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How to Get a PhD

Book Review (2 of 2)

Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh, Open University Press, 2010, 280pp, paperback, £19.99, ISBN 0 335 241387

This new edition of “How to Get a PhD” reveals a book that has long stood the test of time. First published in 1987, it has already served PhD students for almost a quarter of a century – and its many reprinting and translations are a sound testimony as to its popularity. As a general overview of the PhD process, this handbook for students and their supervisors does exactly what it says ‘on the tin’ – it tells you how to get a PhD in a sensible, practical and informed fashion designed to debunk the myths and relieve you of any false allusions.

This handbook and guide to the PhD process is particularly useful for those about to embark on the PhD process as well as those already well ensconced in it. It guides you through the academic maze and aims to support you in understanding the system and its processes. The book is largely UK-focused but may also be useful for students in similar academic systems, albeit in more general terms (viz its many and numerous translations into other languages).

The book has 12 chapters, 10 geared towards the student, 1 addressing the supervisor and 1 addressing the institution. The latter 2 are interesting insights into the supervision process and institutional procedures, rules and support systems. Chapter 11, which targets supervisors can usefully be read in tandem with chapter 8 which is aimed at students and which provides advice on managing supervisors, an activity which many students often find difficult and strange, especially in the early days of PhD when, in fact, learning to be proactive and set the tone of the supervisory relationship is key to your later success. A helpful tip, in fact, is for students to use chapter 11 as a possible starting point for discussion with their supervisor in early meetings. Chapter 8 also sets out (for the uninitiated) the range and variety of supervision types you might encounter and how to deal with them: individual or paired or even multiple supervision as well as outlining a range of emotional and developmental phases you can expect to go through: becoming independent, seeing yourself as a professional academic-in-the-making, maintaining enthusiasm and so on. Chapters 1 to 7 build up to this image of the PhD student  as a professional academic by emphasising the need to be proactive, learning what it means to be a research student (chapter 1), learning how to understand the system and make the right choices at the right time for the right reasons (chapter 2) on through understanding the PhD as a qualification (chapter 3), a thesis (chapter 6) and an exam (chapter 10). Supporting these key features, you are provided with helpful advice on staying motivated, surviving the highs and lows of the PhD process (chapter 7) and making the most of your specific needs, e.g. as a part-time, international student, etc. (chapter 9). Perhaps the most amusing and insightful chapter is that entitled ‘how not to get a PhD’ which sets out key reasons why people fail to get what they want and how to avoid this scenario in your own quest for success.

The book is seeded throughout with helpful bulleted lists and summary end of chapter action points to help you keep track of useful information and ideas. New to this edition is a student questionnaire designed to help you reflect on the book and the advice given in a more interactive manner.

If the book has a weakness, it is a small one (and is at the same time a strength) – and that is its generality. It covers a broad range of issues, advice and audiences (EdD, DBA, DEng as well as PhD) and so cannot always go into the detail you might want. Nevertheless, deeper treatments of how to write a thesis (chapter 6) or how to do research (chapter 5) are easily met through companion volumes in this series under those titles.

The PhD is not like other courses of study – students need to be proactive and the aim is to become confident, self-reliant, team-oriented practitioners. This book tells you how. Being proactive doesn’t mean going without help and guidance, but learning where to find it. This book tells you what information there is, where to find it, and how to use it to your best advantage. As the following quote well testifies, Phillips and Pugh are experienced advisors who tells it like it is and don’t pull any punches.

"New research students enter the system determined to make an outstanding contribution to their subject. By the time they start the final stages of thesis-writing for the degree they are determined to ‘get it and forget it!’" (p4)

If you want to know why that is, you need to read this book. Speaking as one who has recently completed the process, I can attest to the heartfelt veracity of that quote. The PhD is a challenging process and often feels more mysterious than it should be. This worthwhile offering makes the whole endeavour a much more ‘open book’ for the would-be Dr and come highly recommended.

Reviewed by Wilma Clark, Institute of Education, London

At the time of writing, Wilma Clark was a final year PhD student at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of FindAPhD.

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