Notes on How to Get a PhD (chapters 1 – 8) – A Handbook for students and their supervisors (3rd Ed) Phillips, E. M. & Pugh, D. S. (2000)

September’s looming and having never completed a non-taught qualification I have to keep telling myself not to wait for instruction…

So a trip to the library led me to “How to get a PhD” Phillips & Pugh and this blog captures my thoughts around the points the authors make that feel particularly salient for me.

The Meaning of a Doctorate

A doctor’s degree is a licence to teach in a University as a member of faculty which means I have been teaching now for 6 years without the necessary qualifications!  A Bachelor’s degree traditionally meant that the recipient has obtained a general education, and a Master’s is a licence to practise.  I’m looking forward to increased feelings of entitlement and validity as a ‘Dr’.

The outcome of a PhD is ‘an original contribution to knowledge.’

A fully Professional Researcher…

  • has something to say that their peers want to listen to
  • has command of what is happening in the subject area so the worth of what others are doing can be evaluated
  • has the astuteness to discover where a useful contribution can be made
  • is aware of the ethics of their profession and work within them
  • has a mastery of appropriate and current techniques, and is aware of their limitations
  • can communicate their results effectively in the professional arena
  • carries out all this in an international context

The holder of a PhD is in command of the field of study and can make a worthwhile contribution to it.  However the work for the degree is essentially a research training process.

It is very important to have a ‘thesis’ in the sense that you have something that you wish to argue, a position you wish to maintain.  It must have a ‘story line’, a coherent thrust which pushes along an argument, an explanation, a systematic set of inferences derived from new data or new ways of viewing current data.

Key learning point = read other people’s theses in my own field to discover what the standards are.  I can locate theses through a University library (ProQuest)

I was pleased to find three theses in the search finding for ‘ “threshold concept” AND Higher Education’ which I now need to read, and none for ‘”threshold concept” AND Entrepreneurship’

Key learning point = (in discussion with others and my supervisor) construct a list of the craft practices (of research) that characterize a good professional researcher in my discipline and seek out opportunities for practicing them on work that is not directly intended for my PhD thesis.

The authors also recommend the National Postgraduate Committee (

Research is not intelligence gathering.

Intelligence gathering = the ‘what’ questions

Research = the ‘why’ questions. It looks for explanations, relationships, comparisons, predictions, generalizations and theories.

Characteristics of Good Research:

  1. Research is based on an open system of thought.  You are entitled to think anything, to question anything. A researcher is not someone who knows the right answers, but someone who struggles to find the right questions.
  2. Researchers examine data critically.  ‘What is your evidence?’
  3. Researchers generalize and specify limits on their generalizations. Generalizations can best be established through the development of explanatory theory – the application of theory turns intelligence gathering into research

Basic Types of Research

  1. Exploratory – pushing out the frontiers of knowledge in the hope that something useful will be discovered
  2. Testing-out research – trying to find the limited of previously proposed generalizations
  3. Problem-solving research – taking a problem from the ‘real world’ and attempting to find a solution.

The authors advise testing-out research for a PhD.  I am proposing to test-out the theory of Threshold Concepts on Entrepreneurial Education.

The craft of doing research.

No research approach or technique, procedure, skill etc. which is relevant to the thesis project should be exercised by you there for the first time.  Instead you should always practice on a non-thesis exercise.

Key learning point = get a buddy or self-help group in a similar discipline at a similar stage of study to go through the experience with.  Review each other’s work and work to agreed deadlines.  Our nascent Northumbria Threshold Concept group might be useful here.

The form of a PhD

Background theory is usually demonstrated in the form of a literature review.  The purpose of this section is to demonstrate that you have a full professional grasp of the background theory to your subject.  It is likely to include the evaluations of the contributions of others with justifications for any criticisms, the identification of trends in research activity and definitions of areas of empirical and theoretical weaknesses.

Key learning = seek out the Annual Review equivalent for my area of interest to get a good idea of the style and standard required.

