Sunday, 5 August 2012

(18):How to complete a PhD successfully

It is nice to have a doctoral degree. But what does it take to acquire the title Dr? In this brief piece I will discuss some points that will be helpful to prospective students on how to finish their PhD successfully.

Being a PhD student is a unique experience, but it also comes with challenges. Some students embark on this journey without fully understanding the requirements of such a venture. Completing your PhD successfully is surrounded by so many factors.

These factors include your interest as a student. Did you really want to pursue this research because you want to make contribution to a field of study and become a trained researcher, or are you just overtaken by the glamour of having the title? Were you motivated by an inner conviction to become a scholar or do you want to have a PhD simply because your friend has one? The honest answer will only come from you.
When you make the final decision that you want to start on this journey, here are some points that will help you to achieve your objectives.

First of all consult widely with people who have either acquired a PhD or who are in the process of acquiring one. Their experience will be an important treasure for you. It will also help you decide which approach to take. You are likely to hear different experiences from the beautiful, the horrible and something in between. But be aware that your own experience is going to be unique to yourself, so do not panic.

After the consultation think of a research area that is interesting to you personally. Read widely and narrow it down to a simple researchable area. Developing a provisional title will be helpful at this stage. Once that is done the next thing is to develop a proposal. Your proposal should clearly explain why it is important to research that area, outline the aims and objectives of the research, suggest some research questions that will help you achieve the aims and objectives of the thesis, and explain what the research will be contributing to your field.

The first year: seeking direction

The first year of your studies is the most difficult, but it is also the most promising. It is advisable that in the first year you avoid any distraction that will take you away from your studies. Although some students do engage in extra-curricular activities in the first year, this should be highly moderated until you are able to stand on your own feet. Develop an excellent working relationship with your supervisor. Understand that their criticism of your work is not intended to belittle your efforts, but to ensure that your work has the quality to be called a PhD.

Read widely, develop a context for the research and write your literature review. Even though, when the study progresses further, you may need to revise the literature review, at least you will have made a good start. Outline a clear and a realistic timeline that you intend to adhere to as you finish each aspect of your work up until the conclusion. This will help you to gauge your progress from beginning to end.

The second year: developing hope

At the end of the first year, you may well be asked to present a report which will be used to determine whether your research has the quality of becoming PhD or not. How you used your first year will help in determining this. Once you are done with this, and you are given the green light to continue with the research, it gives you a lot of hope and the feeling that the PhD is possible.

However, there is still some work to do. At this stage, study carefully the aims and objectives of your research. Critically look at your research questions, and then think of the methodology that will help you address them. This requires extensive reading. Look for research similar to yours in academic journals and other PhD theses. Study the methodology they used. Familiarise yourself with both quantitative and qualitative methods. When you make a decision, test your data gathering with a pilot study. The pilot study will help you modify the methodology, make additions, and explore other areas you haven't thought of.

After the pilot study go for the fieldwork. Organise the data, and then start writing the methodology chapter. This is one of the most important chapters in a PhD, because if the methodology is not right then answering your research questions or hypothesis will be difficult. Here once again you need to exercise patience as you go through this stage with your supervisor.

The third year: confusion

While you have indeed made much progress, the third year comes with its own challenges. Possibly some of the things that you needed to finish in the second year might intrude into the third year. This year could be a bit confusing as you may need to be referring back to your previous work while trying to make progress. Your attention might also be focused on finishing the entire PhD as there is the possibility that your funding will end after the third year.

Revisit your literature review and update it. At this stage, since you have some data, you may wish to consider attending conferences. Present part of your work as you will receive some feedback that will enhance your work. Attend university workshops on how to write your thesis successfully. Use some of the conference papers you have presented and the feedback you have received in writing your analysis chapters.

The year of progress

There is every likelihood that your research will go beyond three years. At this stage you are almost exhausted. Be patient with your supervisor and work through this stage. Finish your analysis. Ensure that the thesis fits together. Develop some of the conference papers you have produced or parts of the thesis that make significant contributions to some academic journals. Your supervisor can guide you on this. This will impress the examiners, but most importantly it will be good for job hunting.


Revise the draft of your thesis, make corrections and arrange a mock viva with your supervisor. Never rush through the final process: it will be better to get it right than rush the process and be asked to resubmit. Discuss things with fellow PhD students who have finished successfully and benefit from their experience. Relax and wait for the moment you will be crowned with the highest prize of the academic world.

Note: I originally wrote this article for the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield. 


  1. This is a good piece Dr, May Allah elevates you and increase you in knowledge. You have given us some points of encouragement. Salaam.

  2. This is a very good advice for prospective PhD students. Wasalaam.

  3. Excellent. This is the most encouraging piece of advice I have read on this topic, whilst being realistic at the same time. Hadiza