Five tips for surviving your doctorate after moving over from industry

Moving into the academy after a professional career can be daunting and difficult – and never more so than when penning your thesis


Northumbria University
22 Mar 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
A PhD student falling asleep on their books in a higher education university - check out these five top tips for completing your thesis

You may also like

Six tips for writing a successful book proposal
4 minute read
Man at laptop with symbols of academia, how to write a successful book proposal

When I (Kumud) entered academia after a successful career in business, my confidence was high, and I genuinely believed I had something to offer the next generation of young leaders. However, I soon realised that academia is a whole different ball game. It felt a bit like being back at school and trying to manage expectations.

This was a new industry, and I was starting all over again. One of the first (and biggest) hurdles to overcome after moving into academia is converting from being a professional lecturer to an academic lecturer – which necessitates the dreaded doctorate. Here are five things I wish someone had told me before I started:

Don’t think you can knock it out in 18 months  

Initially, I duped myself into believing I could conquer the doctorate like I conquered business. I was certain I would finish the thesis in less than two years. Over time I realised that this self-assurance and confidence are classic characteristics of professional lecturers. To put this misunderstanding into perspective, when I began my doctorate my son was playing with Power Rangers; by the time it was finished he had grown a moustache. 

I learned that a doctorate is a huge undertaking that can’t be delegated. While you have academic advisers, you are the one implementing the research project and writing the 80,000-word beast. It was only when I began reading research papers (which can be a laborious task) and put pen to paper that I became aware of the overwhelming scope of the task ahead of me.

To stay realistic, develop a project schedule in collaboration with your supervision team and religiously follow it. Be honest about the time you can dedicate to the thesis every month. There are peaks and troughs like in any walk of life, so budget for busy periods at work and in life. Furthermore, using your initial research proposal as a working document means you will never start from a blank page.  

Absorb advice but pick a topic you’re comfortable with 

Much like any job, when entering academia you try to fit in and gain the trust and respect of your colleagues and supervisors. At its extreme, this desperate need for approval can tempt you to pen a War and Peace-esque tome. This can be further compounded by mentors attempting to direct your research towards their own research interests. While this can be useful from the perspective of publication, it can be disheartening and confusing as you’re torn between your own intellectual interests and what you perceive as the rules of engagement in academia.  

My epiphany came during a conversation with an experienced colleague who put it rather pragmatically: “Kumud, you are not writing Das Kapital. You are simply adding your small brick of knowledge as you make the journey from professional to academic.” Finally I understood that changing the world could wait a bit longer.   

Choose a topic you are knowledgeable about – ideally within the industry you’ve been working in – and don’t overestimate your abilities or radically depart from the specialisms of your supervision team. Most importantly, don’t view your thesis as the vehicle through which to prove yourself to your colleagues.   

Don’t get sidetracked by side projects 

In all honesty, during your doctorate, everything is going to suddenly appear more interesting than your thesis. This makes you a prime target for your department’s latest “hot projects”. The opportunity to demonstrate your initiative, collaborate and share skills is very tempting. After all, research was something for the geniuses in your organisation; your job was to make it work.

Unfortunately, any success and recognition you do achieve can be short lived while the PhD fetters are still around your ankles. As a doctorate is largely a prerequisite for any meaningful academic promotions, any resultant glory may have well and truly sailed by the time you’ve unstuck yourself from pet projects long enough to finish your thesis. Therefore, recognise and prioritise what’s important and the rationale behind each undertaking.

Create an environment that works for you  

Time management and distraction are two of the greatest challenges of the professional doctorate. Getting the right balance between writing and doing your job is difficult, as each day has its challenges, from programme management to committee meetings and sub-committee meetings ad infinitum.

This means that being inspired is important, so find your happy and productive place – a constructive research environment that provides tangible results. I have a colleague who wrote most of his thesis in a monastery. Another began writing their daily 300 words after 6pm, as the distractions of the day dissipated. I personally sought refuge in the university library. Writing up is no picnic; it requires a disciplined process and an environment free from distraction.

And finally, pick your panel carefully 

Thankfully, most doctoral viva voces go relatively smoothly. Bar some major flaw in the study, you’ll get a handful of corrections that serve to enhance your thesis and inspire general confidence in the peer-review system. However, don’t let your ego risk everything you have worked so hard for by trying to prove yourself to the world. Some doctoral candidates and supervisory teams can be tempted to approach high-profile examiners (read: academic gods) they have never met and don’t fully understand or, worse, don’t understand you. This is not always a good idea. We are all human, we all have pet peeves and strong opinions. Therefore, try to go for the known quantity. Ideally, that should be someone that you, the supervision team or even the wider department have some understanding of. Specifically, you want to know that the panellists have the capacity – and inclination – to be objective and fair. After all, meeting someone in the panel that’s inspired by your work might be the start of something good.

Kumud Wijayaratna is a senior lecturer in marketing at Northumbria University and the founder of the Newcastle Business School’s business clinic.

Ed Cottam is an associate professor in entrepreneurship, innovation and strategy at Northumbria University.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site