So you want to do a PhD?

Doing a PhD is not just about earning a title and in this post I intend to highlight some of the issues one must consider before they decide to do their PhD. First, and foremost, deciding to do a PhD does not develop overnight and is instead shaped by your character and career ambitions. One needs to be systematically organised and that means knowing what you want to do from day one. I, for instance, always knew that I wanted to become an academician and I was career oriented, so it just developed  naturally. Let me highlight again the essence is ‘planning’ as you cannot afford loosing time in such a competitive arena. If you know what you want to study and you have long thought out your topic you have a high chance of applying for the right institution, connecting with the appropriate supervisor(s), and even securing yourself with a scholarship; as one needs to apply way in advance for such opportunities. If you apply for a PhD and have no idea of what you want to specialise in I would then suggest you think twice about your decision. After all you will be living with your topic for a solid three or four years and so must bond with it.

So here comes my tips:

1) First know your long-term career goals

2) When choosing an institution don’t just go for its name (not that I am underrating its importance)! Your supervisors’ name is also important!

3) A successful PhD candidate is someone who is an autonomous learner and does not expect their supervisor to spoon feed them with a topic. After all the trick is to know what ‘you’ want to do and THEN find a supervisor who specialises in what you want to do, and not vice versa. This is how the chemistry should work. Your ideas might not always necessarily be spot on, but still should have a vague idea, so your supervisor can guide you in narrowing down your ideas.

4) When choosing your topic consider the following:

a) Originality: this is valid both for your topic AND research tools. Do something innovative so you not only have sound content knowledge in a particular area that everyone is not familiar with, but also possess a wide range of quantitative and qualitative research skills! If you end up using the same old tools everyone else used you have little to contribute to your field. I was for instance the first researcher who examined the acquisition of English onset clusters by Turkish learners of English and also for the first time examined Turkish L2 learners as young as 4 years of age. I was not only looking at the end state of acquisition, but also the developmental paths, which was a new approach in L2 acquisition. To top it up I also used Optimality-Theory as my analytical framework, which had also not been widely used in the analysis of Turkish learners of English.

b) Scope: once your ideas start rolling you will be very tempted to juggle your ideas all at once, but the trick is to narrow its scope as much as possible. Afterall you can not examine each variable all at once and more variable means more literature review, and that would be too much on your plate. You can instead mention your remaining ideas under the title ‘limitations’ or ‘areas for further research’

c)  Job market: Aha this is not a widely discussed topic for a reason I really don’t know, when in actual fact it is the crux of the matter. In an ideal world, employers do not only search for qualifications, but also seek someone who is forward-thinking, creative, active, productive, flexible and a good problem solver. Therefore employers in principle look for someone who stands out and ‘different’ from the rest, and that goes to show you why it’s important that your PhD is original in several dimensions. Your master piece should not only fill a research gap, but you as an individual should also be able to cater for immediate learning needs. A quick glance at the job advertisements in your field could also indicate the current human capital needs. At present, for instance, there is a huge demand for scholars specialising in some of the following areas: cognitive linguistics, computational linguistics, NLP, language assessment, instructional technology and SLA; and this is reflected in reputable websites such as linguistlist or

Before I wrap up my post I will also attempt to provide a brief answer to what you should do ‘during’ your PhD and ‘after’ your PhD.

If you want to stand out and secure a job after graduation you have to disseminate your work during your PhD. Aim to publish at least two or three articles and present at least three conference papers. Be as selective as possible as to where you publish and present your papers. Never underestimate yourself! If you don’t pick up this habit as early as this stage believe me the rest will  never come and never say ‘later’ as you will be equally or even more busy when you start teaching full-time.

So what should you do ‘after’ your PhD? This might seem contradictory to what I said previous to this, but the actual truth is that after you graduate and manage to maybe publish one or two more papers from your PhD you will then have to move on. What I mean by that is that you have to learn to eventually ‘detach’ yourself from your PhD and explore new ideas; remember learning is an ongoing process!  If you want to climb up the professional ladder you need to be able to prove that you can branch out. You will be judged on this basis and your PhD is just the starting point, since what you produced ‘after’ your PhD is more important, especially for associate professorship.This goes to show you why everything is not just a title! You either publish or you perish! In order to do this one must continuously generate research questions by keeping up to date with the latest advancements and collaborating. Last, but not least,  you must do whatever you do from the bottom of your heart! This I think sums it all up.

Best wishes!



Filed under Supervision

3 responses to “So you want to do a PhD?

  1. Lusekelo Mwakalindile

    Thank you for motivating me to go for a PhD, right now I hold a Masters degree in Communication Studies.. I am extremely I excited that you are sharing this information from your personal experience.

  2. Roma

    Hello, I was wondering if you could offer your opinion/advice on something.
    I am finishing my second year of an intense 3 year BA track (all 120 hours in 3 years, whew) at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. I very much want and hope to continue my studies through a PhD. I go back and forth between intense motivation and dismay by the extreme competition and difficulty of advancement created by degree/credential inflation, especially stateside where I am most considering doing my advanced graduate work (which I think is felt a little less over here).
    So my actual question to you is, do you believe it is better to take the time to do an MA before applying to a PhD program?
    I am very much interested in studying Swiss German (probably syntax and semantics), and therefore am considering applying to UZurich for an MA – especially as I am not a native speaker. However, the PhD programs in the States are so long, that I wonder if it would not be more lucrative to find a stateside school that will allow me to pursue my interests in a PhD program directly after my BA, assuming I am accepted of course. Also, as an American, I would be applying domestically, if that made any difference to my chances.
    One of my main external considerations is that I will be 28 upon completion of my BA and as a woman, would like to be able to make time at some point to start a family, so the length of studies does carry some weight.
    Thanks for your time and consideration.

    • Hello,

      Thanks for your message. I am not so familiar with the exact study paths in the States and other European countries. In the UK, which is where I was educated, I completed my BA in 3 years, MA in 1 year, and PhD in 3 years in length. The UK is somewhat distinctive when compared to other Western models, as it provides a shorter yet a more intensive study path. I was pretty fortunate that I knew from the onset what I wanted to study and had planned my research in advance, and therefore I was also able to secure external funding for my MA and PhD research. Having said that, I believe it’s important to first complete your MA before you start your PhD so you can better improve your core knowledge of disciplinary content and brush up your research skills. This way by the time you start your PhD you are more focused and capable of conducting independent research.

      Achieving all this does of course come with a price, as I did have to prolong other commitments in life. This does not mean that all have to follow the same path as I currently have students who are full-time parents and working full-time; yet at the same time they are on a postgraduate programme and doing amazingly well! I really praise their efforts. So nothing is impossible, so long as you have the sheer determination and blessed with a supportive family and spouse, if I may put it like that.

      With very best wishes to you and all other individuals who are considering a similar career path


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