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10 Tips on How to Get a PhD

written by: Profacgillies•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 6/4/2010

Think you're not clever enough to get a PhD? Maybe you think you're too clever to fail to get a PhD. Success is much about how you approach it as your innate academic ability and intelligence. Here are 10 top tips on how to get a PhD distilled from over 15 years of successful PhD supervision.

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    How to Get a PhD

    The secret of how to get a PhD is not rocket science (unless you are studying rockets!): it's about being organized, focused and showing that you have met the learning outcomes for the program. I have supervised PhDs for over 15 years and my students are generally successful. What they had in common was a great desire for success. Don't even start if you are only 99% committed. Here are my top 10 tips on how to get a PhD from what I have learned as a supervisor.

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    1. Know Your Question/Aim

    How long does it take you to describe your research question or aim? If it takes more than one sentence, you don't understand what you are doing well enough. Too often candidates rush in with an ill-specified question or aim. This leads to lots of ill-focused activity, much of which will be wasted, and is a major contributory factor to students giving up along the way. Your question or aim may evolve, but any time during your study, I would expect you to tell me what your research question or aim is in one succinct statement or question.

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    2. Love Your Subject

    Choose a subject that you love. You will be intimately involved with this topic for three to five years. That's longer than many relationships these days. Just as in a relationship, there will be days when you feel naturally very positive about your subject, but there will be days when you are heartily sick of it. To survive those days, you need a strong underlying love for the subject and a commitment to see it through: it's more like a marriage than an affair!

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    3. Set Milestones

    It's all about the planning--see my other articles on planning for your PhD study and outlining your research proposal. The specific tip here is that getting a PhD is a long process, so set yourself milestones. Most programs have a mid-program review, sometimes in the form of a progression from MPhil to PhD. But use more milestones, so set yourself more interim goals, in the form of seminars presentations and publications along the way. This is especially important for part time students where the end point can seem a very long way away and distractions such as the day job, the kids and even the washing can seem more urgent if not more important.

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    4. Keep a Diary and Use It for Reflection

    One of the most important and often neglected aspects of writing up a PhD is to reflect at the end what you have learned and how far you have come. To make this possible, you need to keep a diary, otherwise you will forget where you were at the beginning. It should be a place where you record what you think at that stage of your studies. If you do this, you will be amazed how your thoughts progress and deepen, and writing up a reflection about what you have learned at the end will be easy and rewarding.

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    5. Know What Other People Have Done

    This will save you repeating stuff that has already been done, and inform your own efforts. It is a requirement of the examination process that you can demonstrate this knowledge, but more surprisingly, it may trigger all sorts of your own ideas that you wouldn't have thought of on your own. And finally, please find out it early enough to stop you wasting time and effort.

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    More Tips on How to Get a PhDLearn some more tips on how to get a PhD, and how you can use them to reach your academic goal.
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    6. Know Why What You are Doing is Different

    Once you know what other people have done, you can then (and only then) start to show why what you are doing is different. This is essential to demonstrate why your work represents a contribution to knowledge, a key criteria in any PhD award. Your examiners should find evidence of your contribution in both your thesis and an oral viva examination if one is held.

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    7. Know Why You are Doing Things as Well as What You are Doing

    One of the things I expect to be able to do with a PhD thesis is to point to any sentence and ask the student "Why? Where is your evidence for that action or assertion?" What you do needs to have a rationale, and what you assert needs to have an evidence base. At lower levels of education, the answer may well be because my tutor or professor told me to do it that way, or that this was the correct answer. No longer. First you need to know why, second you need to able to justify why, and thirdly, you need to record why in your written thesis.

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    8. Get as Much Feedback as You Can

    Doing a PhD can be a lonely business at times. Of course, you have a supervisor and often more than one. Make use of them. Within a team of supervisors, often some members are there to provide a specific expertise (e.g.: methodological), so make sure that you take advantage of that expertise. But don't stop there. Present interim results to a wider audience. Get feedback from them. Encourage constructive criticism. No one learns from sycophants--your critics can be the most helpful in terms of feedback. If you submit an article to a journal, look for the reviewers feedback; even if you are unsuccessful in getting it published, it can be a huge learning experience.

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    9. Write It All Down

    As well as supervising PhDs, I examine PhDs for my own and other universities. A very common examination experience is for the examiners to say to the candidate at the end of the oral examination, "Now go and write down what you told us in the viva, add it to your thesis and we can award you a PhD". So why not save a lot of time and do it before hand? Mostly what gets omitted is the rationale on why things were done and the reflection on whether it was effective or not. Alternatively, it's the whole conclusion chapter because the candidate ran out of time and/or energy before the end.

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    10. Listen to Your Examiners

    At the end of the examination process, most candidates have conditions to meet before the degree can be awarded. These vary enormously from correct the typo on page 13, to rewrite chapters 4 to 7. On hearing the conditions, many candidates feel that they have failed. However, this is not generally the case, and most examiners want you to succeed. They provide feedback on what you need to do to get your PhD. This is gold dust! Read it, inwardly digest it, and when you resubmit, provide your examiners with a short table or narrative showing how you have addressed all their issues.