Find a PhD: how to choose the right doctorate

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

November 22, 2016
question marks PhD study
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Choosing the right doctoral programme means asking a lot of questions before you embark on your studies

Take your time

A doctorate is for life not just for Christmas, so avoid making rash commitments in the heat of the moment.

Don’t rush into it, but if you've been thinking about it for some time there is probably more to it than just the desire to be called doctor.

The idea of doing a PhD might have sneaked up on you or it might have been loitering with intent for a while.

One way or another you need to figure out how to move from "thinking about it" to "doing something about it". It’s not that difficult, but it not necessarily obvious because you'll need to understand how academics think.

Choose your quest

Choose a topic that genuinely fascinates you. This will sustain you in the bleak mid-winter of your doctoral quest.

Your doctorate has to be like a quest. It should be about something that you really, really want to figure out. That might seem straightforward but most people without a doctorate struggle to articulate their quest in a way that would get them a doctorate. Typically, applicants paint their quests with far too broad a brush. Something like :"I want to do a doctorate in strategy" or "I want to study social inclusion" can be simultaneously true yet woefully inadequate as a starting point for a doctoral proposal.

Doctorates are awarded on the basis of contributing something new to our existing knowledge base. Given that we have been researching and producing doctorates in management for decades and in the social sciences more generally for a lot longer, such novelty usually comes in modestly-sized packages. You’ll have to do some research in order to figure out what to research.

Try before you buy

Take multiple doctoral topics out for a first date then choose wisely. It’s a lifetime commitment.

Even if you don’t have access to a university’s library database, the wonders of GoogleScholar should allow you to dip into the literature and browse published research on the topic of your quest. Do this for four or five variants of your potential topic. Make sure to check that the academic version of your noble quest still intrigues you and that heavy research articles on the topic don’t bore you to tears. 

Mind the gap

Having chosen a broad area, identify a specific gap that is not yet fully explored in the literature. 

To pass your doctorate you will need to contribute new knowledge about your chosen topic. That means you need to be able to establish what is usually referred to as "a gap in the literature" -. something that has not yet been researched. You need to be able to articulate what previous studies have shown and use this as the means of pointing toward things that are not yet known. Helpfully, academic papers often conclude with a call for further research on something or other. This might be a useful starting point.

However, you shouldn't rely on others to solve your problem. Whenever you read anything - an article, a book, a chapter or a thesis - write out your own summary of what they've told you and what you still don't know.

Start with a researchable question

Avoid rhetorical questions or ironic provocations - make sure your question is clear, crisp and entitled to a question mark.

Good research questions help by (a) structuring your thinking and (b) suggesting ways of building a way of answering your question.

Imagine your ideal supervisor

Do you want somebody inspirational and argumentative but vague, or a highly-structured project manager who will nag you into submission?

A supervisor to supervisee relationship which will run for three years or more is fraught with potential problems and pitfalls. You don’t need to be best friends, but you do need a productive working relationship. This rest is at least as much on you and your preferences as those of a potential supervisor.

Unfortunately, academic papers rarely offer a detailed character reference for their authors. At some stage you will need to go from reading their work to understanding how they work.

Identify your institution

Finding the right programme in the right school at the right institution is critical.

Study patterns, fee levels, reputations all vary and in that regard a doctorate is like any other service offering. Look around and find a provider that you feel comfortable with.

The golden rule is to look at more than one provider. At least that way you'll know you didn't just fall into the programme because it was there.

Plan a charm offensive

You might be thinking of yourself as the customer given that you’ll be paying a fee to join the programme.

You might even fool yourself into thinking that programme directors, deans or individual supervisors should be grateful to you for showing an interest. This is only true up to a point.

Actually, potential supervisors may view you as more of a potential distraction. That is unless you can demonstrate that you: have the brainpower to complete the programme; are willing to research a topic that they, the supervisor, are already interested in; think that their preferred methods are just right for you too; and that you've linked your research proposal to their on-going research trajectory.

If you meet these four criteria a busy supervisor might just think of you as a helpful addition to their unpaid research team. If not, then they are likely to view you as a high-maintenance, high-risk extension of their personal brand.

Good supervisors are usually focused on their own next steps and you need to key into that. You should be wary of an overly-welcoming supervisor. There's usually a reason and it isn’t usually that they are just desperate to make your life better.

Negotiate with loved ones

You don’t undertake a doctorate in a vacuum.  Think about the consequences for your loved ones, your keep fit regime or your other pastimes.

Doctorates are a long-term commitments which are likely to involve mood swings and periods of intensive activity. In the midst of creating up to 80,000 words of coherent and high quality work it can be hard to put things down. The other parts of your life might suffer. 

Make sure that those around you understand this and are keen to support you on your doctoral adventure. If you are studying full-time you will need to be disciplined and make sure that actual work happens in the "normal working day".

A doctorate is hard work but don’t be surprised if your friends and family find the all-consuming nature of your studies immensely frustrating.  Avoid your nearest and dearest thinking that PhD translates as “Pretty hopeless Domestically” or that DBA means “Ditches Birthdays and Anniversaries”.

Know what you are aiming for

A doctorate might be an end in itself but it is also helpful to think what your post-doctoral job may be.

Doctorates come in more than one form. The two most common are the PhD and the DBA. So how do you distinguish between them? A DBA produces a researching practitioner, whereas a PhD produces a practising researcher.

The distinction rests with the default location of your next job. If you simply want to be able to introduce yourself as “the doctor” perhaps you won’t care. If however, you envisage working in a managerial role where you might be researching your own setting and your own practice, then a DBA is a good choice. If you want to work in academia, then the PhD is the qualification of choice.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on Heriot-Watt’s It’s Not You, It’s Your Data blog.

