By Prof. Dr. Jamal Hisham Hashim
Visiting Professor at United Nations University- IIGH
Former Professor of Environmental Health at National University Malaysia
Making good plans and preparation for a PhD journey is just as important as starting one. Starting a PhD journey on the wrong foot can spell disaster. So, I am penning my advice and tips here for PhD aspirants in order to help them minimize their risk of attrition and maximize their chance of success. I list here a number of steps one should go through before embarking on a PhD journey, not necessarily in the order they are being listed.
1) Establish a valid reason:
There can be a number of reasons why one wants to pursue a PhD degree. These are some of the more compelling ones. A) To pursue a career in high impact and quality research, b) To pursue an academic career at a higher institution of learning, leading to a professorship, c) To challenge one’s highly inquisitive mind on a particular subject, d) Pure passion for new knowledge and research, e) To contribute substantially to society in terms of new ideas, innovations and problem solving.
2) Get your spouse’s consent:
It is ideal that you pursue your PhD degree while you are single. However, marriage and family or age should not stop you from pursuing your academic dream. If you are married and what more if you have children, your spouse is definitely your PhD partner, even though he/she will not be directly involved. Your spouse will need to be prepared for you to occasional (not all the time) take priority in your research over your family. This may happen during for e.g. field work, lab analysis or thesis writing. Nevertheless, most of the time you should be able to enjoy normal family life. In some eastern cultures, a husband may not be ready to accept a more academically qualified wife. So, make sure you have his consent and support.
3) Get blessings from your parents, siblings and in-laws:
There will be times during your PhD journey when you are feeling down and out, and sometime be on the verge of quitting. This will be the time when family support will play its most important role. Why would your family support you? Besides your spouse and children, most other family members would be overly proud to have one of their own as a PhD holder. Somehow, it reinforces the fact that they inherited good genes, even if they themselves do not pursue a PhD degree. They can give the most encouraging support when you need it the most.
4) Local versus overseas universities:
This is a matter of choice as one is not always better than the other, as there can world-class universities locally as there are mediocre ones overseas, even in the U.S. and U.K. Some choose to do it overseas because this would give them a chance to experience living and traveling in a foreign land. This is fine as long as it does not take priority over your studies. If you are single, doing a PhD overseas may be a more straightforward decision than if you are married with children. There are other considerations like spouse’s pastime, income earning opportunity, children’s schooling, religious practices and weather.
5) Choose your supervisor carefully:
Choosing the right PhD supervisor is more important than choosing whether to pursue your PhD locally or overseas, or at which university. Your supervisor is your academic advisor and mentor. If you cannot get along with him/her, you will face difficulty in completing your studies. It is better to realize early and change your supervisor if necessary. The best way to choose your supervisor is through recommendations from your former lecturers or the supervisor’s former students. With information on the internet, you can also easily google information about your potential supervisor and his academic and research interest, maybe also his records on supervising previous PhD students.
6) Choosing your research topics:
Most universities will ask you for a brief one page proposal of the PhD research you want to embark upon. You are not bound to this research topic as it may change after enrollment and further discussion with your supervisor. You must have an inkling or a few options of ideas of what research you want to do. It may relate to your previous research that you did for your masters but it does not have to be so. The best way to go about this is to contact your potential supervisor first by email, and then go and meet him/her in person, or skype with him/her and see whether you are in research tune with each other. In your application form, it is best to state somewhere that you had made contact and discuss your potential research topic with your preferred supervisor, so that the university will not assign you to a different supervisor upon acceptance. This actually happened to one of my potential students.
7) Full or part time
This depends on a number of things. Some candidates cannot afford to leave their work to do their PhD full time. Doing a PhD part time can be very challenging and taxing as a PhD undertaking needs focus and concentration. It is very easy to get distracted when you are doing it part time. Some supervisors do not take part time PhD students, so you need to find one who will agree to supervise you. A full time PhD normally takes 4 years to complete and doing it part time can easily take double that time. So, whether you are doing it full or part time, give yourself the possibility of an “injury time” when you may need that extra time at the end to complete your writing or to make thesis corrections after your viva voce. The minimum time to complete a full time PhD is 3 years. Only a few of my PhD students managed to do this as it requires highly focused, consistent and persistent work. I myself took slightly over 4 years.
8) Pray for a successful journey:
If you believe in a religion, it does not hurt to pray for a successful and wonderful journey. If you do not believe in one, then you may want to engage in other form or meditation. Whatever your belief is, it helps to have hope, to help you embark on a noble journey with a good start and with a vision of a successful end.
If you think what I have written above is helpful to you or to other persons you know who are thinking of a PhD journey, you are welcome to share it on Facebook or social media. All the best.
Jamal Hisham Hashim, PhD, MCIEH
22 December 2017