PhD, a rigorous journey

OBTAINING a PhD is an academic achievement with the most profound ability to impact one’s career in public service, academia, or as a researcher in the relevant industry.

As a PhD holder, one is able to tell employers that one is capable of spending weeks or months diligently working to discover new truths, evaluating alternative approaches and recommending the ways forward based on intellectually solid evidence.

If months of work end in failure, one learns from the experience, refines one’s technique and tries again.

One can be trusted to work alone or lead a small group, pursuing ideas and solutions that challenge “common sense” or “received wisdom” in one’s field.

One will discover jobs where freedom to think outside the box is a reality, not just a corporate slogan.

One must, however, not pursue a PhD for the glamour of acquiring the “Dr” title. Instead, one must be genuinely interested to increase one’s knowledge, and desire a rewarding career in a chosen discipline, especially in academia or as a researcher.

When starting research work, a new PhD student must begin with the idea of doing research beyond a master’s dissertation.

He must expect very little guidance and be prepared to motivate himself. Thus, it is a good idea to obtain some sort of practical experience such as industry placement before starting a PhD.

The individual must read all relevant literature for his research and then, carefully plan some initial analysis of the statistics and data gathered.

He must always be inquisitive about his research and what conclusions he must expect to draw from any results.

During this time, many candidates are still learning the ropes. Most quality work that makes up one’s thesis is usually done in the second and third years.

The candidate may attend lectures held for other courses to recap or refresh what he had learnt, especially statistics.

However, more and more universities in the United Kingdom are making it compulsory for PhD candidates to attend courses to prepare them for the actual research.

A PhD candidate will be invited to present and submit written reports on his progress in his research. This presentation and report aid him in his learning of his research. If the report is not up to standard, the candidate may be advised to end his work at the MPhil (Master of Philosophy) level.

A PhD candidate will have a tutor to help supervise the progress of his research. It is crucial that the supervisor understands the circumstances the candidate faces and motivates him accordingly. This is because more often than not, the candidate can be at a loss with his statistics and data.

One may get a supervisor who follows his student’s every move, sharing the thrills of the learning curve development, the delight of discussing findings and the joy of reaching an explanation beyond doubt.

There are also supervisors who leave their students virtually alone, so the onus is on the students to ask for the latest evaluation.Waiting for the oral exam (viva) can be nerve-racking. A supervisor and his colleagues may arrange a mock viva with his candidate and anticipate questions that may be asked.

There would be a certain number of examiners depending on the rules laid down by the university. One’s supervisor may act as an observer or “watching brief” to ensure there is no prejudice in the oral exam proceeding.

To safeguard the name of the university, there would be one internal expert and one or two external experts who may be from another university or the industry. Again, this depends on the rules set by the university.

The supervisor may try to reassure his candidate by saying that the latter is now an authority in his research area and he should treat the oral exam as just a discussion.

But just like before any big event, it is natural to be extremely nervous and one may think about what could possibly go wrong.

That one has reached this close indicates that the research is worthy of a PhD. If not, the external examiners may not be present to oversee the oral exam.

After the exam, the chairman will submit the results to the university’s postgraduate or PhD committee recommending one of the following decisions:

1. Accepted: This means the thesis may require typographical and/or minor editorial corrections to be made to the satisfaction of the examiners and the supervisor(s).

2. Accepted conditionally: This means that the thesis requires some changes in substance or editorial changes to be made to the satisfaction of members of the examining panel designated by the PhD committee. The report of the examining panel must include a brief outline of the nature of the changes required, and indicate the date by which the changes are to be completed. In any case, the changes must be completed to the panel’s satisfaction within a certain date, or the student must withdraw from the programme.

3. Decision deferred: This means that the thesis requires modifications of a substantial nature and is to be submitted for an MPhil. This may sound as a polite way of saying that one’s thesis has failed to meet the level of a PhD but will be awarded an MPhil as a consolation.

4. Rejected: The thesis is rejected. The examining committee shall clearly define the reasons for rejection. A candidate whose doctoral thesis has been rejected will be required to withdraw from the PhD programme.

I wish all PhD candidates the very best of luck.


Retired academic

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