Focal theory sets out in great detail precisely what you are researching and why. The nature of the problem is established and analysed, hypotheses (if appropriate) are generated, other’s arguments are examined, and your own data and analysis are used to push forward the academic discussion.

Data theory gives the justification for the relevance and validity of the material that you are going to use to support your thesis.  It explains why you need to be listened to.  It will be concerned with the reliability and appropriateness of your data sources.  In social sciences you might need to engage in an epistemological discussion about which interpretative framework (positivist, postmodernist etc.)  it is appropriate for you to use to maintain your position.

Contribution is concerned with the evaluation of the importance of your thesis in the development of the discipline and is the final element of the PhD form.  It is a discussion as to why and in what way the background theory and the focal theory that you started with are now different as a result of your research work.

Key learning point = in order to ensure adequate emphasis on both, the authors recommend separating out the summary and conclusion into separate chapters.

Recommended thesis sections to be further divided into chapter headings as appropriate are:

  • Introduction (including Aims)
  • Literature Survey
  • Method
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions

The main sections will require an abstract summarizing the work to make the job of the examiners easier.  A clear statement of the problem under exploration should also be made.

Key learning point = save consecutive drafts of section and chapters, rather than overwriting for subsequent drafts.  This will enable me to go back and compare drafts at a later date and see whether there are genuine improvements.

The authors advise making a rough writing plan, complete sections one at a time – ideally in order, revise and re-draft at least twice, spend at least 2-5 hours a week writing, seek comments from others on early drafts and collaborate where you can.

First generate the main points, then organize them into an acceptable structure and finally construct the points into sentences and paragraphs.

The authors recommend writing up the Method section first (as it’s likely to be the easiest) or the Literature Review – which very likely will then require revision in light of work that is subsequently published.

They also advise writing to your allotted time, rather than until you reach a natural break in the work.  This is because they believe you are more likely to feel a sense of urgency in returning to the work left in its unfinished state and it will be easier to pick up.  I’m not sure how I feel about this but I’m prepared to give it a go.

Key learning point: rather than struggling with the concept of working independently from supervision and from external approval, I think I might veer to the other extreme and fail to seek feedback sufficiently frequently.  So my aim is to plan in points where feedback will be sought (in discussion with my supervisor) and to build it into my process of working.  This should stop me climbing too high up the wrong tree.

Key learning point: the worst that can happen is not that someone else publishes on your topic, but that someone else publishes on your topic and you are not aware of it.

The PhD Process as the progressive reduction of uncertainty, Phillips & Pugh (2000)

The PhD Process as the progressive reduction of uncertainty, Phillips & Pugh (2000)

It is useful to look on the total process as a series of tasks which lead to the progressive reduction of uncertainty.

So my 6 years might look something like this, divided into 4 month sections (part-time ‘terms’)

Part of Year 1

Months 1 – 8 (Sept 2015 – April 2016) Background Theory – field of interest

Remainder of Year 1 and part of Year 2

Months 9 – 16 (May 2016 – December 2016) Background Theory – possible topics

I should be working up two or three topics in some detail to enable me to make the appropriate professional choice at the next stage.  This should enable me to generate 2 or 3 research proposals of about 4 pages each.

Remainder of Year 2

Months 17 – 24 (January 2017 – August 2017) Focal Theory – pilot study

Essentially we are asking here – will it work?

Part of Year 3

Months 25 – 32 (September 2017 – April 2018) Data Theory – thesis proposal

Ensuring ‘symmetry of potential outcomes’ – i.e. the thesis will not stand or fall by a particular result but will make a contribution whatever the outcome.

Remainder of Year 3  and Year 4

Months 33 – 48 (May 2018 – August 2019) Data Theory – data collection and analysis

All of Years 5 and 6

Months 49 – 72 (September 2019 – August 2020) Contribution – final writing up

Key Learning Point – I need to arrange a meeting with my Supervisor/s to agree my proposed time plan, how frequently we might meet, if they are happy with us agreeing things that I must do before the next meeting and setting interim deadlines.  The authors advise meeting every 2 – 3 months.

The authors recommend an initial three-way meeting (as I have two supervisors) to discuss how the project might develop.