Thursday 14 May 2009

When You're Thinking About a PhD ...

The idea of doing a PhD might have sneaked up on you or it might be loitering with intent. One way or another you need to figure out how to move from "thinking about it" to "doing something about it." Its not that difficult but it is also not that well explained because you'll need to learn to think a bit like an academic. There are a few challenges.

Number 1 is figuring out what you want to research. A former Dean of mine used to say that your PhD had to be like a quest ... something that you really, really want to figure out. That might seem straighforward but most people without a PhD struggle to articulate their quest in a way that would get them a PhD. Typically, applicants paint their quests with far too broad a brush. Something like "I want to do a PhD in Strategy" or "I want to study leadership" can be simultaneously true and yet woefully inadequate as an starting point for a PhD proposal. PhD's are awarded on the basis of contributing something new to our existing knowledge base (see separate post on PhD assessment criteria). Given that we have been researching and producing PhDs in management for decades and in the social sciences more generally for a lot longer, "newness" usually comes in modestly sized packages. Figuring out what to research actually takes some research to get you started. Three key tips are ...

  1. Try to dip into the literature on the topic that you're thinking of ... see what has already been written. If its already written its not going to offer you "newness" for your own PhD but it offers a good starting place.
  2. Think about potential supervisors ... and be specific ... read their recent publications, see what questions they ask. If you can think of links or additive questions you may be onto something.
  3. Make your quest researchable by thinking about how you might best investigate it. Trying to figure out whether job interviewees lie might be interesting for your research but asking them whether they lie opens a difficult can of worms. How do you know that they're not lying about their lying ?

Challenge Number 2 is finding the right programme, in the right school and in the right institution. Study patterns, fee levels, reputations all vary and in that regard a PhD is like any other service offering. Look around and find a provider that you feel comfortable with. Golden rule is to look at more than one provider. At least that way you'll know you didn't just fall into the programme because it was there. Critically, the other thing that varies from place to place is specialisation. Most institutions specialise in research areas and may have world-leading experts in those areas but only the really, really big schools claim to cover everything. This links back to challenge number 1. School X and School Y may both have experts in the field of strategic management say. The likelihood that they are expert in the same detailed sub-fields is much lower. In all probablitly, their respective experts in the broad field (strategy, marketing, leadership, etc) will focus on very different things, using different methods or in different sectors. They may even strongly disagree with each other. Academics are, after all, parochial.

Challenge Number 3 is the process of wooing a potential supervisor. You might think of yourself as the customer in this regard and might even fool yourself into thinking that Programme Directors, Deans or individual supervisors should be grateful to you for showing an interest. To some extent this is true but it only up to a point. Actually, potential supervisors may view you not as a potential customer but as a potential distraction. Unless you can demonstrate that you (i) have the brainpower to complete the programme, (ii) are willing to research a topic that they, the supervisor, are interested in (iii) think that their preferred methods are just right for you too and (iv) that you've linked your research proposal to their on-going research trajectory. If you meet these criteria, then a busy supervisor might just think of you as a helpful addition to their unpaid research team. If not, then they are likely to view you as a high-maintenance, high-risk distraction from their own research agenda. Good supervisors are usually focused on their own next steps and you need to key into that. You should be wary of an overly-welcoming supervisor. There's usually a reason and its not usually that they are just desperate to make your life better.


  1. Everything here makes sense since I got rejected by the program to which I applied.
    I was hurt because I thought I had worked hard. Now I'll do some rethinking.

  2. Hello professor,

    I just completed my MBA and gave up on the chance given to progress to PHD. But now regretting .Thinking of going for a PHD may be in a couple of years. My biggest concern however, is prospective job opportunities after PHD. I am from a developing country and it would be very difficult to find a job at my country after a PHD. Getting into academics is also frail as we have only a handful of Universities. I would suggest that you add a page on " after PHD" so that it could be helpful for prospective students.

    Thanking you immensely for creating and maintaining this blog.

  3. This is really a helpful blog which made me to 'wake up'. I have been underestimating the demand for the PhD. Im in my 4th week of study and ive heard terrible stories which i want to avoid.

  4. As a starter, I feel a bit relieved now having gone through all the items. Many many thanks. Kudos!

  5. Good I hope it helps you find the right project and the right supervisor !