1. Getting started
Getting started on a PhD is pretty much like starting on a journey. You probably know where you want to arrive at, you have a fair idea of how you hope to get there, and you have a rough idea of how long this journey will take. You also have only a very vague idea of the other things that will happen on this journey – the potential obstacles, the opportunities, or the people that you will meet along the way – or how you will cope with these new experiences. Like many big journeys, you will will start out with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Unlike most geographical journeys, however, the experience of undertaking a PhD provides the student traveller with an expert support-team to guide and advise on each step of the way. This support-team is called a supervisory panel. Usually there will be a Director of Studies, who is the main supervisor, and a Second Supervisor, who will bring supplementary or complementary experience to the advisory process. There are a lot of diverse factors that will help to determine the quality of the final PhD submission, but essentially it is the nature of the interplay between the student, the subject matter, and the (usually two) supervisors that is at the core of the whole experience.
We will deal later with each of these components in turn, but for now let’s just focus on getting started. Usually the student embarking on a PhD has already performed well in a relevant undergraduate degree and wants to get more deeply engrossed in the subject area. This is a good start, but it is not enough. There is a key responsibility at a very early stage for the lead supervisor to help articulate quite clearly the shape of the tasks ahead. By this I mean, not just to help to define the wording of the research question (or the hypothesis) important though this stage is, but also to give very clear and gentle guidance on the level of what is expected, the standards to aspire to, and to inspire confidence that this complex task can be simply broken-down into manageable, well-paced sub-tasks, which the student is perfectly capable of undertaking.
It is also crucial not to hype-up the PhD study process so that the student is intimidated and deflated before they even make a start. There are many aspects of self-directed research that are daunting, challenging, and frustrating, but the role of the supervisor is to work with the student to put these challenges into perspective and to seek a way through to the next level. It is therefore important that a balance between realism and optimism is struck during these early stages. The supervisor should not minimise the likely challenges ahead – breaking new ground is part of the attraction for all researchers, young and more elderly – but neither should a responsible supervisor seek to “scare” a student into action by emphasising the scale of the obstacles. I have often told students that a PhD is only 70% intelligence and 30% stamina (we can argue about the exact figures later!) and this point of this is that lots of clever people embark on research for a doctorate but never complete it. This is not because they are stupid people, they have already demonstrated that they are not by their ability to get accepted for a PhD registration. Rather it is because the long slog of research at this level – the scoping, preparation, leg-work, desk-work, frustrations and imponderables that have been discovered – is simply more than they are prepared to endure for the rewards on offer.