Considering a PhD? Eleven Practical Issues to Consider First

by Saul Carliner

Note:  These opinions only represent the opinion of the author.  They do not reflect the official opinion of any program in which the author teaches or serves as an administrator.

Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program?

Before you make a commitment to this plan, consider these issues.  Note that the issues are presented from the perspective of a professional who has decided to seek a PhD as the next credential to be acquired, but most of the issues apply to all prospective students.

Issue 1: A PhD Is a Research Degree

Verna Willis, a retired professor from Georgia State, proposed that a bachelors degree prepares students to do, a masters degree prepares students to manage or lead (such as a lead trainer), and a PhD prepares students to research—either as university researchers or consultants.

In practical terms, that means a PhD involves research—not just library research, but hands-on collection and analysis of data from the field. That’s why all PhD programs require a dissertation—that’s the only way students can demonstrate that they have mastered research skills.

Admittedly, most PhD programs involve classwork. And for those seeking a Great Books-like experience, the topics of those courses can sound interesting and the opportunity to read about those topics and discuss them with other like-minded people can sound appealing.

But that’s not the purpose of classwork at the PhD level. Rather, the purpose of most classwork at the PhD level is to prepare students to conduct their research.

Some courses do so directly, exploring one or more aspects of research methodology. Others do so indirectly, by providing students to read foundational texts in the areas in which they intend to conduct their research.

Issue 2: Prepare to Study Independently

Frank was surprised when he couldn’t produce a dissertation proposal that would be acceptable to his committee—and they wouldn’t spend a lot of time tutoring him through their concerns. He thought they had an obligation to make sure he successfully completed his dissertation.

His committee—and all other PhD committees—operate under a different belief: that it is Frank’s responsibility to produce an acceptable dissertation proposal. If he couldn’t, that would be the end of his studies. Although committees do not like to fail PhD students (and rarely do so), they do not operate under the belief that acceptance into a program assures that students will be permitted to complete it. At each of the major milestones, students must demonstrate their own ability to succeed or committees will not let students continue.

After all, the PhD is a degree intended to prepare students to conduct credible, independent research that third parties can use in decision making, much of academic safety net that exists at earlier levels is either limited or removed.

So, if you have worked in a management capacity and have become expert at delegating work, prepare to take the work back on yourself. As part of the grading process, instructors need to certify that the work you produce is yours so they can verify that you can successfully perform the job. Work performed by others is considered a fraud—and most academic codes of conduct require that it be reported.

Issue 3:Clarify Your Understanding of Your Supervisor’s Role

Many PhD students initially approach their relationship with their academic supervisor as that between a mentor and a protégé. PhD students—even those with successful careers—expect that the supervisor will spend countless hours with them in private tutoring sessions, provide copious feedback on student work, and open the most significant doors to their careers. That’s a logical expectation, especially given that most movies and books perpetuate that image.

But those images are fiction.

As matchmaking in romantic relationships has a low success rate, most realists have learned through experience that matchmaking for mentors has a similarly low success rate.

A more realistic analogy is that of the work supervisor—someone who oversees your work. More specifically, as a work supervisor assesses work, so does the academic supervisor. An academic supervisor assesses readiness for, first—the comprehensive exam, second—the formal presentation of the dissertation proposal, and third—the presentation of a completed dissertation. Along the way, the supervisor provides guidance and indicates when work is on- or off-the-mark.

Admittedly, some supervisors are more effective in this role than others. A good supervisor recognizes that PhD students do not always know what lies ahead and helps them anticipate that, and properly prepare.

But when problems arise, like a work supervisor, the academic supervisor only provides limited assistance in addressing them. As a work supervisor would do, an academic supervisor believes the responsibility for addressing problems lies with students. Like some work supervisors, some PhD supervisors take an independent approach, expecting students to figure out how to address problems on their own, with little or no outside guidance.

Given that students are in a learning situation, that’s probably not completely fair to them so other supervisors take a more coaching-like approach and, as a work supervisor would direct a worker to a more experienced co-worker for coaching or to a class for training, so a PhD supervisor would direct you to a tutor for assistance with specific issues or, if appropriate, direct you to a formal class.

But in neither instance will a PhD supervisor spend endless hours with you and provide you with specific assistance in addressing skills deficiencies to ensure that you successfully finish the degree.

