Doing the right thing before doing things right: a guide for aspiring PhD students

What is a PhD? Is it the right thing for me? What can I do with a PhD? How can I get into a PhD training?

If at some point you have thought about these questions, then this is the article for you. Through the reflection and first-hand experience of a former MIDP student, the article will prompt you to think whether your interest and reasons for taking a PhD are feasible and well-informed. The first part of our guide for aspiring PhD students will hopefully engage you to think critically about your interest before giving valuable advice to consider in order to submit a successful application.

From MIDP to PhD

I graduated from Monash University’s MIDP in December 2015. Soon after I left Australia, I joined the PhD training in human geography at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. Reflecting on my MIDP experience after more than a year, I very much value what I have gained during the program. MIDP has prepared me very well for my PhD  by allowing me to think more broadly about  participatory methods, research uptake, and policy implications in my current research. The highlight of MIDP for me is that it equips students with vigorous research skill sets and experiences through minor thesis and project options.

Picture 1. My thesis fieldwork in the upland Vietnam during MIDP was an eye opener, where I investigated how local ethnic minority people reconfigured their agency in responding to the state development policies. My PhD research proposal was very much influenced by findings of this research. Source: author.

However, pursuing a PhD is no easy task. As a result, I have designed a couple of guides for you to consider before entering the world of academic research. To start us off, here is a concise list of things you should be aware of before applying for a PhD

PhD 101: The Basics

Very briefly, a PhD is a big research that earns you a doctorate title at the end of the journey. It is when you can do something you are always passionate about, or you will be as the research progresses. A PhD degree will open new doors for you to do exciting new things: become an academic, conduct research, write papers and books, work with policy makers, nurture and inspire students among others.

Picture 2. A few months into my PhD training, I decided to co-organise a community talk with some people from the field site where I did my MIDP thesis. We co-presented the research findings to the public and answered questions from the audience. The PhD training prompted me to think more critically about how academics can engage with larger social changes and more diverse audiences beyond academic settings. Source: author’s friend.

Of course, having a PhD is not a compulsory pre-requirement to pursue many of these activities, or to learn and further expand your career. However, having gone through a PhD will familiarise you to solve complex tasks using very specific skills, and you can use it as a solid stepping stone to venture into new avenues.

The struggle is real

Taking a PhD also involves opportunity costs, requires a high level of self-motivation and discipline, and changes your life at a personal level. While you immerse in your 3-4 year research, life goes on. You may gain tremendously at the end of your journey, but you may lose some personal and career opportunities along the way too. There are moments of crisis – things can go wrong with your research, your supervisors, your participants, or your personal life – and you have to balance everything and motivate yourself to carry on. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much you have learned, and how your life perspective has changed so profoundly.

Picture 3. Apart from the joy of realising we are progressing, PhD students can intermittently face periods when they feel unmotivated, doubtful, frustrated or lost. This does not necessarily mean that PhD training is always stressful, but rather suggests that we need to strike for balance and self-motivate ourselves during the PhD course. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/550354016942036603/

Picture 3. Apart from the joy of realising we are progressing, PhD students can intermittently face periods when they feel unmotivated, doubtful, frustrated or lost. This does not necessarily mean that PhD training is always stressful, but rather suggests that we need to strike for balance and self-motivate ourselves during the PhD course. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/550354016942036603/

However, it is important to highlight that pushing your boundaries can also be a very frustrating exercise. Unfortunately, there are limits as to what we can do, and being constantly critical of yourself and others can challenge you in more ways than one.  

Plan, Do, Review

If you are certain you would like to pursue a PhD, then plan for it as early as you can. Firstly, think about what topics intrigue you, or what questions puzzle you. Secondly, find where you can apply for your PhD topic, and which supervisors you would like to be on your team. Thirdly, find out what entry requirements you must meet to be eligible; some programs place more emphasis on having a good GPA, some will stress on the importance of having a proven publication record, while others will want a good research proposal.

Last but not least, find out how you can secure funding for the PhD if you are not able to self-finance it. It is becoming extremely competitive to get a place in PhD training programs in the context of budget cut in many parts of the word. Therefore, cast the net a little bit wider by choosing a few options and trying it out. Check all possible websites and social media of your interested supervisors, universities, funding agencies and/or PhD groups. Talk to your current MIDP lecturers and get their advice. Attend different conferences and meetings to network and get more information. The options are endless.

Look at your life, look at your choices

Make sure you take the right discipline that fits with your strengths and values. It is quite normal in my current program that PhD students take their PhDs across different disciplines. However, I wrongly assumed that all sub-disciplines had similar academic traditions and approaches to solving problems, which has proven to be a bit of a challenge. Even within the same discipline, I am often surprised to see how different our epistemological stances are. For instance, in geography we are well aware that a human geographer may share more similarities in their theoretical frameworks and research methods with a sociologist or anthropologist rather than an economic or physical geographer.

Picture 4: Working with other research fellows from different disciplines and backgrounds can be a joyful and enriching experience as we learn to solve problems from a multidisciplinary perspective. However knowing your discipline’s traditions and where your strengths lie in are ultimately crucial to the success of your research project. Source: author’s friend.

Picture 4: Working with other research fellows from different disciplines and backgrounds can be a joyful and enriching experience as we learn to solve problems from a multidisciplinary perspective. However knowing your discipline’s traditions and where your strengths lie in are ultimately crucial to the success of your research project. Source: author’s friend.

Hence, you need to be aware and informed of these differences while making your decision. Read extensively on how research in each field is conducted and presented, and talk to people from different disciplines to have a more realistic and holistic understanding of all disciplines.

Your choice of location matters

Different countries and institutions have different PhD models. At least from what I know, in Australia and the UK, PhD students will embark on their research proposal and research project immediately after they join the program, and therefore can complete it in 3-4 years. However, in the US PhD students will have to complete a number of required modules before they defend their proposal and proceed to the real research, which eventually can take more than 4 years in total.

In Singapore (where I am studying now) they use a hybrid model that combines compulsory coursework modules (US model) and shorter PhD research (UK model). All funded PhD students in my institutions also have to fulfil research assistance and teaching tasks, which essentially prepares us for our future in academia.

Duong
MIDP Alumni

One Comment

  1. Dear Duong
    Fantastic to read! You are a natural. and so helpful for those who are about to start their Master degree to plan ahead, for example at Monash: Question like I have three options: 100% coursework, 80-90% coursework and 75% course work. Should I take a research pathway (a minor thesis) so that I could open up my options for the future?
    Well done again! I miss catching up with you while u were in Melbourne. Another time, then.
    Co Hoa, Monash

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