Surviving a PhD – 10 Top Tips…

This post is by Dr Alex Hope, a  Lecturer in Sustainable Development and Project Management at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom and was originally post on his blog. Alex is also on Twitter where he tweets about sustainability, academia, PhD advice and life. I hope you will head on over there and check out what he has to say!

I was awarded my PhD in January this year following a successful viva in November 2011, so thought I would try and summarise my experiences over the last 3-4 years and see if I could come up with some key points of advice from start to finish…

Tip 1 – Academics need you: Most are keen to speak to any potential student who has a good research idea as a good record of successful PhD supervisions is essential to build a successful academic career. Don’t be afraid to approach a potential supervisor directly. There were not any suitable advertised studentships in the are which I live (and I did not want to move as I have a young family here),  so I decided I needed to make my own opportunity. I developed a rudimentary research proposal and emailed every academic I could identify in my local region whose research interests seemed to fit. In the end I worked up a proposal with Newcastle University which we submitted for an ESRC 1+3 studentship in the open competition (I was awarded the scholarship but did not take it up, instead I opted to study via a different route – more on that in a subsequent post – but I thought the advice may be useful).

Tip 2 – Its YOUR PhD – Take ownership: Whether the research idea is your own, or you have been appointed to research a topic as an advertised position, YOU are the one working day and night and living the research. Whilst your supervisors will have opinions or perhaps an agenda which will shape the direction of your research, It is YOU alone who will have to defend it in the viva. I have spoken to many PhD researchers who felt that their research was not their own and they were merely doing the bidding of their supervisor. The result can be mixed – some drop out as the lack of control leads to a lack of interest or focus, some work day and night to please their supervisory team and burn out, many are successfully awarded their PhDs but feel that they are a sham as their work was not entirely their own.

Tip 3 – Write up as you are going: I am always amazed when I speak to PhD students who are in the third year and entering their “writing up stage” and tell me that they havent written more than a few thousand words. They feel daunted and overwhelmed by the huge task of meeting that 40-80,000 plus word count (depending on the discipline). “But you must have the literature review almost completed at least?” I say – but many just have pages and pages of notes. I had written complete drafts of my Introduction, Background, Literature Review, Methodology and Scoping Study by the Midpoint of my PhD – 18 months since I began. Sure, I would have to update and re-draft these sections – some of them extensively, but the knowledge that I had written about 40,000 words of what became a 90,000 document was of great comfort to me. I could also then pass these sections off to my supervisors for review whilst I embarked on my data analysis.

Tip 4 – Love to Hate your Thesis: You will at some point hate your thesis, trust me…This is OK, its normal – most people seem to go through it at some point – usually about two-thirds of the way through. This is completely normal and to be expected. Don’t panic, take a break – yes a break. PhD students need a holiday too, even if its just a break from the research to do something different. When you return your brain will have sorted out some of the problems you are struggling with on its own.

Tip 5 – Finished is better than perfect: I am a perfectionist by nature – but I have had to learn over the last few years the finished is better than perfect. Perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you are lucky enough to reach the mythical land of perfection (which only exists in your own head), it is still highly likely that readers, and more importantly, examiners will find fault. This is what examiners are paid to do. The same advice applies to writing papers too. This leads into Tip 6 below…

Tip 6 – The written Thesis is just part of the PhD: The majority of PhDs have some form of wording on the fist page which states something like the document is “submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy” . Spot the keyword? “partial”. Before and during the viva the examiners will be considering many criteria in addition to the thesis such as the administration of the PhD, your training record,  publications and impact activities to name a few. The point is, the Thesis does not have to be – nor is expected to be – perfect. The examiners will always have an opinion on how you have presented the results or the approach you took. You will not know what this opinion is until you put the work in front of them – so don’t try to second guess but ensure that you can defend why you took a certain approach as opposed to another. You made the decision (see Tip 2) based on the evidence in front of you at the time and you are the expert in this subject. So defend.

Tip 7 – Enjoy the Viva!: No, really. This is your chance to comunicate your research, your passion, to at least two leading academics – sounds scary, but they will be genuinely interested in what you have done. Most examiners want to pass a student – despite the horror stories that are popular amongst PhD students. The truth is in the majority of cases they will have already made a decision about whether to pass you or not. I will be following this up with a more detailed post on my viva experience later.

Tip 8 – Have a plan for life post PhD: By this I dont mean start looking for a job etc…although of course this is important – more how are you going to fill the void? And it is a void. You will have been immersed in a particular subject and culture for at least 3 years, probably more. Once you have completed any changes demanded post viva and submitted the final completed thesis – the silence is deafening…

Tip 9 – It is worth it: Completing the PhD, for me at least, was an anti-climax. There were no trumpets or angels, no being carried through the university on the shoulders of my peers, no huge pay-rise or immediate offers of employment, not even any champagne (although there was, strangely, many flavours of Schnapps..). However 6 months on from the viva and corrections it feels worth it. Its a validation of your research skills and prowess., you feel a little more authoritative when speaking to peers or students (although inside you know that you are not any smarter that before), and you have survived – almost mentally intact….

