PhD insights

A debut blog from Dr Don Berry.

Nietzsche informs us that “When one has finished building one’s house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way – before one began.” In many ways, this is a lot like writing a PhD thesis. Though few will attempt another, many students are left with the feeling that things would be much easier the second time around.

Indeed, many of these insights only become clear after the viva – in itself something of a mystery – after which we realise what exactly the examiners were looking for, which points they are likely to put pressure on and which they are likely to merely skim over (in part because of their own time pressures); which subsidiary issues they will allow a student to bracket off from their enquiries, and which the student must develop some kind of response to. Insights into these questions can of course be gleaned from talking to students further along the road, but beware –– not all vivas are created equal, and some may be much tougher than others.

An important waypoint for the aspiring PhD student is the moment when they discover a concrete problem that is interesting enough to occupy them throughout the thesis, but manageable enough to accomplish in the time allotted. This decision should not be taken lightly or prematurely: it is easy to feel pressured into rushing, but picking the right problem is essential to success. It should also be one they have the relevant skills and background knowledge to tackle – that works to their strengths – and one that they are sufficiently interested in to stay motivated throughout the sometimes-gruelling experience of the writing process.

The trouble is, of course, that it may be hard for a student to tell how much they can accomplish: at this stage, their strength may have yet to be tested in battle, and its limits are something they will discover along the way. Of course, this is remedied by having a knowledgeable supervisor – but many professors are buried under a weight of paperwork with very little time even for their own research. They may therefore not be able to adequately cater to their PhD students’ exact (and sometimes exacting) needs. Often their role is merely to check over manuscripts for glaring errors or omissions, and they are able to supply badly needed resources only when they are related to their own special area of interest (and hence picking a topic one’s supervisor is already knowledgeable about may also be crucial).

Perhaps the most important skill picked up is that of structuring a long piece of work. Students will likely not yet have the vision needed to see the entire logic of the thesis at the get-go, and this may result in a lot of material being excluded later on. In the worst case, this can lead to entire chapters being consigned to the waste-paper bin (or its digital equivalent). Some further advice, then: don’t invest too much time finessing passages that may ultimately be discarded.

Another important habit is to seek as much feedback as possible, and to take every opportunity to explain the logic of what you are trying to do. This includes the obligatory but sometimes tiresome question of ‘what’s your thesis about, then?’ from friends and family at social occasions; practice with which can lead to ever-more concise statements of your central themes and arguments. It is also worthwhile to use email to contact academics not in your immediately environment: scholars with a professional interest in your area will often be warmly receptive, and may even be delighted to discuss issues in depth.

Lastly, another good piece of advice I received was to write the introduction last – it is important is to realise that the overall plan of the work is likely to change radically as time goes on. We can also identify a second crucial stage in the progress of the thesis: the point where a coherent structure is in place, the topical chapters are sketched in in broad outline to be filled in later, and the central thread of the argument taking the reader on a coherent journey is in place. This can even lead to a surge of new energy, with the thought that all from here-on-in is leading directly and inexorably to the completion of the work, and that ever-illusive ‘Doctor’ status.