education). Many people opt for a full-time doctorate, which takes three – four years, but there are also part-time options, where you can spread your studies over a longer period, usually up to six years. 

We asked two academics to give their advice for anyone who is considering embarking upon a doctorate.

Dr Petra Cameron is Lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the University of Bath.

“After graduating I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I could see that all of the jobs I was most interested in required a PhD. Once I got started I really loved the work but doing a PhD is not the easy option.

“PhD students need to be resilient as you have to work on a completely original research project that no-one has done before. During the course of your PhD the research outcome is open-ended. Ultimately, in the worse-case scenario your work could be a failure. It is the supervisor’s job to ensure that the project doesn’t fail by checking progress and suggesting new experiments. You also have to be flexible and willing to take risks. It may be that the research won’t fail, but in fact it could have very interesting outcomes.

“Finding a good supervisor is vital, someone who will help steer you towards your own research ideas and goals. Within areas that include laboratory work it is important to find a supervisor with good skills and techniques in this area, and a good track record of research, who encourages you to develop these skills for yourself.”

Professor Martin Shepperd is Professor in Software Technologies and Modelling at Brunel University.

 “I agree that finding a good supervisor is crucial. Ideally you need someone with a good track-record of completions; someone who is experienced as a supervisor. Students need the supervisor’s help when knowing whether they’ve done enough work towards their doctorate. As a student it’s easy to become too immersed in your work and lose perspective. You need to supervisor to tell you “It’s good enough”. Most students are driven and want to give of their best, but spending too long on the work can be counter-productive. Perfectionism can be an asset at times, but it can also be debilitating.

“It can also be a good idea to do something other than academic study before you start your doctorate. Working for a while is very beneficial, and it gets you off the academic treadmill. You’ll also find out whether or not you really do want to do your doctorate after all. The decision to return to study will then be a conscious choice rather than a default option, and all this will help to sustain you in the darker phases of your doctorate, of which there will be some.

“Working towards a doctorate is a solitary process – you may feel tempted at times towards self-doubt. At times like this a sense of detachment is important, along with the ability to maintain alternative perspectives.

“It is also really important to be open-minded from the beginning and read as widely as you can. You will become more focussed as your doctorate progresses. Whatever your area of research, the problem and questions you are asking are almost certainly much bigger than you originally thought. You don’t really need to have defined this problem before you start – this can be addressed as you progress in your doctorate. What’s really important is that you are asking the right questions. Doing a doctorate is really like an apprenticeship in research. Your doctorate may be a replication of something someone else has done before, or may indeed confirm what others have discovered.

 “You may hope to undercover something totally new and amazing. Unfortunately this is highly unlikely and winning a Nobel Prize is more the stuff of movies than real life. But even so you can have the time of your life doing something challenging, stimulating and creative.”


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