Tip 10- Ignore tips 1-9: In the words of Richard Butterworth,

The only way to find out how to do a PhD is to do one. Therefore all advice is useless….

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72 thoughts on “Surviving a PhD – 10 Top Tips…

  1. Jennifer Eagleton says:


    Don’t assume that all PhDs have to do a Viva, I don’t in Australia. I agree that you should write up as you go along…at least in a rough way. Also I did not do a literature review – the nature of my thesis was that I used many different methods, so that I did a mini-lit review for each chapter….

    Don’t assume that there is one way of completing a thesis!

    • Anonymous says:

      Wow – that’s harsh Jennifer! Regardless of the differences here in Australia, the advice provided by Alex is relevant.
      Thanks for this great post Inger 🙂

      • RM says:

        I don’t think Jennifer was being harsh. Like her, each chapter of my thesis is a different study and two chapter chapters are subdivided into two separate studies which each has its own intro, method, results and discussion therefore writing as I go along is very difficult as often I’m writing half a chapter of one and then moving on until another while I wait for results. I have to do one large general introduction chapter and separate four page lit reviews for each chapter on top of that.

        I don’t think she was being judgmental, just pointing out that theses do differ between disciplines and there is no hard fast rule for how much or what sections you should have written up by a specific time point in your PhD.

    • Frank Gibbons says:

      When did a dissertation become a thesis? As far as I’m aware, a thesis is what Master’s-level students complete; a dissertation is what PhD students complete (usually based on their thesis). Strange.

      • Thesis Whisperer says:

        Different terms apply in different countries – I’m aware that the US has this distinction around the Masters degree being a Thesis, whereas the UK and Australia use it for both degrees.

  2. ingermewburn says:

    Sorry – should have highlighted in the introduction that the viva is more common in the UK than in Australia. Some universities do run Vivas here, but most examine via the thesis only.

    • Anonymous says:

      Dumb question here, but what is a “viva”? It threw me for most of the article, which was others wise very helpful. ( I am a newbie to PhD study)

      • ingermewburn says:

        On Europe and elsewhere the student mounts an oral defense to the examiners. They can be questioned on anything the examiners have read in the thesis. Australia doesn’t tend to do them as we have low population of researchers and flying examiners around the world is prohibitively expensive.

  3. Dallas Knight (@starpath) says:

    As a distance PhD student, I have relied on helpful ‘how to do’ topics from role models such as Dr Alex Hope and Dr Inger Mewburn, who have previously negotiated the journey. Thank you. I wish I had heeded the ‘write from the start” advice given, but not wholeheartedly embraced, and found it helpful to understand a PhD is better finished and that perfect is a dream.

  4. Muhammad Basim Kakakhel says:

    Fully agree as I have been awarded the degree in March this year. Especially tip # 5 is the main key. As each sub component of the Ph.D. has a drag effect and does not allow us to come out of that under the umbrella of perfectionism. Finding the balance between acceptability and the amount of effort is key for success. Last line of tip # 9 still needs to be verified as sometimes I doubt the post Ph.D. mental composer:)

  5. Ben says:

    Great tips! I would add to “enjoy the viva” that if you can, use the viva to your advantage. If you don’t have a viva then try and use the external examination process to your advantage. What actually happens here is quite unique and special. You get experts in your field to critically evaluate your work so far – without any of the bias that your supervisors may have. You can learn so much from them that it is a genuine opportunity to improve in ways you probably couldn’t have imagined. I hadn’t published any papers from my PhD before my viva, so during I was talking to my assessors about publication strategies for my work which was incredibly useful.

  6. Ron says:

    Had I started writing the text early on, I would have done a lot of useless work given the amount of changes I have introduced to my initial plans, not least while realising through the data analysis which aspects were relevant and which I had not even considered.

    So I agree with Tip 10… 😉

  7. Julio Peironcely says:

    The Enjoy the Viva tip is also useful. Visualize the joy you will get at the end, it will help you to go through the Valley of Shit.
    You can also think of it as your wedding day. The Viva is your day, you are the star, you have achieved something big, you didn’t give up and you deserve a good celebration.


  8. berlinickerin says:

    I could not agree more about point 3, though the point when to start might differ of course from person to person and discipline to discipline. I’m writing in literary studies and I’m beyond grateful for my supervisor to push me to write. I just checked and I have actually already written (in the span of the last two years) almost 172000 words. Holy wow. Now I actually feel better. No matter that of course I need to revise.

    And it’s interesting how different the process of actually obtaining that phd seems to be. Here in Germany there is definitely a viva but it really focuses on your thesis. Other publications etc. don’t count. Or only in the sense that they better not be parts of your thesis as that has to me made up of completely unpublished material.

  9. megan says:

    Learn how to say ‘no’ to things. Doing a PhD takes time. Somethings which you would love to do – have to be refused. Or put into the folder for after the PhD.

    Inger I’m still learning that skill! but a Trowler review of his Amazon new publications is a great idea.