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Reader's comments (18)

> You might be thinking of yourself as the customer given that you’ll be paying a fee to join the programme. Isn't that legally the case now given CMA guidance or does that not apply to Post-graduate study?
Good point Charles ... however, PhD programmes are subtly but significantly different from taught programmes. The CMA guidance would apply but at best you're probably signing up to a loose set of minimum expectations including having a supervisor, being given access to some mandatory training and perhaps being granted some study space. That said, the substantive point being made is that the best supervisors are busy people with more potential supervisees than they have capacity to handle. And the fees typically go to the institution not to the supervisors!
Hello, when should I start to think about doing one?
That depends what stage you are at... if you are doing an undergrad degree and likely to get a 1st Class degree, go and speak to potential supervisors as soon as you can... There are grant making trusts you could apply to during your 4th year which would improve your chances of getting funding. If you have been working for a few years you might like to consider talking to your undergraduate supervisor.... its never too early.
Thanks for the advice, this is a helpful list! However for some prospective PhD choice isn't a luxury in regards to institution and supervisor and often your chosen 'quest' is prescribed to you. How do you mediate these issues and make it your own?
Well, Jamie, that is an interesting one... there is no easy answer... often however you can probably divert from your original, prescribed, quest and make your own path. Certainly in the Social Sciences, you should very quickly be able to master the literature, and find a 'gap' your supervisor had not considered. You will have given it much more thought than they will have! Data collection is another avenue for an interesting diversion... if you can find something more interesting, that provides a richness of date that would not otherwise be available, I am sure your supervisor would welcome that too... Also, if you want to try 'throwing yourself off a cliff' you could also ask your supervisor, in a very public forum, how to avoid doing the PhD you signed up for and see how it goes... if you are performing well, and you have a good idea which can be achieved within the time frame, there is a fair chance your supervisor would go for it! I guess a lot would depend if you were looking for him to pay for your next trip to Central America! https://theconversation.com/think-looking-after-turtles-in-costa-rica-for-three-weeks-is-good-for-your-cv-think-again-66148
As part of planning a charm offensive, reaching out with your potential supervisors can be a good way to make yourself known to them. I arranged two meetings with the academics I wanted to work with before applying. It can also be a good way to test the waters and see if there's interest in your topic.
Thanks for this helpful list! I have a question regarding supervisors: what do you recommend for new PhD students who have been assigned a supervisor who doesn't necessarily have expertise in the student's research area?
In an ideal world your supervisors would both be experts in theoretical content, empirical context and analytical methods you plan to use. After all the purpose of the application process is to effect such matching. In some circumstances your supervisory team may cover these three aspects of your work between them. Ultimately, every PhD student should by definition be working on something new and you should be aspiring to get to a stage where you know more about your chosen project area than your supervisory team (or else you are in danger of rehashing extant ideas and failing the novelty test). In extreme circumstances where you feel exposed on all three fronts an open, honest and early conversation might help to figure out a solution such as drawing in some additional expertise to support the supervisory process.
Very helpful points, how would goals for life after the PhD, (i.e. deciding whether to pursue a career in academia or industry) influence any of these decisions? Would these influence supervisor, or institution choice perhaps?
Being clear about where you are going next is helpful. Increasingly a PhD is seen as the necessary pre-condition for an academic career. The choice of school, supervisor and industry still matter because you want to position yourself to work in a specific research area with a specific set of peers. Not all research groups, universities, etc. have the same reputational standing. If you are clear from the outset that you want to work in a sector beyond academia, other forms of doctoral degree might be more suitable. A DBA, DEd, DEng or DMan might help position your CV more appropriately for the industry that you are aiming for.
Dear RPVega1808 ... glad to hear that speaking to potential supervisors in advance of applying worked out. It isn't always possible to meet in person but there many similar things that one can do digitally these days.
Thanks for the thought-provoking article. Obviously you wrote this with your post-PhD supervisor hats on, but did you fall into any of these traps when you were doctoral students yourselves and, if so, how did you get out of them?
Thanks AMaclaren, I fell into almost all of these traps during my own PhD. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that "experience is something that you get just after you needed it". I vowed therefore to learn my lessons. I took up a PhD where the topic was predefined (no quest then). My supervisors were the grant holders (a charm offensive was of limited use and there was no opportunity to try before you buy). The institution identified me and given that the funding resided there I didn't window shop. I was fairly convinced that I would return to a role in industry so, in retrospect, a DBA might have been appropriate but I then accidentally fell into a career in academia. Finally, I got married during the third year of my PhD so the negotiations with loved ones seems a little late in the day. That said, I do love working in academia, am still working with one of my supervisors and am still married (to the same person I hasten to add). If you are post-PhD maybe you have your own lessons learnt file?
Thanks Rob_MacIntosh. Yes I have my own lessons learnt file. A comment my supervisor made often was, "it's YOUR PhD." Although it took a while, I learned eventually that the answers would not come to me wrapped in a ribbon with a bow, nor was it my supervisor's job to have all the answers to my questions. After that I started to follow my own convictions better and this attitude prepared me better for my viva. I also realised that your productivity in a PhD is logarithmic: if you were able to have the efficiency and the clarity you have in the final month of writing-up from the very beginning it would take a third of the time to complete, however, that is unrealistic. What I tell my own PhD students now is to embrace the uncertainty at the beginning and trust that when it feels like you're going in circles that is actually progress.
I believe the sooner the PhD student realizes that they know more than their supervisor the more independent they become, and as long as they are trained well in research and scholarship, the stronger their PhD will be. That period of uncertainty over the first few months as the research focus becomes established is very necessary indeed.
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