On the contrary: even the most sensitive of supervisors recognizes that the PhD is sink or swim time. Learners must succeed on the strength of their own moxie, not the hand-holding of the supervisor. This isn’t insensitivity; its consistent with the purpose of the PhD, a research degree that prepares students to conduct research independently, with no outside guidance. The more that supervision and coaching become tutoring, the less independent the students work—and that’s the exact opposite of the accomplishment marked by the PhD.

Issue 4: Clarify Your Understanding of Your Committee’s Role

As many PhD students initially approach their relationship with their academic supervisor as that between a mentor and a protégé, they similarly approach their relationships with the other members of their committee in one of two ways: one is as anonymous names on paper, the other is as the mentor that the supervisor fails to be. Neither of these approaches is realistic.

The purpose of the committee is to serve as your first review committee. The primary means of assessing research is the blind review—that is, when three people who do not know whom the author of the work is and whose identities are similarly kept from the author, review the work. This review process is called blind because the identities of the participants are hidden from one another.

On the one hand, the PhD committee performs the function of reviewers at each of the three major milestones in the program: the comprehensive exam, dissertation proposal, and defense of the completed dissertation.

On the other hand, all parties know who one another are. Ideally, because they know who you are (and know that you know who they are), committee members might show a bit more compassion than blind reviewers and frame their comments instructionally. That is, under ideal circumstances, committee members not only provide feedback, but can identify concerns that arose in their reviews and suggest how to correct them.

Under additional ideal circumstances (which happens about 50 percent of the time), students have the same committee throughout their studies. As such, a relationship builds between committee members and students, and committee members can comment not only on the merit of student’s work, but also on the growth in it, as earlier work provides a point of comparison.

Under other circumstances, circumstances prevent people from completing terms on committees. (Although the most commonly heard stories are friction among committee members or between committee members and students, the actual reasons are more mundane, such as a professor leaving the university or going on sabbatical). Because students are often responsible for finding their own replacements, they seek faculty who have an interest in both the topic of the students’ dissertations and the students themselves.

Because the value of the committee is in the relationship and understanding of the work, avoiding a relationship with the committee member is not a good idea.

But many students feel like meeting with the professor infringes on the professor’s time; that many professors make students feel this way only contributes to this impression and, in response, students avoid the meeting as a means of avoiding something unpleasant.

That has long-term and bad implications for students. Because, in most universities, each committee members contributes at least one test question to the comprehensive exam (and provides feedback on the others), the less the committee member knows about you, the less relevant (and likely more difficult to answer) the exam questions.

Similarly, if the committee members have little understanding of their students, the usefulness of their feedback beyond mechanical issues is also limited.

So, for a more natural meeting, make sure to take at least one course with each committee member (or, if possible, an independent study course). Or attend a public lecture by the committee member and speak to the committee member afterwards.

In contrast, some students look to committee members as substitute supervisors. Supervision is a singular thing; people who serve two bosses often find themselves being pulled in two opposite directions. As a result, the committee member might send the student in a direction that differs from that proposed by the supervisor.  That, in turn, can cause unnecessary friction between the supervisor, the committee member and even the student.

Issue 5: Clarify Your Research Topic in the First Year—Otherwise, Add At Least One Year to the Time Needed to Complete Your Degree

As the focus of any PhD program is the dissertation—and the dissertation is a 150- to 500-page research project in which the student must demonstrate both expertise in the subject area and the ability to independently conduct research on the topic—the focus of all work in a PhD program is on that project.

The early phases, often called classwork (even in PhD programs in which students primarily study independently), are intended to provide students with these competencies:

  • A strong, general grounding in the field, and usually assumes that students already have a previous degree in the field. For example, in the field of educational technology (in which I teach), this knowledge includes instructional design, instructional media, learning sciences, distance education, and human performance technology. Although some PhD programs do not require a previous degree, students must nonetheless develop the same level of core knowledge.

To ensure that, such PhD programs require additional time so students can develop core knowledge. In most programs, students do not receive credit for these preparation courses.

  • Similarly, international students are expected to read, write, and speak fluently in the language of instruction.  The reading levels of readings in the field are advanced and students need to accurately and completely understand these readings.  Furthermore, students need to be able to interact with native speakers at a high level of proficiency as part of their studies. As a result, most programs require that students demonstrate a minimum language proficiency.

