Find a PhD: how to choose the right doctorate



Take your time

A doctorate is for life not just for Christmas, so avoid making rash commitments in the heat of the moment.

Don’t rush into it, but if you’ve been thinking about it for some time there is probably more to it than just the desire to be called doctor.

The idea of doing a PhD might have sneaked up on you or it might have been loitering with intent for a while.

One way or another you need to figure out how to move from “thinking about it” to “doing something about it”. It’s not that difficult, but it not necessarily obvious because you’ll need to understand how academics think.

Choose your quest

Choose a topic that genuinely fascinates you. This will sustain you in the bleak mid-winter of your doctoral quest.

Your doctorate has to be like a quest. It should be about something that you really, really want to figure out. That might seem straightforward but most people without a doctorate struggle to articulate their quest in a way that would get them a doctorate. Typically, applicants paint their quests with far too broad a brush. Something like :”I want to do a doctorate in strategy” or “I want to study social inclusion” can be simultaneously true yet woefully inadequate as a starting point for a doctoral proposal.

Doctorates are awarded on the basis of contributing something new to our existing knowledge base. Given that we have been researching and producing doctorates in management for decades and in the social sciences more generally for a lot longer, such novelty usually comes in modestly-sized packages. You’ll have to do some research in order to figure out what to research.

Try before you buy

Take multiple doctoral topics out for a first date then choose wisely. It’s a lifetime commitment.

Even if you don’t have access to a university’s library database, the wonders of GoogleScholar should allow you to dip into the literature and browse published research on the topic of your quest. Do this for four or five variants of your potential topic. Make sure to check that the academic version of your noble quest still intrigues you and that heavy research articles on the topic don’t bore you to tears.

Mind the gap

Having chosen a broad area, identify a specific gap that is not yet fully explored in the literature.

To pass your doctorate you will need to contribute new knowledge about your chosen topic. That means you need to be able to establish what is usually referred to as “a gap in the literature” -. something that has not yet been researched. You need to be able to articulate what previous studies have shown and use this as the means of pointing toward things that are not yet known. Helpfully, academic papers often conclude with a call for further research on something or other. This might be a useful starting point.

However, you shouldn’t rely on others to solve your problem. Whenever you read anything – an article, a book, a chapter or a thesis – write out your own summary of what they’ve told you and what you still don’t know.

Start with a researchable question

Avoid rhetorical questions or ironic provocations – make sure your question is clear, crisp and entitled to a question mark.

Good research questions help by (a) structuring your thinking and (b) suggesting ways of building a way of answering your question.

Imagine your ideal supervisor

Do you want somebody inspirational and argumentative but vague, or a highly-structured project manager who will nag you into submission?

A supervisor to supervisee relationship which will run for three years or more is fraught with potential problems and pitfalls. You don’t need to be best friends, but you do need a productive working relationship. This rest is at least as much on you and your preferences as those of a potential supervisor.

Unfortunately, academic papers rarely offer a detailed character reference for their authors. At some stage you will need to go from reading their work to understanding how they work.

Identify your institution

Finding the right programme in the right school at the right institution is critical.

Study patterns, fee levels, reputations all vary and in that regard a doctorate is like any other service offering. Look around and find a provider that you feel comfortable with.

The golden rule is to look at more than one provider. At least that way you’ll know you didn’t just fall into the programme because it was there.

Plan a charm offensive

You might be thinking of yourself as the customer given that you’ll be paying a fee to join the programme.

You might even fool yourself into thinking that programme directors, deans or individual supervisors should be grateful to you for showing an interest. This is only true up to a point.

Actually, potential supervisors may view you as more of a potential distraction. That is unless you can demonstrate that you: have the brainpower to complete the programme; are willing to research a topic that they, the supervisor, are already interested in; think that their preferred methods are just right for you too; and that you’ve linked your research proposal to their on-going research trajectory.

If you meet these four criteria a busy supervisor might just think of you as a helpful addition to their unpaid research team. If not, then they are likely to view you as a high-maintenance, high-risk extension of their personal brand.

Good supervisors are usually focused on their own next steps and you need to key into that. You should be wary of an overly-welcoming supervisor. There’s usually a reason and it isn’t usually that they are just desperate to make your life better.

Negotiate with loved ones

You don’t undertake a doctorate in a vacuum.  Think about the consequences for your loved ones, your keep fit regime or your other pastimes.

Doctorates are a long-term commitments which are likely to involve mood swings and periods of intensive activity. In the midst of creating up to 80,000 words of coherent and high quality work it can be hard to put things down. The other parts of your life might suffer.

Make sure that those around you understand this and are keen to support you on your doctoral adventure. If you are studying full-time you will need to be disciplined and make sure that actual work happens in the “normal working day”.

A doctorate is hard work but don’t be surprised if your friends and family find the all-consuming nature of your studies immensely frustrating.  Avoid your nearest and dearest thinking that PhD translates as “Pretty hopeless Domestically” or that DBA means “Ditches Birthdays and Anniversaries”.

Know what you are aiming for

A doctorate might be an end in itself but it is also helpful to think what your post-doctoral job may be.

Doctorates come in more than one form. The two most common are the PhD and the DBA. So how do you distinguish between them? A DBA produces a researching practitioner, whereas a PhD produces a practising researcher.

The distinction rests with the default location of your next job. If you simply want to be able to introduce yourself as “the doctor” perhaps you won’t care. If however, you envisage working in a managerial role where you might be researching your own setting and your own practice, then a DBA is a good choice. If you want to work in academia, then the PhD is the qualification of choice.

Author Bios: Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation.