For the Student A PhD Thesis without Tears
John Creedy* Department of Economics The University of Melbourne
Many students are nowadays keen to complete a PhD and, although they clearly understand what is involved in doing the coursework component, starting a PhD thesis is typically a leap in the dark. Thisnaturally leads to anxieties. While such a substantial project should not be taken lightly, and it cannot be denied that doing research is hard work and has inevitable frustrations, I believe that it should largely be a pleasant and rewarding experience. Students should gradually acquire a substantial range of skills and, above all, obtain an understanding of the standards required of scholarship andeventually develop the crucial ingredient of confidence in their ability to take on a research project. It is perhaps natural for most students initially to focus on the final destination, but it is nevertheless important to appreciate that, as with many other aspects of life, it is really the journey that matters. The aim of this article is therefore to offer some advice to help make the PhDjourney more pleasant, less stressful and more rewarding. Inevitably these are personal
* I am very grateful to Jeff Borland, Sheila Cameron, Iris Claus, Robert Dixon, Nisvan Erkal, John Fender, Norman Gemmell, Dominique Gross, Ross Guest, Guyonne Kalb, Tim Kam, Stuart Kells, Anke Leroux, Solmaz Moslehi, Denis O’Brien, Derek Ritzmann and Justin van de Ven for their comments and suggestions. However,as stressed in the article, these are my own personal and subjective opinions. I do not pretend to know the ‘correct’ approach, but simply offer my views. I have not discussed the process of applying for admission to a PhD program, which is a separate issue. ©
views involving subjective judgements based on my own experience as a supervisor. The advice is primarily directed towards students,although some supervisors may also benefit. In writing this article I mainly have in mind relatively young full-time students who are doing a PhD soon after completing undergraduate studies, the majority of graduate students.1 For obvious reasons this article is directed towards economics students, as the nature of PhD work varies among different disciplines. The advice is perhaps more relevant fortheses in Australian and UK universities, compared with US universities, where coursework plays a more significant role. Furthermore, the role of the supervisor differs among countries. However, there are obviously many common features. I have written elsewhere about the processes of starting and writing research, and publishing articles and books; see Creedy (2001, 2006). Hence, the presentarticle should be read in conjunction with those articles, particularly the first. Emphasis here is on aspects which are particularly relevant when doing the kind of large-scale and substantial work involved in a PhD thesis. It is valuable to think explicitly about the processes involved in doing this work, rather than stumbling from stage to stage in an unconscious manner. Section 2 considers thenature of a PhD thesis. The selection of a topic is discussed briefly in Section 3. Section 4 considers some aspects of life as a PhD student and features associated with working towards a thesis. Section 5 makes some suggestions regarding an approach to tackling such a large project, involving breaking it down into smaller components. The
2007 The University of Melbourne, Melbourne Institute ofApplied Economic and Social Research Published by Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd
The Australian Economic Review
important role of the supervisor is then discussed in Section 6. Some suggestions regarding non-PhD activities are made in Section 7 and final brief comments are in Section 8. 2. What is a PhD?
Research is a process of making discoveries: these may be...