Even those who demonstrate proficiency often need additional language training to be able to keep up with the program. Such training is essential to success, but is not available for credit. Students who have never studied in the language should be prepared to spend some time in non-credit study for language.

  • Development of expertise-level knowledge in the specific area of research. To make a knowledgeable contribution to the literature in a particular area, one needs an in-depth familiarity with the theory and research in that area, so they can knowledgeably identify what’s known and what needs to be studied (or learned). Because identifying a research topic, alone, takes time and reaching expertise in the topic area takes additional time, most PhD programs require that students clearly state a specific research interest in their application essays.

Those who can’t but are admitted anyway usually spend at least two additional years trying to figure out what they want to study. With the length of most PhD programs limited to seven years, most students do not have that much time to waste.

Furthermore, few academic supervisors or committees have the patience to work with students on choosing a topic. For that reason, most experienced PhD admissions committees do not accept students who cannot clearly state a research topic. Furthermore, less experienced PhD committees soon reach this realization.

  • Development of skills to conduct research. The strongest research training first teaches students how to design a study, choose appropriate research methods, and analyze and report data.

Doing so includes general training on all three types of research—quantitative (statistical research, rooted in surveys and experiments), qualitative (collecting thick descriptions and analyzing the data systematically), and critical (analyzing documentary evidence) —as well as writing research reports.

This type of training also includes in-depth training on how to use the specific methods to be employed in the dissertation.

If a student does not have a dissertation topic, much less a method identified, until he or she prepares the dissertation proposal, he or she might miss out on important training.

Note that, although a PhD curriculum provides students with exceptional flexibility, the flexibility is intended to prepare them to conduct their intended research. It is not intended to merely let students study whatever seems of interest; classwork is not an opportunity to participate in a Great Books program.

So students should not take courses merely because they sound interesting; the courses must prepare students to conduct their dissertation research.

Otherwise, the time spent in courses is wasted and might require additional coursework (or, more likely, non-credited reading) to reach a viable point. This adds time to a program and is why a student who starts a PhD program without a dissertation topic needs to add time to find one.

Issue 6: If You Have Not Conducted an Independent Study Before, Add At Least One Year to the Time Needed to Complete the Degree

The dissertation is intended as a large-scale study that most students conduct on their own.

But for the most successful PhD students, its not their first study. For some, that opportunity came with a master’s degree thesis. For others, it came as a class project in a master’s or PhD program (not the class project for a first course on research, but a second project that built on, and practiced, those research skills). And for still others, the opportunity came through work as a research assistant.

However students gain the experience, previous, hands-on experience with research makes a significant difference in the ease of completing the dissertation.

Consider Andrew. He could not clearly state a research problem, much less describe a do-able and cohesive plan to address that problem.  Worse, after two years of preparing a dissertation proposal, he was further delayed in starting his research because he filled out the incorrect paperwork for the application for approval of the study by the review board for research ethics (called an Independent Review Board in some places and an Ethics Committee in others).

The entire situation could have been avoided had Andrew focused more on research when choosing classwork instead of looking for courses that sounded interesting to him.

So essential is this research experience that some programs include a preliminary study in their PhD curricula. But not all—and if yours does not, you’ll need to find a way to work it into your curriculum. The good news is that students can usually receive academic credit or be paid to work on research.

Issue 7: Be Prepared for Direct Feedback

As noted earlier, PhD programs prepare students to conduct research. Because the process for approving research is the blind review, as part of the process of conducting research, PhD programs also prepare students for the blind review process.

Because the people who conduct blind reviews do not know whom the author is, they tend to be more direct than teachers when giving feedback on papers.

Or, to be more blunt, these reviews pull no punches and, quite frequently, can seem scathing, especially when the reviewer finds much to fix with a paper and when standards of acceptance vary widely among reviewers yet are also high.

Ideally, the feedback will be clear and provide guidance in addressing an issue is noted. But people who give feedback all the time sometimes lose their sensitivity to the person on the receiving.

Partly to prepare students for this type of review but, just as important, because supervisors and committee members conduct such reviews frequently, faculty often provide direct, blunt, and detailed feedback to students.

