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A Three-Stage Approach to PhD Success

Undertaking a PhD is no small feat. However, as with many things in life, doing a PhD becomes more manageable if you break it down to its parts. Read on for a three-stage approach, which lays the groundwork for a productive and successful PhD experience.

Jul 16, 2018
  • Education
  • Student Tips
A Three-Stage Approach to PhD Success

Undertaking a PhD is no small feat. However, as with many things in life, doing a PhD becomes more manageable if you break it down to its parts. Read on for a three-stage approach, which lays the groundwork for a productive and successful PhD experience.

Stage One: The Early Years

Getting your PhD off to a great start is all about preparedness. Why? Because unlike with undergraduate studies which may be more cursory in nature, PhD studies require “a lot more thinking about the validity and worthiness of a project, as well as a greater knowledge of the topic your thesis addresses and the discipline you are working in,” contends Charlie Pullen for THE.

The more you invest in this part of the process, the better positioned you’ll be down the line. “Part of the challenge is that you must think ahead and estimate how and why it’s going to be successful. I don’t think this is a case of pretending like you already know all the answers or how it will turn out, so much as proving that you’ve considered different possibilities, anticipated challenges, and understood how you may approach these,” continues Pullen.

Another important thing to keep in mind about the difference between the bachelor’s degree and the PhD? While the former is largely about grades, the latter is about research. Explains Elsevier, “The goal is not to complete an assigned set of courses as in an undergraduate program, but to develop significant and original research in your area of expertise. You will have required courses to take, especially if you do not have a master's degree yet, but these are designed merely to compliment your research and provide a broad and deep knowledge base to support you in your research endeavors.”

The key takeaway? The importance of choosing the right research -- and committing yourself to it -- cannot be overstated.

Stage Two: Writing and Defending

The doctoral thesis is the culmination of your research, but it’s also a process in and of itself. While factors like when you start writing and how long it takes you to write are highly individualized, many PhD students find that baby steps are effective. For example, formulating a table of contents and having your supervisor sign off on it can give shape and structure to otherwise unwieldy research.

Other writing tips for PhD students? Follow your flow and edit later; eschew chronological order and instead work on what’s speaking to you at the moment; and be rigorous about quoting from other sources and plagiarism. Also, be sure to consult your university’s reference preferences before you begin the writing process. This will save you time and effort later.

But writing is only part of the thesis process. The defense is also critical. And while you may feel like you’ve got the material mastered after so many years of researching and writing, the fact is that you can’t be too prepared for your defense -- especially when you factor in that a lot the outcome rests not with you, but with the committee.

Writes Eva Lantsoght for AcademicTransfer, “Going into your defense without any preparation at all is not something I recommend. If you were organized during your PhD program, and starting writing your first chapters early on in your journey, you may need to revise some elements again, and reread some key publications. Moreover, your defense will depend on your committee, so preparing for your defense by keeping your committee in mind is essential. Finally, preparing for your defense will help you prepare mentally for the challenges of the day itself, and will give you some piece of mind.”

And don’t forget that practice makes perfect. The best thesis defense talks don’t just happen. They take work. Not sure what makes for a good defense? Arrange to sit in on one. (For more tips on creating a captivating talk, click here.)

One last thing to keep in mind? The writing and defense stage can be particularly stressful for PhD students. In order to stay the course while avoiding burnout, build self-care into the process.

Stage Three: What’s Next?

While a PhD represents an ending, it’s also a beginning. Waiting until it’s over to think about what’s next is ill-advised. Says Lantsoght, “In the final stages of your PhD you can get so absorbed in finishing that the last thing on your mind is what happens next! The risk of becoming too focussed however is that you don’t make the mind-set changes you’ll need to sustain yourself in post-PhD life."

This means giving serious thought to whether you’ll pursue a traditional academic job or will make the leap to industry.

Deciding which way to go comes down to what makes you tick. Proposes Science Mag, “Your education puts you in a position to find a job that not only pays the bills but also provides satisfaction. To discover what type of job will do the trick, analyze what you most enjoyed while working as a PhD student. Was it working in a team of enthusiastic young people exploring unknown (scientific) territories or working to solve a tough problem? Or perhaps you were most excited by the challenge of mastering particular technical skills, learning the multidisciplinary aspects of your project, or teaching. Maybe you were most enthusiastic about the impact your results have (or are likely to have) on society.”

Answering these questions can lead you to the most informed and advantageous decision about your post-PhD life.

While the life of a PhD student can feel much the same day after day, the reality is that every new day is an opportunity to propel yourself closer to your goals. The signposts offered by this three-stage approach can help guide the way.

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Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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