    Doctoral Research into Higher Education: Thesis structure, content and completion

    Doing Insider Research at University

    Higher Education Policy and Institutional Change

  10. Jennifer Eagleton says:

    Even though you have to say “no” to stuff, you still have to have some “down time” and do something pleasurable otherwise you burn out – having “time out” enables one to work better when they get back to the computer.

  11. hoogator says:

    One of the hardest meetings I had with my supervisor was one where he had to drop the “It’s your PhD, so you decide” bomb. It’s easy to hedge away responsibility as an undergrad. But, regardless of how much collaboration goes into your research, it’s your name on the cover of the dissertation. It was a hard moment, but I’m glad it happened because it woke me up to the reality of what it means to earn a doctorate; one of those “this is really happening” situations.

    Cheers for the title, Alex. “Surviving” is spot on.

    • Victoria says:

      Take ownership, yes, but I have a supervisor (and have heard of others) who takes it too far, in that so little advice and/or assistance is provided (preferring that I go down all of the wrong paths, and learn everything for myself) that I wonder why I have that supervisor at all.

      Yes, I own my house, but the bank helped me buy it.

      • hoogator says:


        Great point re: ownership. A great manager knows when to direct, and when to hold back. The moment I referenced was one where my supervisor definitely needed to hold back and let me come to terms with my own responsibility.

        I understand how frustrating a lack of management can be. I remember reading something by Clayton Christensen about the difference between motivation and reward (I think). Managers are entirely on the hook for reward, but only partially responsible for motivation. Looking for motivation solely outside oneself can often lead straight to disappointment. As you rightly pointed out, though, there still needs to be that vision, those little mileposts, that help us to see we’re going down the right track.


        – W

  12. Anthony O. Onoja says:

    Amazingly and wittingly blunt with lots of lessons for those of us trudging behind. You’ve got rewarding experiences there. Thanks for posting this piece.

  13. Next Scientist says:

    I like the “Take ownership” tip. We are not children anymore, we have responsibilities, it is up to us to make it work. At the same time, e should take pride on what we achieve.
    I have compiled an alternative list with some graduate school advice that is good to hear before you start a PhD, but that nobody tells you. I hope it can help others.

    Keep the good work!


  14. Michael says:

    Just to add this very important point too. If you don’t finish, that is not the end of the world. Some very brilliant guys never completed their studies, me included. It ranked amongst the best decision I ever made.
    I got a great job and never looked back the ladder, two years after I have settled down to these career, my Supervisor published five peer reviewed articles my name included, by then it was too late. I have already turn the corner.
    The take home message, don’t let the pursuit of a PhD drive you mad, drive you to depression or make you suicidal. Get out when your mind is still yours and still very clear.
    There are more to life than a PhD, if you work harder in your career, guys with PhD will be answering to your becks and call……..

  15. Lori Watson says:

    I’d really like to see a post/comments on different viva experiences – I’m facing mine soon and I’m particularly interested in how to confidently defend a PhD submission while still feeling it is incomplete or not what you had hoped it would be.

  16. Matthias A. Idyu says:

    Excellent tips! Almost all the tips are very paramount, however, I cheerished tips # 2, 5, 7, and 9. I totally agree “Its your (my) PhD. Take Ownership: This has re-echoed what Mark J. Schmitz, PhD said, “You are the driver of your own bus or the captain of your own ship and you are the only one to take it to the terminal,” and/or to defend it in the Viva. Tip # 5 – Finished is better than perfect: Doing it right has been my problem, however, with this tip, I can now move on and get it done! Finally, tip # 9 crowns it all! “It is worth it”: For me, it is the passion of teaching and helping students/people succeed and achieve excellence, and contribute to their family and community.
    Thanks for the exceelent tips for surviving a PhD or Doctoral Studies. Keep up the good work!
    Matthias A. Idyu.

  17. Matthias A. Idyu says:

    Hi Chaney Cathyl,

    Good to hear from you also. As a first year Residency, you need to talk to your Student Service Advisor or Counselor, and read through the Pre-Residency assignment. However, you must have a clear vision of the topic you intends to research on… Is it qualitative or quantitative, content analysis, etc, etc, research you intends to do? Then at the Residency- the Academic Faculty Staff will help you shape your thoughts in the right direction. Note that this is just a preliminary stage… Do enough search of recent past Dissertations in your field of study or area of specialization and see which one is in line with what you intends to research on… you may change your research topic and do the one that you are confident with… This will actually begins to take shape after your second residency and RES-872. I hope this will help in answer to your question! Keep up the good work, and I wish you best of luck in your research project!

    • Dr Alex Hope says:

      Hi Holly

      Congrats on completing the first draft – a significant milestone – and good luck on the subsequent stages 🙂 I too wanted my PhD to be perfect, to be a carefully crafted piece of work that would create impact at all levels. However I am also a pragmatist and as you point out, a PhD is really a research training exercise. Post PhD you spend your time writing and forever revising papers. Perfection is not an option – completion is what makes the difference for successful research careers.

      Good luck with everything in the future, and despite everything I have just written, do it for the love of your subject 🙂


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