In most instances, this feedback is provided in a courteous and professional manner; but to an inexperienced student, it can come as quite a shock.

Issue 8: Prepare for a Level of Rigor Not Necessarily Sought–or Valued–in Professional Life

Consider Marsha. The early draft of her research proposal in human resource development was resoundingly rejected by her committee. They said it lacked a research basis. The real problem with this research proposal was that the Marsha, an experienced professional in her field, relied on her own anecdotal experience and the professional literature to guide her study.

She planned to study whether e-learning was more effective than classroom learning. After all, she had read in the past month yet another article on one of the websites she regularly checks about the topic; this one from one of the primary gurus in the professional literature—someone who speaks at all of the conference programs.

In fact, she quietly thought that her committee was out of touch when they had not even heard of this person.

They hadn’t. Marsha’s committee admittedly did not read the professional literature as much as Marsha. But they wished that Marsha had read the research literature. Because the question that Marsha was asking had been answered rather definitively in a series of articles published several years earlier in the peer-reviewed literature.

Furthermore, because Marsha’s research needed to be placed within the context of the peer-reviewed literature, not the professional literature, her reliance on websites whose editors often who have little or no experience in the field and whose articles often reflect anecdote and personal experience rather than scientifically collected empirical evidence, rather than the peer-reviewed literature, this glaring omission reflected all the worse on Marsha.

It’s like going into court and hoping to defend a witness based on character witnesses and ignoring the material evidence underlying the case. Lawyers win cases by providing the strongest evidence. Similarly, researchers (and that’s what PhD students are being trained to become) are expected to be able to recognize, collect, and present the strongest possible evidence.

In some fields, the professional literature has a tradition of emphasizing the strongest evidence. Others, however, do not. If the professional literature in your field of study has low standards of evidence (and, unfortunately, such low standards sometimes extend to even the peer-reviewed literature), be prepared to adopt a new level of rigor that will be acceptable to your committee.

As frustrating as this might be (especially if the peer-reviewed publications in the field do not always have a high standard of publication), you receive several benefits. Adopting the stronger standard for your own work reduces the likelihood of problems as you work on your own research .

In addition, you might find that some of the myths of your field are not supported by the empirical evidence. For example, in the field of e-learning, the professional literature extols the virtues of social learning.  But the research evidence has not shown that social learning is widely used.  And, in those instances when people have used it, the evidence of its effectiveness has been inconclusive.

Issue 9: Plan to Spend Some Time as a Full-Time Student

Although on paper, completing a PhD part-time is do-able, even for those in demanding full-time jobs, in reality, most people that attempt it find that impossible.

Often, the demands of a PhD workload cause these students to drop out.

To those few with exceptional energy, exhaustion eventually takes its toll

So students need to plan on full-time studies during two phases of their PhD programs. The first is an academic residency, during which students are expected to take a full-time class load. This residency is crucial to the learning experience. It provides an opportunity to become immersed in the content of the program and, on a visceral level, have it come to characterize the student, as is necessary in a program in which the learner is intended to leave an expert in a subject.

Although some students try to get out of this residency, most schools refuse to exempt students from this crucial development. A typical academic residency is at least 1 year.

The other time that a student needs to study full-time is during data collection and analysis for the dissertation, and the writing of the first draft. These are activities that cannot be handled at nights and on weekends (for example, much data collection needs to occur during daytime hours, when most people work). If a student has a strong dissertation plan, these activities can usually occur in 6 months or less.

Issue 10: Plan the Financing in Advance

Consider Tina. Before moving from full-time employment to full-time student status, she failed to adjust her lifestyle and spending to the austerity of her fellowship (which would have covered tuition and a modest lifestyle). Rather than live in the city and take advantage of the half-price unlimited monthly pass for monthly transit (in a city where mass transit is easily available and safe), she kept her car and lived by herself in a 4-bedroom suburban apartment. She continued to buy  $100+ cosmetics rather than economize to brands like Nivea and Olay

The price?  To make ends meet, she had to work full-time on the side as a contract professional to make ends meet.

Problem was, because she was working full-time, she wasn’t finishing courses and she wasn’t fulfilling the responsibilities of her fellowship and eventually found herself on the wrong side of a lawsuit.

