Dr Kevin Morrell, Associate Professor of Governance, This page is my tips on how to do a PhD
click for the kinds of
questions a potential supervisor may have about a PhD proposal
click for a slideshow with
suggestions on how to think about the PhD
If you emailed me and were sent a link to this page please click here
Doing a PhD in the Social Sciences: Myths, Tips and Strategies
These notes are the basis of presentations given to
PhD students at the British Academy of Management, to business school PhD
students at Warwick, PhD students at Loughborough
faculty of social sciences and a recent conference of PhD students in
different disciplines at the University of Hull (featured in an article in
The Independent 'Success in your Doctorate').
These are some of the lessons that helped me finish in 2.5
years & pass with no corrections. Hopefully this will be of use to you too, but remember
that what is written here is just my opinion and the most important
considerations for you are what you want from your PhD, and what your supervisor
and institution expect.
Some of the ideas expressed below are also discussed in the book ‘How to get a PhD’
by Phillips and Pugh. If you
haven’t read this, it's a very good idea to do so. My final PhD
abstract (summary) is at the bottom of this page.
What is a PhD?
A PhD is something that is finished.
There are a number of ways of thinking about it.
The first thing that
comes immediately to mind to many PhD students is that it is ‘a contribution
Other elements to it are that it is: a license to teach in a university, a
signal of expertise and authority, a qualification, the highest degree that can
be awarded in a university.
Less obviously perhaps, it means you are a fully professional researcher, it’s
a kind of ‘passport’ or sign that you belong to a ‘club’. In real terms,
it means several years of hard, lonely work that is potentially very rewarding.
You can think of it as an apprenticeship for a career in academia – but there are a
lot of reasons for doing a PhD.
It also means you can change your credit card and cheque book
details to Doctor and book restaurant tables as
Doctor if that means anything to you (though you don't want to be asked for
medical advice if that happens!). It can be beneficial if you’re a woman and you don’t
like being asked if it’s Miss, Ms or Mrs.
What do you need to finish a PhD?
To finish a PhD you need to be determined.
There are plenty of myths associated with the process of
doing a PhD (for example you need to be a 'genius', or you have to do something
totally original, or the PhD will be the best work you ever do). These
myths can be unhelpful because although they might have some truth in them, they can be extremely unhelpful if you believe
that they are wholly
(or even largely) true. If you don't recognise the dangers of these
myths, then you will not have realistic expectations about doing your PhD which
will make you less effective and is likely to lead to disappointment.
At best these myths can slow you down,
at worst they can even become excuses for not finishing. They slow you
down because if you believe in them, then you avoid
trying to find constructive explanations that lead to more helpful behaviours
(for example forcing yourself to write something, no matter what it looks like
at first). In the worst case scenario, they may be a justification for why
you 'can't' do a PhD (when maybe you actually can). Believing in some of
these myths is actually convenient at one level, because it means
you aren't responsible for delays, or for failing to finish, but it is
a real problem if finishing a PhD is what you really want to do. Everyone who completes
a PhD has doubts at some stage: e.g. 'they must
have let me in by mistake'; 'everyone else doing one is cleverer than me' etc.
Below are listed some unhelpful PhD 'myths', as well as some short counterarguments to each of them. You might
find it useful to think about whether these or similar myths may be holding you
Myth 1 You need to be a genius.
WHY IS THIS DANGEROUS> It's an impossible standard to live up
COUNTER> Many, many people have done PhDs, it is not possible that
they are all 'geniuses' (whatever that means anyway). In
completing one you follow a fairly systematic procedure applied to many different people
and the quality of PhDs varies (look at some).
Myth 2 You have to do something no-one has ever done before.
WHY IS THIS DANGEROUS> This misunderstands the nature of a
'contribution' to knowledge.
COUNTER> What you do is build on other people's work in a rigorous, precise way
- you have to do this or else how are you
adding to the existing state of knowledge? If no-one has done anything
like what you're studying before then maybe it's not such a great idea! Of
course what you do has to be your own work and it is original and new in that
sense, but one common problem is overestimating what 'counts' as a contribution
to knowledge. Precisely what that means for you and for your PhD is
something you need to work on with your supervisor.
Myth 3 The PhD is going to be your life’s work
and a masterpiece.
