There are several reasons why one may consider embarking on a PhD study but there are two that I consider important. On the one hand, there has to be a passion for research (developing understanding and knowledge) or a desire to be intellectually challenged and guided by a known expert in your field. On the other hand, there may be a particular topic, theory or issue that really appears to motivate your curiosity. For most people both reasons are present. In some cases, there may even be the situation where the intending PhD candidate has already been engaged in academic research (perhaps as a research assistant for a project) or where the candidate has already carried out extensive work on that topic. In such cases, choosing a topic appears as a straightforward matter with the ensuing complication of making it viable or finding a suitable theoretical and methodological framework. My PhD journey started long before I made my application. It started in my mind, as I gave some thought to why I wanted to pursue a PhD. I was curious about the knowledge I gained from my MBA and I wanted to know ‘how’ to successfully run a business and ‘why’ I had been unable to sustain any business beyond the two year mark. So I thought being able to find answers to these questions will not only help me but also help other women entrepreneurs in Africa.
The first difficulty I encountered on my PhD journey was how to stay motivated for the duration of my programme. The truth is that for some people there are some days when you certainly won’t feel motivated. There are days, even weeks, when most PhD students feel that they chose the wrong topic. That is inevitable and part of the process. Therefore, whilst it is important that the topic you choose has been selected freely and out of your own interest, there are other issues that will impact your ability to complete your thesis. The first issue to bear in mind when considering a topic is: “how feasible is it for a PhD project?” If you are like me, you may have started your PhD with an over-ambitious project and find it difficult to focus your initial research question. The key is to ensure that the “big topic” can be turned into a “manageable” research question. That is the thing supervisory teams and other successful academics try consistently to tell PhD candidates. Sadly, some candidates struggle to accept this. Flexibility is a useful attribute to have during a research project, particularly during such a long project as a PhD. You will find many obstacles during your thesis write up stage. Some will be difficult to manage so you will need to be flexible with your topic. Perhaps you planned to use a particular conceptual framework but realised that it will not work in your particular case (or cases). A decision will have to be made with your supervisory team to either change the case or framework.
I started with a descriptive study and finally ended doing an exploratory one. You may have wanted to compare two or more cases but have been constrained by time or funds (after all you want to finish your PhD!) or realised such comparisons may not make theoretical sense and therefore you will need to change your original research design. I changed from wanting to do a comparison of two different national countries to finally doing a cross-cultural study of four cultural groups within the same country. Flexibility is a big virtue – and in such cases flexibility is not a reflection of weakness, but of intellectual strength.
Your topic is the driver of your research and may require tweaking or changing to reflect the reality and context of your environment and data collection process etc. That is natural and may breed confusion or research lethargy. I was so keen to tell everyone what my research was about in the initial stage of my research journey, By the time I reached my second year, I realised my interest and enthusiasm were waning and I avoided any discussion about my topic. I was bemused with the many different approaches and ideas thrown at me to offer a concise answer to the big question “What is your PhD research about?” I realised I was not yet an expert and had a lot to learn; this is a critical phase of acceptance and learning to deal with the frustration of making sense of your research goal or objective. You are not alone if you feel swarmed with a reservoir of academic discourse in your research. The point really is to get started and to be willing to develop your research throughout the process. By all means, staying faithful to your well designed topic and fit for purpose research question ensures a smooth and defined path. But make sure you are able to act promptly when they don’t connect or make sense without feeling that you are betraying your initial project.
My PhD journey has been unlike any other thing I have ever experienced. When I first started, I felt like an octopus on skates trying to keep my balance while navigating through new territory. Nothing really prepares you fully for a PhD like actually doing one yourself. I saw areas where I was lacking in skill or knowledge and quickly sought assistance and applied myself to gain knowledge and improve in those areas. The transition onto my PhD was made smoother because LSC provided doctoral training courses which gave me a better understanding of how to engage an academic research and what skills I needed to develop a research work. I had to improve my computer skills, for instance, using MS Word, Excel and knowing how to format my documents.
My PhD journey has been one of self-discovery, skills and abilities I did not know I had. Organisation and planning, time management, juggling family responsibilities with academic pursuit were all crucial skills that enabled me progress with my PhD as well as achieve a balanced social life. It is very essential to have a very strong support structure (for me, it was my family). I set timelines, weekly and monthly goals for my research and rewarded myself with watching soccer with my family after I achieved a goal or milestone. Of course ensuring my Annual Monitoring Report and other documentations were duly completed and closed out was a good bench mark for the PhD journey. Besides the personal development, my PhD journey has stimulated other indicators of self maturity in the research domain particularly the desire for a career in academia. I remembered that prior to embarking on this journey I could not write a research proposal that could be considered of high quality or read peer-reviewed articles because I found them to be extremely boring and difficult to understand.
I had to rewrite my proposal several times to achieve the required standard. But today, I have a deep appreciation of academic papers and writing academic articles comes as easily as making dinner for my family and I am looking forward to writing and contributing to the research domain. I have read over 2,500 journal articles in the course of my research. I am still reading now even after my research is completed as my PhD journey has opened me to the fact that learning and research is an ongoing experience and one never stops being learning and researching just because the PhD journey is over. The end of that journey is actually the beginning of another life-long learning journey (depending on your chosen career path).
So what do you need to do as a PhD student?
Given my experience so far, I would say the following points are vital for success and to eliminate the chances of pre-mature dropping out:
- Be humble and flexible enough to follow the leadership of your supervisory team knowing that your success is as important to them as it is to you. My original intention was an over-ambitious project intending to do a cross-cultural study of women entrepreneurs in Nigeria and South Africa, but with the advice from my Director of Studies, I was able to streamline it into a manageable research topic. I was humble and flexible enough to understand that research can and probably will change during the initial stages as it is not cast in stone. My conceptual framework had to change as I discovered that such a comparison will not make theoretical sense given the diversity of both national cultures. This in turn affected my research design as that had to change also.
- Have realistic expectations: the PhD is primarily driven by the student, so ask yourself if you are able to work remotely and alone? Are you prepared to be glued to your computer as your best friend, guided by supervisors that you rarely meet except through email correspondence and occasional visits (as in my case living far away in South Africa)?
- Maintain a healthy study-life balance particularly if you are married and have kids.
- Realistically evaluate your career plans, because the PhD process will train you to a be researcher and an academic i.e. review literature, find a research problem, figure out a research methodology, follow and implement the research method, present your result and at then write a thesis that covers all your arguments and demonstrates your efforts during the past three to four years of your life. If you are interested in these “how to’s” and if your desire is to become a researcher or an academic in the future, that would be the path to go through. But if you are thinking of some other things, then you need to think twice.
- Set realistic and achievable goals or milestones. You need a personal programme for yourself besides the school’s programmes that will keep you in check. Reward yourself each time a goal or milestone is reached. A PhD has the tendency to rule and control your life if you let it, so have special reward or ‘cool off time’ once a milestone is reached and gather yourself to embark on reaching the next milestone.
- Try to collect your data in a timely manner to have time to manage the data capturing and analysis phase. This phase can be really tedious, far more so than the data collection process.
- When you begin your write-up phase, reference as you go along and format your document in the required style. You could try using the “cite while you write function”. Do not leave it till the end – I learnt that the painful way. Save and back-up your work in different places – I also learnt that in a painful way! – and ensure draft versions are saved appropriately.
- And finally, a PhD needs patience and passion. So you need to be self-motivated as the process could lapse and exceed the time. Therefore, you will need to know how to rejuvenate your passion and prevent burn out. Your motivations have to be strong.