Similarly, Mike, a self-employed technical writer who decided to start PhD studies. In the pre-acceptance interview, when asked about financing, Mike said he would continue working and did not need financing. In his first meeting with his supervisor after acceptance, Mike said, “I need work on campus.” He wanted to study full-time and, to make ends meet, ended up working three 10-hour-a-week jobs on campus for about $16/hour.

Both planned to finance their PhDs on the Hope Plan—that is, apply to the program and, if accepted, hope that the money will take care of itself.

It won’t.

Turns out, Mike only said what he thought the committee wanted to hear, instead of the truth. In the end, the only person Mike hurt was himself. Had he studied part-time during this period, he could have made the same amount of money with one-third the work effort.

Before starting a program, students need to plan the financing for their doctorates. A number of plans exist, but the hope plan (that is, get accepted into a program without financing and hope that the faculty can come through with research assistantships (RAs) and teaching assistantships (TAs) to help make ends meet) isn’t the most reliable.

Although such employment opportunities exist, they pay poorly. Weekly take-home is in the minimum wage range, and often does not cover all tuition fees and books, much less living costs. In those instances in which PhD students already possess a job skill that’s both highly valued and paid, they should seriously consider continuing to earn a living in their field, even if they reduce work to part-time.

In some fields, that work experience is actually a benefit. Although it does not provide academic credit, the knowledge gained from work deepens the understanding of concepts taught in class. In turn, the concepts learned in class make the student more effective in their work.

So any planning for PhD studies needs to include planning for the finances. Find out what the average length of time students in the program require to complete it, and plan for at least 6 more months. Although you might want to complete the program sooner, a program’s average experience is a more realistic guideline for planning purposes. If you finish sooner, then you’ll have a little extra cash. But if you finish 6 months later than the average, you wont be starved for cash, as you planned for this scenario.

Issue 11: Determine How You Want the Degree to Benefit You

As suggested by the previous 10 issues, a PhD involves significant financial, emotional, and intellectual investments on your part. One last issue you need to consider is how you intend for it to benefit you. That is, what do you hope to get for all of this effort.

Most PhD programs assume that students plan to become tenure-track faculty members, and are designed as such. (Indeed, most supervisors and committee members advise students accordingly, even if the student has no interest in a faculty position.)

Furthermore, if you hope to become a tenure-track faculty member (or even a full-time faculty member), make sure that your degree comes from an institution that will be well-regarded by hiring faculty. As you conduct your research about the degree, ask faculty members from which schools they would value a candidate and from which ones they would not.

Partly because tenure-track faculty positions are limited (and the number seems to decline each year), other options for the PhD exist. And every prospective student has an obligation to investigate them for themselves.

PhD programs prepare students to conduct research, and researchers are needed in a variety of other positions, including government and independent think tanks and research centers, and corporate research and development departments. In some instances, the positions relate directly to your area of expertise. In other instances, the positions merely require expertise at designing and conducting studies, though the area of research differs from your area of expertise.

Some people hope to use a PhD to become a consultant. The research skills and book-learning provide such people with some credentials. But consulting means advising people on real work problems and, those without appropriate work experience (not 6 months as a junior trainee, but years (at least 10) as a high-ranking professional or, even better, manager), you would lack the credibility to provide useful advice. Book learning, alone, is not well-regarded in the professional world as many of the challenges organizations face are not covered by the books. In such instances, the PhD candidate would need to work as a junior consultant on a team. This is often frustrating as a PhD student focuses on independent learning and such positions move these people to people with limited, if any, decision making authority.

Still other people hope the credential will merely make them more attractive for a promotion within a corporate or government job. Generally, that does not happen. In fact, according to some salary surveys, the salary bump for a PhD does not justify the education.  Salary surveys in my field suggest that a PhD is a detriment in some positions as some employers assume that PhDs are overeducated and difficult to manage.

Last Issue: Why All of These Issues?

If you read through all of this and are discouraged, then you probably should not be considering doctoral studies. As just noted, PhD studies involve an extensive financial, intellectual, and emotional investment. And the source of these investments is you. Failure to consider them this is why 50 percent of all PhDs never finish their programs.

But if you go through all of these issues and feel like you have a more realistic sense of what lies ahead, you’re on the start to successful PhD studies as well as the successful career that follows.

© Copyright. Saul Carliner. 2008-2011.  All rights reserved.

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