It will be the best thing you ever do.
WHY IS THIS DANGEROUS> Again it's an impossible standard to
COUNTER> Remember that when you are doing a PhD you are learning (by
definition). The idea of a masterpiece may be helpful if you think of the
PhD as an
'apprenticeship' - i.e. when you've finished you should be ready to start
as a professional researcher. But - if you stop and try to get a longer
term perspective - it's actually quite
discouraging to think it will be your best work (though it may be your longest).
For one thing, one of the things you learn is how you could have done it better and how
you would improve in future projects (you are very likely to get asked a version of that
question at your viva).
Myth 4 The PhD will revolutionise or shake the foundations of your discipline.
WHY IS THIS DANGEROUS> Like myth 2 this misunderstands what is required. You need
to finish a time-bound project, not win a Nobel prize.
COUNTER> You have to do what a competent PhD
student could do in 3-4 years (doesn't sound so bad put like that does it?).
As a PhD student it is a nice and noble intellectual dream to think you can
change the way the academic community thinks because of your research. The
last think I would want to do is discourage anyone from having dreams or from
thinking big. However, if you think you have to do that in order to
be awarded a PhD you are wrong, plain and simple. Most genuinely
groundbreaking research comes after not during people's PhDs.
Myth 5 You’re going to spend three years on one topic.
WHY IS THIS DANGEROUS> Though this is a common misperception, it is a really unhelpful belief because it makes
doing a PhD sound soooooooo
COUNTER> Yes you do something specific, but you have to first identify what
that will be, then pursue it. To do this you typically have to: get to
know several strands of literature (and keep up to date with them), understand a
context, devise a method (get to grips with epistemology and methodology), get
hold of (or 'construct' depending on your epistemology) some data - often you'll
have to negotiate access, carry out the analysis etc. etc.
Myth 6 Being able to write well is a ‘gift’.
Writing is just a question of getting down what you know, it will all come
together the time comes. OR
Writing is what you do at the end, that's why it is called 'writing up'.
WHY IS THIS DANGEROUS> These are very unhelpful excuses for
procrastinating, or for writing to a low standard.
COUNTER> You have to write to a competent standard, which is high (by nature
of the PhD), but this is a learned skill. The only way to acquire this
skill is by doing it. It may help to think of three ingredients that go
together in developing writing skills: 1. Practise (see section on writing
below) 2. Read widely in quality journals (and aspire to those standards). 3.
Get regular, constructive criticism on your writing.
If you haven’t already done one, I recommend you write a fairly detailed
proposal and timeline. The one I used to apply for a place is further down this
page but competition for PhD places is very
high, and for many topics a 2 page proposal is unlikely to be enough detail.
This bears little resemblance to what I ended up actually doing- but it helped me to have a sense of structure at the
As soon as you can look at other people’s PhDs
from your institution. Do this periodically throughout your
thesis. When you start writing things, you will be able to assess the merits of
your work by comparing it with other people’s. If you start doing this today,
it won’t be long before you find something that you think you can ‘beat’.
Ask your supervisor if you can look at PhDs from students they have
supervised. This might give you the clearest idea of what they think is
Early on get a list of the top (ten) journals in your field and use the zetoc
alert service (find it via google and search for 'zetoc mimas alert') to send you the contents pages of each one as it comes out. You
need to do this throughout to keep up with the literature.
Get to know how to use your institution's library (+ inter-library loans).
Get to know how to use your institution's electronic library and e-journals.
Get to know how to use google scholar
carefully (i.e. to find quality journal articles and sources).
Build up and systematically organise a mini-library of
your own, made up of relevant (and
recent) journal articles.
Get into the habit of collecting references in full. One of the things that
shows engagement with the field and a body of literature is a long list of relevant references at the end of a thesis,
which are used thoughtfully throughout the literature review and discussion
This is also vital when you are taking notes on what you read. Be very
mindful of the dangers of plagiarising something - it is irrelevant whether you
do this accidentally (e.g. by confusing notes from an article with your own
words), you must always give credit if citing others' ideas.
If you decide early on and use the same referencing system it will save time. Here’s
an example of what I used to give you an idea (there may be specific
requirements in your institution, so you should check this):
Journal article: Morrell, K. and Wilkinson, A.J., (2002)
'Empowerment: Through the Smoke and Past the Mirrors', Human Resource
Development International, 5(1): 119-130.
