Things to consider when embarking on a PhD

Embarking on a PhD

This is the first of three articles giving you an insight into the things to consider when embarking on a PhD. My experience is based on the social sciences, more specifically marketing in a business school. The first article explains what a PHD is giving you hints on how to select a supervisor and university. It also considers the application process. The second and third articles are designed to give you tips on managing your workflow process. More specifically I look at reference management software and how to use NVivo to support the writing of your literature review. The video below is a short animation explaining the process.

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The first thing you need to recognise when embarking on a PhD is that it will not be like your undergraduate or masters degree: these tend to be orientated to practitioner issues (i.e., addressing a business/organisational issue). A PhD is all about adding to knowledge and/or theory, this means your research question needs to address this issue. I tell my PhD student to make this addition to knowledge and theory part of their title. You will have no doubt seen PhD titles which do not include the key contribution within it: all I am trying to do is minimise the risk of being challenged at a viva. As a supervisor, I will have a limited understanding of what your external is likely to challenge you on in your viva. Having an explicit contribution helps to reduce the risk.

The next step for all PhD candidates is ensuring their research is original. This does not mean it has to be ‘all singing and dancing’ or will change the world. Look at figure 1 and 2 below, as an analogy which would you consider as your PhD:

Figure 1: A pile of lego bricks.

Figure 1: A pile of lego bricks.


Figure 2: Lego house and bricks

Figure 2: Lego house and bricks.


1. You building a new Lego model from scratch? Or;
2. You adding two Lego blocks to finish off the roof?

Most of you will say figure 1, i.e., building a new Lego model from scratch: I did this myself when I started my own PhD. In reality, you should think of your PhD as figure 2, adding the final two bricks to enhance existing theory and knowledge. I advise my students not to embark on a Grounded Theory approach, I believe this to be too risky because it focuses on developing new theories. That’s not say it cannot be done, I know of a number of candidates that have successfully defended their grounded theory thesis. As a supervisor, I take a more conservative approach, my aim is to minimise the risk for the student: once you have completed your PhD then take on these big research programmes.

Another important factor to consider is your sample frame (i.e., the people you are going to question). Many students think that asking friends on social media will be sufficient, it will not. Your sample should target specific groups that are easy to identify: millennials studying at Universities is a common sample frame, if you have access to an organisation or a specific community then even better.

So, with research question and possible frame in hand what do you do next? You need to develop a proposal. Different Universities have different criteria for administering the proposals: you need to decide where you want to go and examine their application requirements. Your decision should be based identifying the best supervisor for your thesis. He or she needs to have a good list of publications that are relevant to your thesis. I recommend submitting the application then approach the potential supervisor. You need to understand that the spare capacity of many academics is limited, poorly constructed and considered proposals will be rejected: going through the formal application process will give you a fighting chance. Speculative contact with a potential supervisor is generally frowned upon as administrators like to monitor and control access. Some academics may also view this type of contact as a ‘shot-gun’ approach (i.e., the potential applicant is simply casting their net far and wide hoping for a catch): these academics will see no value in reviewing the proposal as the student could go elsewhere.

An alternative approach to consider is embarking on a Master of Research (MRes) degree at your chosen University first: you are more likely to get a place and you can build a solid relationship with your ideal supervisor (although like life in general, nothing is every guaranteed). I recommend this approach because you will learn the essential research skills needed to embark on a PhD programme (there is very little direct teaching given to you on a PhD). If you prefer embarking on a journey that has more teach you might want to consider a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) programme, I have little experience of this so I cannot at this stage make comment.

In sum, get your proposal right, find a desired supervisor and university make your application then contact the supervisor to discuss.

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Dr Alan Shaw is a Senior Lecturer and Marketing consultant focusing on a range of sectors. His main interests are in strategy development, social marketing, digital marketing, advertising, consumer behaviour and marketing application.
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