How I finished my PhD early

By Dr Christina Phillips

About the author

Dr Christina J. Phillips is a member of the Management Division and Centre for Decision Research (CDR). Christina has an eclectic background from tutoring in Physics and Statistics to running her own art and design company. Her specialism has always been in Mathematical Modelling but through recent in-industry research this has been extended to include ways to facilitate and maximise benefit from participative modelling and design. An adapted version of this article can also be found on the Missenden Centre website. 

My PhD studies began in October 2014 and should have finished by the end of September 2017, but in actual fact I successfully defended my thesis in July 2017 with only minor corrections required. So, how did this happen? I must start by saying, I do not have a magic formula and that you may find some of this advice difficult.

Choose the right supervisor

My relationship with my academic supervisor was healthy - occasionally confrontational but in a positive and supportive way which allowed for critical debate. This is invaluable as I have always felt he was there for me and had confidence in my abilities. He boosted my confidence by encouraging me to attend conferences and only felt the need to review my abstracts and presentations the first couple of times. 

We had regular meetings with other researchers where we would all present our work, building a collegiate supportive atmosphere. If my supervisor didn’t know the answers to my questions, he would try to find the right papers to help me out. He also sent me a list of useful publications in my first year just to get me started. But most of all, he gave me deadlines, listened when I needed a sounding board and always made time to respond to my emails. 

My supervisor encouraged my innovative viewpoint and helped me to feel confident that it really was the right way to go. This saved a lot of ‘worry-time’. I have seen some of my fellow students struggle with supervisors who micromanaged their work, even when the content was good, causing them to lose confidence and feel their work was never good enough. For conferences, where I had been confident to present my research without the need for a detailed review from my supervisor, others appeared to be held back, needing everything to be checked before they could move on. This can have a stifling effect and doesn’t serve to produce an innovative self-reliant PhD student, it can also produce rather narrow research. More importantly, for this account, it takes up time and energy which should be invested in the research and in learning how to self-critique.

My advice: Choose the right supervisor to help you and your research grow.

Check their publications - do they have recent papers and a good research output?  Do you ‘click’ – you need to spend a lot of time together through one of the hardest tasks in your life, could you weather storms together?  Don’t expect your supervisor to be an expert in your area of research, you are doing a PhD and they will give you support but it is your research journey. If you are worried because you need support in your research area eg it is heavy on technical development, maybe a co-supervisor could help you here or a mentor who works in the field. Sometimes you can find an adviser who is not your supervisor and that can work well if your supervisor is okay with it. Does the department have relevant experts who you could ask for advice? The department I worked in contained academics whose advice was very useful.

Background knowledge

Now that I have covered what I see as the really critical bit, choosing your supervisor or supervisory team, what about the rest?

Understanding the background theory to your research is important, ideally before starting your PhD. I had been embedded in the company for 18 months before starting my PhD, as part of a shorter Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP). In that time, I intensively learnt about operations management and research within a real world environment. In my opinion, I don’t think I would have been able to finish my PhD early had I not had this concentrated experience in the company, particularly in terms of the initial level of learning.

My advice: Find ways to improve your background knowledge and experience before starting your PhD

Time management

This was an industrial PhD, meaning I had to conduct my research, work one day per week, and teach (up to 8 hours per week) – quite the juggling act. So how did I do it?

Because I was in a company, I worked the company hours (and often overtime). My company based hours were 08:30 to 16:30, and at the University, I would often work until 18:00. Working these hours meant I had a packed working day, but very importantly, was able to have my evenings and most of my weekends.

My advice: Work strict hours during the week and enjoy your evenings and weekends.  Headspace and rest is very important when you are synthesising so much information and creating something new.

Meet deadlines

If I had a deadline, big or small, I did it, no matter what. As I undertook an industrial PhD, the regular deadlines associated with the in-house PhD procedure (eg annual reports) did not always apply. Although such reports provide structure and encourage writing skills, its rigidity was often difficult for me to achieve in the context of my industrial PhD. By year two, I was setting my own deadlines and it worked, really well. Getting to this point is important, you need to be able to set your own realistic goals and have the self-discipline to stick to them.

My advice: As the subtitle suggests, meet your deadlines, no matter what

Friends and family

Another factor which helped was my family. My son is not small anymore, and was studying for his own exams over this time. My partner started an MRes in my second year so we were a studious family, who to a large extent understood each other’s pain and acted accordingly. During my final write up my boss at the company (also my industrial supervisor) let me take holiday from my contract so that I could go away and just write. My family also understood the need for me to be away so that I could just write, and I did for two weeks solid, total immersion in my subject. Going against my earlier advice, I also took no holidays for the first part of 2017 and worked occasional weekends – something I would not recommend, but may occasionally have to happen. In my case I had a new job to start!

My advice: Be flexible and recognise when you have to work outside of normal hours – but don’t make this the norm!

Start writing early

I had started writing early and this meant I had bits and pieces that I could edit and pull together, which I then built upon for the final thesis draft. My doctoral school expected research students to produce a literature review and methodology by the end of year one, which I found difficult, but I did start writing papers in the second year. My initial literature review did not get used at all in the final thesis - this is okay – as frustrating as it may feel, it means your writing and knowledge has improved. I also had a paper, which was already under review, so was able to include this unedited. My thesis was, in effect, a three paper PhD, which in the end came out at four papers.

As I wrote the whole thesis up, ideas started to combine even more and some strong research themes emerged. A process of growing and shedding occurred and I was careful to not allow myself to be too wedded to old ideas which had now grown into something stronger. The confidence and research knowledge I had gained helped me to know which the better and stronger themes were, so I focussed on those. Knowing what to drop and what to carry was important to enable a quick, clean finish.

My advice: Start writing early in your PhD but don’t expect everything you write to end up in your final thesis.

Positive influences

Finally, my industrial supervisor was also a positive influence. He taught me how to focus on the bottom line (for me, good research ideas) and to not get bogged down in unnecessary detail. He taught me good management practice and this fed into my ability to create a good, strong PhD thesis which was a pleasure to defend during my viva. His attitude was that a PhD is like any project and should have set goals and objectives, with care taken not to get distracted by interesting avenues that may not produce the required end result.

I was lucky to have wise people around me, who boosted my confidence, protected my self-esteem and steered me away from trying to do too much. Being a little older and weathered myself, as well as all of the above, helped me to sift out the good ideas at a rapid rate and end up finishing my PhD early. For the writing process, I quote the advice of an old hand “better to get it writ than not to write at all…” in other words “just do it!”.

See the Leeds University Business School website for information on our PhDs and Research Degrees.

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