Book: Mellahi, K., Morrell, K. and
Wood, G. (2009) The Ethical Business 2e, Palgrave,
Conference paper: Morrell, K., Loan Clarke, J. and
Wilkinson, A.J., (2003) 'Shocks, Images and Nurse Turnover', Democracy in a
Knowledge Economy, Nagao, D.H. (ed), 63rd Annual Meeting of the Academy of
Management, Seattle, Washington, USA, August, [CD-ROM].
Contribution in edited book: Morrell, K., (2001)
'Business Strategy and Contingency Approaches to HRM', in The Informed
Student Guide to HRM, Redman, T. and Wilkinson, A. (eds), Thomson Learning:
Departmental working paper: Morrell, K.M., Loan
Clarke, J. and Wilkinson, A.J., (2001) 'Lee and Mitchell's Unfolding Model of
Employee Turnover - A Theoretical Assessment', Loughborough University Business
School Research Series, No. 2001:2.
Book review: Morrell, K., (2003) review of C.
Cooper, and D. Rousseau (Eds), Trends in Organizational Behavior Vol 8:
Employee versus Owner Issues in Organizations, Personnel Review,
Web-site: Morrell, K. (2009) 'Doing a
PhD in the Social Sciences: Myths, Tips and Strategies',
http://www.kevinmorrell.org.uk/PhDTips.htm last accessed on April 13th,
Write early, write often. The more you write, the better you will become at
it. Even if you are not going to try and publish anything while you are doing
your thesis (this is probably a mistake), you must get into the habit of
writing down your ideas. Start with a modest target – maybe review three
articles in your field (3,000 words say) then give it to your supervisor and ask for
If English is not your first language:
Speak English at every opportunity
· Get into the habit of listening to radio 4 and / or radio 5
· Seek specialist tuition if you need to and find out what help is
available in the university. Do this now rather than have to spend months
redrafting. You will have to learn the language to a very high standard, and
this is a long term process which starts now.
· Remember it isn’t your supervisor’s job to proof read what
you write, they are interested in your ideas – they can’t be expected to
correct your English (though they should give some help), and they only have a
limited time available for you - try to use that time to most effect, i.e. get
advice about your PhD, not your English.
· On a
positive note, doing a PhD often
involves learning a new vocabulary for English speakers. Some people
starting a PhD will be as unfamiliar as non-English speakers with concepts
like methodology or epistemology, for example.
I wish I had:
Learned to touch type
Kept a research diary
Gone to more staff development courses
I’m glad I:
Had a pragmatic view of the PhD
Chose an interesting topic
Chose what I wanted to do
Had excellent supervisors
Managing your supervisor
I think it’s helpful to see the relationship with your supervisor(s) as a
LONG-TERM, PROFESSIONAL one.
You may ‘hit it off’ straight away, but this is unlikely, and may not
even be helpful as there may be times when you need to talk to your supervisor
about how you are dissatisfied, or to ask for more support and guidance. It is
more important over the course of your PhD to:
· Build confidence
· Build a good, working relationship
Become best mates
· Swap stories
Some quick ways to build trust, confidence and a good, working relationship
· Clarify expectations
· Share information
· Make specific commitments
and honour them
If you want to damage your relationship with your supervisor, do the reverse.
You could also try the following: disappear without telling them, go to visit
them without any particular reason, fail to hand work in (or fail to do any
work), don’t keep them up
to date on your progress / lack of progress, don’t read anything they advise
you to, ignore their comments on drafts of your work, phone up for frequent
chats about nothing in particular.
Your supervisor will have several legitimate expectations. They will want you
Show initiative, be proactive etc. basically be independent
– these are key to doing PhD research in the social sciences
· Be honest about how things are going
· Produce quality written work that is not a first draft
· Meet deadlines (or explain why not)
· Meet regularly to discuss your progress (regularly doesn’t
necessarily mean weekly)
· Be keen & enthusiastic
· Listen to their advice. This does
not mean you have to
always follow their advice (you have to be independent), but it does mean that
when you disagree, you can show you 1. reflected on what they said 2. can
state clearly the reasons why you chose not to follow their advice and 3. can
say what else you suggest (or what you did) & why.
· Tell them what you are learning (you will become an expert)
You are entitled to expect:
Regular, constructive criticism on your written work
· Guidance, suggestions and ideas for research avenues
· Help with the literature
· Advice at each stage of the project
· Some (though probably not too much!) direction
Here are some more suggestions:
When you go to meet your supervisor always take a pen and some paper,
together with a list of things you want to talk about. This is so that you show:
attentiveness, planning, that you are seeing her/him for a reason, that you
recognise their time is important. It will help you get what you want as well
(partly because you won’t forget what you went in there for), and force you to
If you phone your supervisor always ask first if they have a couple of
minutes, and offer to call back later if they can’t talk to you then.
Don’t try to collar people in the corridor – being in a corridor is a
sure fire sign that someone is going somewhere (-: If you see someone and it reminds
you that you need to talk to them, make a note to phone them later.
Try to gain a sense of your supervisor’s preferred style of working –
they may prefer a written document or e-mail, or they may want to discuss things
and periodically review your work, likewise they may want to meet frequently or
they may be happier with a more structured, formal arrangement. If their way of
working isn’t helping you, you could try gently ‘educating’ them, by being
more organised yourself, and clearer about what your needs and expectations are.
How to finish within a reasonable time
First keep in mind the myths and keep
your eyes on the prize - a PhD is above anything else, something that is
finished. Second, don’t get disheartened if it seems like it’s taking you along time to get
going. This is a common feeling during the first year or so. It is better to
take the time to be really clear about what you are doing and how, than to try
to go and ‘collect data’ (for example) only to find it’s not relevant to
Try to keep in mind these goals.
A title for your thesis
· Clearly formulated research questions, which are ‘good’
questions, by which I mean: practical / feasible (you can answer them), interesting (to you at the very least), will lead to a
contribution and symmetrical (i.e. whatever you find out, you’ll be able to
tell a story – you could come unstuck if you set out to prove or find
something and you don’t)
· Being able to summarise your (expected) contribution in two
If you have these things, then you have
the "spine" of your dissertation and it is a good indication that you know what
you are doing (which is not as simple as it may sound). It will help with
Unless you have submitted and are waiting for a date for the viva there is
never, ever any excuse for not being able to do some work that is relevant to
completion. This can be reading, writing, analysis, or something that is
extremely important - planning.
One of the problems with doing a PhD is it is easy to get wrapped up in the
detail of what you are looking at at the moment, but forgetting the ‘big
picture’. This is one of the things your supervisor should help you with, but
you can help yourself by trying to think strategically about the process, and
your long term goals. For example, do you need to become an expert in the
literature in a field, or do you need to know one theory really well, and know
the main ways it is different from ‘the others’.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking you have to wait for feedback about
your latest piece of submitted work until you can progress or move to the ‘next
stage’. This will slow you down.
Pretty early on (within the first year), you are likely to have an
understanding of what research methods you want to use, and what type of data
you can collect. It is highly likely that you are going to be using
sophisticated analytical techniques (whether qualitative or quantitative or both) and even if
you are familiar with the techniques, you will be using them at a more
proficient level. Don’t wait until you start analysis to familiarise
yourself with these techniques. This will slow you down.
Look out for courses on undergraduate programmes which may be relevant to
your needs, and ask the lecturer if you can sit in. If you do things like this
early on, it reduces the lead time to learn techniques prior to data analysis.
Bear in mind that learning these techniques is iterative and usually a long
Though you need to keep up with the literature, don’t always be swayed by
the latest research, you should have an idea of what you are doing after the
first year (or so). It’s important not to get sidetracked. Again, this will slow you down.
Be aware that your plans may change, in fact if you are to do well, they will
probably need to change. Finally, not everything in the process is within your
control, and this can be very frustrating. Remember that when you finish is not
necessarily a sign of how good your work is, the important thing is to finish.
Be clear that your expectations of what is involved in doing a PhD are
realistic (beware the myths)
Aim for a working, professional relationship with your supervisor
(Phillips and Pugh is good on managing your supervisor)
Try to keep your end goal in mind and stay ahead of the game (remember the tips + strategies and develop your own)
If you are thinking of doing a PhD, please use
the resources here, that is what they are for, but...
