To open this blog post series, I have decided to start at the very beginning by addressing your decision to apply for a PhD. Managing your Masters workload alongside preparing a PhD application is a challenge. Many people decide to work for a year in between their Masters and submitting their PhD application, some for financial reasons and some because they just need a break from academia for a while. However, if you do decide to begin balancing the two, it is vital to take a beat and assess what you think you will gain from a PhD. Undertaking a PhD is undoubtedly an incredibly rewarding experience which allows you to completely immerse yourself in a topic that inspires and intrigues you; a process which concludes with you becoming an expert in your research area…and a doctor with all of its associated prestige of course. However, it is also very often an isolating experience which requires you to work alone, process large amounts of information daily, be incredibly self-motivated and to find a way to achieve your personal goals alongside this professional goal which demands significant attention but does not provide the same financial benefit of equally demanding jobs outside of academia. I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to the successful completion of your PhD that you are able to force yourself to get up and work a 9-5 day when there is no one checking up on you. The first question to ask yourself is: Can I spend three years constantly motivating myself? If the answer is yes, then please read on.
Just another module
Many people argue that looking for a job is a job in itself. Well, I would argue that applying for a PhD is very much like trying to find a new job. What this boils down to is a process that is time-consuming, challenging and plagued with self-doubt. However, as the old adage goes, ‘nothing worth having comes easily’, and if you persist (and follow the advice this blogging series will lay out for you) then the rewards far outstrip any temporary sacrifices. When I was applying for my PhD it felt like every person I spoke to who had already traversed that path was immediately negative about the experience and, while it is certainly not my intention to follow in their footsteps when advising you about the process, I do find myself drawn to reflecting on the challenges it raised.
Writing your research proposal is a uniquely odd experience. Put simply, you have to write your proposal as if you already know everything about the research area you wish to enter, and that all you have left to do is to conduct further in-depth research into your own niche. If you are emerging from your BA and/or MA studies then you cannot possibly know everything about your research topic yet. Fortunately, you only need to have a primarily superficial understanding of the field and you must know the ‘big names’ who are discussing your topic. I should clarify that by ‘superficial’ I mean you can summarise a particular academic’s research niche and theories/conclusions, and can identify patterns and trends in your research area. However, you do not need to have read every book or article they have written. You must treat the process of researching to develop your PhD proposal as though it were another MA module. Dedicate a similar number of hours each week to conducting superficial research into your chosen topic. I would estimate that I spent about sixteen hours a week researching my PhD and planning/writing/editing my proposal. Ideally, if you were to start in September then by Christmas you would have a strong grasp on your research area, the gap which you intend to fill and something resembling a draft proposal. Admittedly, this process is time-consuming and at times frustrating (like when you come up with what you think is a great idea and six articles later you discover that someone has already published on it), but it is a valuable insight into what PhD life will be like. In my next post I will be going into more detail about how to find your thesis and how to research for your PhD proposal.