Taking The Research Leap
So you have completed your Masters. You enjoyed the experience of postgraduate work. And you’ve caught the bug. You’re going to make the leap to the next research step: the PhD. This article aims to provide ten top tips for managing the transition between a Masters (whether taught or research) and PhD work. It is intended for PhD students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, though some of the tips might also be suitable for Science PhD students. The principle is still the same: taking the next step on your academic journey is not always as tough as it seems.
Be prepared to be overwhelmed
A PhD is generally 80, 000 words. A Masters thesis tends to be around the 20,000 word mark. Starting out on a PhD can, therefore, be truly overwhelming; there seems to be so much time, and so many words, to explore your research topic. Prepare for this by planning short-term goals rather than getting lost in the expanse of the three or four years you have ahead of you.
Go to visit your supervisor
Your supervisor may be someone you already know, or they might be completely new. In any case, they are your first point of contact and—generally—they will have experienced the PhD experience first-hand. Try to arrange regular meetings and ask them to give you some immediate goals to achieve.
Don’t let the scale of the research get you down
A common first step on a PhD is to undertake a form of literature review. This can either be very specific or rather vague and can seem like an unassailable mountain. Concentrate on a specific area or theme at any one time and check in regularly with your supervisor to make sure this research will actually add to the PhD.
Build on the skills gained from your Masters
In some cases, students are able to write a PhD thesis on a broadly similar topic to their Master’s dissertation. Don’t let the work you did then go to waste—draw on the initial Master’s research and indeed the skills, like time management and organisation, essential to completing the Master’s.
Go to support classes and networking events
Meeting fellow first-year PhD students can be a great way to share experiences and develop common research and reading strategies. Networking events are also a great way to get out of the isolation that often accompanies a PhD in the Humanities and Social Sciences, while you can also meet later-stage PhD students who may be working on similar areas.
Write little and often
Master’s often tend to be centred on long essays and a dissertation, which may well deal with very discreet topics. Working on a PhD on one topic necessitates regular writing to keep a track of your research findings and to reflect on the future direction of the project. Writing short pieces, and submitting these to your supervisor to read through, can lead to a narrowing of the research project that will fit the confines of an 80,000-word thesis.
Read the requirements of the degree
It might seem a little odd to suggest reading the regulations about the conferment of a PhD degree when you have already obtained a place to study. Yet looking at the precise requirements of the degree, which generally mention the need for a substantial piece of original work, can focus the early research stages and prevent getting too carried away with interesting, though not particularly helpful, side projects.
Make a point of being collegial
A PhD is frequently seen as a stepping stone to the next stage of an academic career. Regardless of your motivations for studying a doctorate, the big difference between a Master’s and a PhD is your change in status. You are now a researcher and as such, it can be really helpful to seize the opportunities that come with this: opportunities to attend research seminars, the potential of a research mentor or indeed teaching mentor and opportunities to talk less formally with academic staff.
Read up on the upgrade process
Many PhD degree programmes require an upgrade from MPhil to PhD status, normally after the first year of study. Discuss this process in advance with your supervisor and other members of staff (such as the Director of Graduate Studies) to plan in advance and ensure that your work from the first year will be sufficiently focussed to pass the upgrade process. Some institutions have more stringent requirements than others, so it pays to prepare some time in advance.
Enjoy, reflect, respond
The first year of the PhD can pass very quickly; try to enjoy this initial experience and use it as a stepping stone between the very focussed Masters programme and the comparative autonomy to widen your research project. Reflecting on a regular basis—on a blog or through a diary—on the progress made in the first year can be really helpful to show how far your project has developed. And finally, be open and responsive to the suggestions of your supervisor and other academics, at your own institution or elsewhere; their feedback matters more now than it ever did during the Master’s and can really help to shape a successful PhD.