More pre-PhD advice: give yourself homework

July 27th, 2008 by james

Jose posted an article last week about one person’s PhD experience, highlighting many of the common difficulties encountered when doing what’s largely a self-directed research project. There are about how to finish a PhD that expand on these questions – of supervisors, organizing your time and so on – but I’ve found that their advice can be frustratingly abstract. When I started my PhD I couldn’t help but wonder “yes but what should I do RIGHT NOW?”.

One useful trick I discovered was to set myself regular assignments. If you’re coming to a PhD from an undergrad or Masters level degree, chances are you’re more used to having teachers give you tasks rather than setting off into uncharted waters on your own. What’s more, you’ve got a big mountain of work sitting in front of you labelled ‘lit review’ and it can be hard to know where to start.

I tried to overcome these problems by dividing up the task into about 8 two-week long assignments. First, I did some brainstorming and together with my supervisor identified the subject areas with which I should become familiar, before dividing these topics into specific research questions. In my case, these were things like “How do people and societies respond to new technologies?” and “Describe the policy issues associated with metering of microgeneration systems in the UK”. I then gave myself two weeks to write an essay on these topics. It gave a clear direction to my reading and by the end of it, I could present my supervisor with a tangible product that we could then discuss.

In theory these mini-reviews could be edited together into your lit review chapter, making one of the most difficult parts of writing up much easier. In practice though I found that, because I was working in a fast-moving field, much of the material I’d gathered in the first months of my PhD was out-of-date by the time I got around to writing up three years later. But the essays only needed some updating, it was excellent writing practice and it was an invaluable way of establishing a routine at the start of a daunting project.

As a footnote if you have some experience in teaching and learning theory, you may recognize this technique as an application of learning outcomes (see this for a brief introduction). My assignment questions can essentially be re-written as:

In two weeks time, I will be able to:

  • Describe the policy issues associated with metering of microgeneration systems in the UK
  • etc

You can evaluate your own success against these outcomes, recognize how far you’ve come, and be clear about what you’ve achieved for things like your transfer report. The above link has some good tips on how to write and use learning outcomes.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you !

9 Responses to “More pre-PhD advice: give yourself homework”

  1. microchapNo Gravatar Says:

    I am interested in the actual essay you wrote on “Metering for Microgeneration”. It is the subject I would like to discuss, not your study process.
    You can contact me through my website if you are interested in exploring this subject area further.

  2. The MicroGeneration Forum MeisterNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi James,

    I too am interested in the conclusions of your phd on MicroGeneration, rather than the study process – if you’d like to share any findings you think would be of particular interest, feel free to drop by our microGeneration Forums.

  3. Essay Editing - Supaproofread.comNo Gravatar Says:

    So agree with you. Having a plan during your PhD is a must, and separating the literature into smaller ‘essays’ was a great move. Many PhD students get bogged down not knowing what to do and when and this looks like you conquered those obsticles. I think you learn more about yourself too, when you plan something similar as this, you can see a direction and head straight for it.

  4. blog dollarsNo Gravatar Says:

    I have been wanting to go for my PhD in fine arts, but have been afraid to even try to get my PhD. I have been really worried that I would become overwhelmed by the whole process. Now that I have read this though I am feeling as if I can do it. I will give it a go and use your advice. Thanks a lot.

  5. Vista Registry CleanerNo Gravatar Says:

    Thank you that was insightful. I’ve been contemplating returning to school and getting my PhD. I’ve been out of “school mode” for about 4 years now and I’m turning a grey 37 years old. I want to go purely for the satisfaction of returning and obtaining my doctrine. As an older gentlemen, I find myself afraid of taking the plunge.

  6. LMSNo Gravatar Says:

    Interesting article. I’ll be done with my Masters in few months and I would love to continue with studies. This article certainly enlightened me wit some useful information. Cheers

  7. Learning Management SystemNo Gravatar Says:

    Great post. Read it with pleasure for my future PhD. Also sent to my friend that is getting PhD now. Thx.

  8. Forever learningNo Gravatar Says:

    Thank you for a good post. Schooling, colledging and then PhDing – even after this your studying are not finishing as you should learn whole life!

  9. Academic Productivity » Blog-sized lit reviews Says:

    [...] When I started my DPhil, I set myself assignments in order to cover the lit review in easy bite-sized chunks. This worked pretty well but the [...]

Leave a Reply