Please do not send me your draft proposal
Much as I would like to help, I don't have the resources
to review draft proposals. However, if you want to apply formally to my
institution, please do so. The links below should help you.
Example of a Proposal
A survey commissioned by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) found that 8.7%
of nurses left the profession in 1997 Michelle Dixon spokeswoman for the Royal
College of Nursing commenting on this said, "The problem is so big, it’s
more than a recruitment campaign alone that’s needed." Bob Abberley head
of health at Unison talked of the recruitment and retention "crisis"
at the labour party conference 1998, he said, "Pay is now the burning issue
in the NHS".
To provide a contribution to the understanding of recruitment and retention
in the NHS. To provide practical recommendations for improving both.
Recruitment / retention can be improved by changes to things other than pay
including: Training provision / administration, Management styles and
structures, Use of 'nurse mentoring', Better modelling of nurse labour supply
I will have a better understanding of appropriate methodology after
completing my management report and dissertation, which are on topics relevant
to the proposal. I intend to use a mix of methods to gather data, to reflect the
fact that this problem does not lend itself readily to either an exclusively
nomothetic or ideographic approach.
Data collection will comprise semi-structured individual interviews with
management and nurses as well as more free-ranging discussion with focus groups
in 4 NHS Trusts to identify key issues / factors affecting recruitment and
retention. These data it is hoped will form the basis for a comparison, to see
if salient differences can be identified and correlated with shelf data on
wastage rates, participation rates etc.
This will also form the framework for a survey targeted principally at
management in trusts across the country, but also to explore attitudes of senior
nurses responsible for recruitment in these trusts. This will be to see if wider
comparison of factors affecting recruitment and retention and subsequent
correlation with labour turnover metrics is possible. A regional cross-break
will also identify national differences. Access should not be a problem, given
Loughborough's excellent links with the NHS in the midlands, and prior
completion of theses across all NHS trusts.
Problems anticipated with Method:
Trying to isolate the extraneous variable of pay.
The method depends on finding local differences, such differences may not be
Initial selection of just 4 trusts may be flawed, given possible national
Personal limitations re running of focus groups and interviewing may lead to
Accounting for other, manifold extraneous variables will prove difficult.
The study may suffer by lacking longitudinal scope, so changes may be hard to
Identification of 4 trusts
Selection / set up of focus groups
Literature Review extended to cover survey design issues
Conducting Semi-structured Interviews + running Focus Groups
Comparison of 4 trusts
Send out survey
Correlation of factors in 4 trusts
Continued correlation and wider analysis
The abstract for my final PhD was as follows:
This thesis reports the first independent test of an influential model
of employee turnover (Lee, Mitchell, Holtom, McDaniel and Hill 1999).
The context for this test is the case of nurse turnover in the National
Health Service (NHS). There
have been many hundreds of turnover studies in the last fifty years, and
many ways of understanding the turnover phenomenon.
The thesis organises this literature, by selectively analysing and
discussing the more influential of these studies.
This selective, critical review allows for the model tested here to be
placed in a theoretical and historical context.
A critique of the model signalled the need
for theoretical development prior to operationalisation.
However, the relative paucity of empirical evidence in support of the
model suggested that replicating the basic findings of the authors would also be
desirable. Accordingly, the case
for a critical test was clear, and an outline of the role of this type of
replication facilitated this.
The research involved eight NHS trusts, in
three regions. In total, 352
full-time nurse leavers participated.
Data relating to their decision to leave was collected via an eight page survey,
which comprised both closed and open items.
Analysis and interpretation of these data challenge the current
formulation of the model tested, as well as contributing to the understanding of
employee turnover and nursing turnover.
Employee Turnover, Human Resource Planning, Unfolding Model, Modelling, Decision Making, NHS, Nurses, Replication
If you emailed me and were sent a link to this page please click here
click here for the kinds of
questions a potential supervisor may have about a PhD proposal
click here for a slideshow with some
suggestions on how to think about the PhD
Some other sources
SR Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Business Library 1989
is good for personal development / time management
This might be useful if you get stuck:
On doing PhDs in a second language:
A study on PhD completion and health:
Below are some miscellaneous tips: