How to Get a good starton the PhD path

September 15, 2000


An early emphasis on work that develops writing and research skills greatly benefits PhD students, says Moira Peelo


Students and their PhD supervisors often waste the early months of their relationship on inappropriate tasks and activity


Doing a PhD is a risky activity. Student and supervisor take a huge gamble on the possibility of successful completion some years in the future. No one can guarantee the outcome, yet it requires great personal investment on both sides. The student-supervisor relationship is central to achieving success. How students and supervisors start out together can determine its likelihood.

Perhaps because my PhD had a number of false starts, I am convinced that time and energy is wasted in the first months - especially if the supervisor sees this as a chance for students to work alone, with a generalised instruction to "look at the literature" or to "go away and develop your proposal some more". These approaches might be suitable if the PhD is assumed to have no real end date and if students are viewed as starting out on masterpieces that might occupy a lifetime. But the early months could be spent more constructively and strategically in working with students to develop the tools that will be central to their craft, such as: * Writing skills

* Critical evaluation skills

* Some research imagination

* A sense of what the PhD examination is actually about.

At the beginning, students and supervisors may meet regularly. But the level of mutual understanding or misunderstanding will be affected by unspoken - and possibly competing - expectations and goals on either side.

Imagine you are the sort of supervisor who works best with students in the final stages, especially at turning draft chapters into a PhD and supporting students through vivas. What happens, for example, if you are faced with a student who has travelled halfway across the world to be taught by you? If the student has not worked in the British education system before, how are you going to guide them?

The goal is easy: both sides want to see a successfully completed thesis within a certain time period. But attainment of that goal lies a long way ahead. How, then, do student and supervisor find motivation other than through production of the final thesis?

Setting interim goals is one obvious solution. But there is something more, about learning to value the challenges inherent in the process of doing a PhD. One colleague, now a successful director of a research unit, says she started by viewing the PhD as something to be produced, but ended by appreciating the way the PhD process extended her intellectually.

People starting PhDs are engaged in a transition of some sort. But the idea that they are all in their early 20s and have come straight from a first degree or a masters is naive. It is possible that a student may be a colleague from another university and not necessarily one in Britain. Teaching someone who is already an established member of your disciplinary community can be problematic and it underscores the extent to which teaching postgraduates is embedded in notions of age and status, patronage and power.

Do you assume that older colleagues understand better what a PhD is about? Do you think that they cope better if told that their work is not good enough? How do you feed back criticism to someone with whom you are on good terms socially?

Whatever the nature of the relationship - friendly or distant, businesslike or didactic - the most sensible place to start is with work. After all, that is why students and supervisors are there. An early, strategic focus on work acts as a vehicle for the development of staff-student understanding while giving students a basis on which to establish their research.

Giving students clear instructions for tasks in the early weeks enables them to get started and provides a basis for meetings that concentrate on an outcome - rather than sitting eyeball to eyeball, talking in generalities. The tasks should be directed towards developing critical analysis and writing, thus building a questioning approach to relevant research issues.

How useful these exercises are depends, in part, on how a supervisor responds to a student's first efforts. It is easy to get locked into a pattern of taking apart students' written work word by word, which acts like a grim form of aversion therapy. At this stage, emphasis needs to be on understanding the research process and on critical evaluation of literature.

Students who find directed work easy will soon be settled anyway. For others, surely it is better to establish early what needs to be done when there is still time to work constructively together? Better than finding out a few years later, when time is running out.


As a supervisor, there is no reason for you to be solely responsible for all aspects of your students' education.

Groups are an increasingly common solution and they allow postgraduates in large or related departments to meet regularly with each other and with staff. They provide a teaching forum for developing students' general subject knowledge and presentation skills and for learning about the PhD in general.

To run a group, you will need:

* A room booked regularly (such as once a month)

* Letters, posters or notices to remind everyone

* Simple refreshments provided

* An agenda

* A coordinator.

Some sessions might start with a member of staff presenting a contentious issue, leading to a discussion of this key disciplinary debate.

Postgraduates should be encouraged to present sessions about their research, its progress and their data collection or analysis. In this way, newer students learn about the process from established students.

Sessions could be devoted to:

* Key or contentious debates in your field

* Postgraduate presentations

* Workshops on doing a PhD

* Discussions of key writers or ideas.

The basic rule is that supervisors should be proactive in the early stages and move towards a more reactive style later as students gain intellectual independence. Supervisors can do this by:

* Encouraging students to write from the first week

* Starting students with bite-sized writing tasks

* Getting students to engage with the literature on research methods as well as subject-specific literature

* Developing questioning of both types of literature

* Using student writing tasks to evaluate key concepts, theories, writers and research.

Examples of early exercises could include choosing, with students, key research papers that are relevant to their proposed work and asking them to critically review one. In the exercise, the student should:

* Say what makes this a key paper

* Review the research design used

* Review the results and methods of analysis used

* Give an opinion of the paper

* State how it relates to his or her planned research.

Another exercise could be to agree and select a major writer in the field and review his or her work. The student should:

* Say why this writer is a major contributor

* Explain the key contribution of the writer's work

* Give an opinion of this writer's contribution

* State how this writer's work relates to his or her proposed project.

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