Broke, lonely and obsessing?

October 8, 2004

You must be doing a PhD. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Harriet Swain. It's all in the preparation - and in the kind of relationship you have with your mentor

Hooray, you've been accepted for a PhD. How are you planning to survive at least three years obsessing about a subject that nobody else you know understands, with little money and no firm job prospects while your friends are living it up in glamorous careers that include holidays?

If you are planning, you're off to a good start. Estelle Phillips, author with Derek Pugh of How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors , suggests dividing up the time ahead into manageable chunks. For example, divide each year into three terms and work out in detail what you are going to do in each term and in each month of each term. "If they discipline themselves they should keep on track," she says. This might mean students having to adjust the final goal as they realise they have overestimated what is possible in the available time, but it is better than not realising it and failing to complete the PhD.

Lynne Pearce, professor of literary theory at Lancaster University, advises establishing a clear research question or "working hypothesis" as soon as possible. "Students, especially in humanities subjects, have been known to flounder for the first year because they are drowning in a vast 'field' rather than directing their reading and research to a particular question."

She argues that too many students confuse defining an area with asking a question. "It is crucial to be able to move on from saying what your research is 'about' to the question you are asking."

Writing is another way to keep on track. Rowena Murray, senior lecturer in the Centre for Academic Practice at Strathclyde University, who has developed a thesis writing course, advises regular writing from the beginning. She suggests finding a comfortable style by experimenting, and emphasises that writing a thesis is a process involving at least a pre-draft, rough draft and probably several other stages before the final paper. Writing can both diagnose problems and help learning, she says.

Writing articles for publication can also help your career, as well as raising questions that will help the thesis. She stresses that every student should be discussing writing with their supervisor, whatever their subject or writing competence.

Ah, that relationship with the supervisor. It is something that has to be sorted out at the beginning and constantly kept under review, according to Sara Delamont, reader in sociology at Cardiff University and a co-author of a guide for supervising the doctorate. "As a student moves through three and a half years or so, as they become more expert in their topic, the nature of their relationship with their supervisor is bound to change," she says. "That can be tricky. A good relationship in the early days may not work so well later on." She advocates setting a clear agenda for meetings and producing minutes afterwards with bullet points to make clear what decisions have been made.

Phillips gives the responsibility for managing the relationship to the student. "You should never not know when the next meeting is," she says, stressing that students should treat this date with enormous respect - "then they cannot go far wrong because a supervisor knows that they are serious".

One of the difficult aspects of the relationship is that it involves so much criticising. Rosemary Deem, graduate dean for the faculty of social sciences and law at Bristol University, says it is important for the student to discuss with the supervisor how they like to be criticised. Do they want their work to be slated if it doesn't hit the mark, or do they prefer a little gentle point-raising?

Delamont says students often get too bound up with their work and feel that criticism of something "academically wonky" is an attack on them personally. Another problem, particularly for humanities students, is that they rarely witness their supervisors at work, so do not see others experiencing the downsides of academic life, which involves criticism. It also involves boredom. "They see the finished product, they don't see the drudgery," Delamont says. She advises students who feel paralysed by the prospect of a boring or intimidating task to break it into smaller parts to make it manageable.

The biggest problem is isolation - social and intellectual. "Students need to think about why stopping work on a topic and going to a seminar - even if it is not exactly on their topic - may be good for them," Delamont says.

Deem advises seeking out graduates in other years for moral support, getting to know about any graduate websites in the institution, and making the most of training opportunities. Even if a course does not seem exactly relevant, it may become so later on, and it will be a way to meet people.

One reason for loneliness is often poverty. "By the time people have been full-time students for six or seven years, living in poverty on an inadequate diet, they are often ill," Delamont says. A struggling PhD student should establish first that their problem is academic rather than medical or financial. In any case, they should ensure they are getting plenty of exercise, eating properly and getting all benefits to which they are entitled.

Still looking forward to it? See you in three years.

Further information:
Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh, How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors , Open University Press, 2000
Rowena Murray, How to Write a Thesis , Open University Press, 2002
Sara Delamont, Paul Atkinson and Odette Parry, Supervising the Doctorate , Open University Press, 2004
Diana Leonard, A Woman's Guide to Doctoral Studies , Open University Press, 2001
Pat Cryer, The Research Student's Guide to Success , Open University Press, 2000
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, The PhD Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors , Open University Press, 2004


Preparation: clearly define your research question

Practice: keep writing

Learn to cope with criticism and boredom

Organise your relationship with your supervisor and keep it under review

Realise that your text isn't you

Relax by getting out more


Ken Booth, head of department, gives the lowdown on international politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

* Total number of academic staff: 42

* Permanent academic staff: 32

* Number on fixed-term contracts: 10

* Number of hourly paid/casual academic staff: 0

* Number of professors or senior lecturers: 11 professors; 6 senior lecturers.

* Number of ethnic minority academic staff: It depends how you define ethnic minority. Welsh? English in Welsh? We have four academics who primarily teach in Welsh. We also have one new Japanese member (see below).

* Number of female academic staff: 11

* Number of female academic staff who are professors or senior lecturers/principal lecturers: 3

* Research assessment exercise rating: 5* in 2001 (6* in later currency).

* When was the last quality assessment? Teaching quality assessment in 1996; internal assessment in 1999; internal assessment due in 2005.

* Current and approved vacancies for the next 12 months? We are in the process of advertising/shortlisting a (new) chair in the study of terrorism. We expect to advertise a number of posts in the next 12 months, but they have not been finalised.

* Significant staff changes in the past six months?

We appointed Hidemi Suganami (formerly at Keele University) as a professor teaching the philosophy of social science and international relations theory.

* Research projects?

The department secured a £1 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, which is funding infrastructural development and two programmes - the Centre for Health and International Relations (chair), and Wales in Regional Europe (WiRE). In addition, two major projects are being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council's "New Security Challenges Programme" - one on health and international security, the other on the globalisation of private security firms in Africa. A new Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies has been established, and plans are in train for a new centre for the study of terrorism.

* Main preoccupations of the department in the past six months?

Planning for a new building to house the expanding department; and trying to develop a research assessment exercise strategy in the light of changed but as yet uncertain criteria.

* Anything else?

The most difficult problem faced by the department is coping effectively (maintaining standards) with a steady growth of student numbers at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Success can be measured in the maintaining of those standards; it is particularly gratifying to record an almost 100 per cent submission rate, year on year, of PhDs in a graduate school of more than 50 full-time PhDs.

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