Reviewed by: Clare Wardman (University of York)
This book has, justifiably, been a seminal work for any beginning PhD student since it was first published in 1987. It has been reprinted regularly since and the need for this kind of self-help book for nervous doctoral candidates has been proven by the growing number of publications aiming to offer words of wisdom for students at varying stages of the PhD process.
How to Get a PhD deals with each stage of the PhD process from the application stage to the viva, including two final chapters aimed at supervisors and institutions, covering the responsibilities of those roles with regards to doctoral students.
The comprehensive contents list means that it is an easy job to dip in and out of this book and find specific information on a particular question you may have. The authors adopt an engaging and refreshingly honest tone throughout, using case studies as examples. The fact that they present examples showing both sides of the student-supervisor relationship is particular useful for new doctoral students who may struggle to see things from their supervisor’s point of view.
The first three chapters focus on the nature of postgraduate education and of the PhD qualification itself, as well as discussing some of the oft-told myths of academia and more practical advice for the application process. Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 contrast each other – one demonstrating everything a student could do wrong in the process and chapter 5 exploring how to research effectively. Chapter 6 and 7 and 10 cover the PhD thesis itself and the process and procedures, including advice on publishing and teaching whilst studying and the viva exam. Chapters 8 and 9 compliment each other – both essentially deal with the doctoral student working out how to belong to the academic community, one through getting the supervisor relationship right and chapter 9 through dealing with some of the challenges that being in academia can throw up for those people who don’t fit the traditional image of an academic. The final two chapters are useful for doctoral students but essentially written for supervisors and institutions, although they tie in well with earlier chapters, particularly chapter 8 – How to manage your supervisor.
However, the fact that How to Get a PhD does offer information on the whole process can mean that it is limited in the depth of information it can provide on each stage. There are, for example, only ten pages on the viva examination process, covering from giving notice of submission to the appeals procedure and litigation. Given that there are whole books written on this one topic alone, it may be that this is seen as very introductory.
There is a slight tendency in this book to focus on the negative. The fact that this tends to be done with an undercurrent of humour means the effect is not too damaging. However, chapters on “How NOT to get a PhD” and “How to Survive”, which deals with issues surrounding discrimination and even harassment of women, ethnic minority students, gay and lesbian students and those with disabilities, may cause some potential students to think twice about engaging with this long-term process.
This publication is particularly focused on the UK PhD system and therefore, although of interest to any doctoral student, may be only highly relevant for those based in the UK. Additionally, one of the problems of this kind of advice book is that regulations and procedures can change and the advice can be out-of-date or not specific to each institution. This is the case with the Third Edition of How to get a PhD, which refers to the upgrade process, which is now normally called Confirmation, due to the change in UK visa regulations, meaning international students had to be registered on PhD programmes from the start of their study. Later editions of this work I am sure will address this.
Overall, this is a very useful book for people considering doctoral study and also for those who have just embarked on the process. I have personally read this book twice, once as I first considered joining a PhD programme, when my university Research officer thrust a copy in my direction telling me it would tell me everything I needed to know. He wasn’t wrong. And I have read it again at the beginning of my first year and found much of the advice pertinent, comforting and often amusing. I wonder whether, in later years, I will feel the need for more depth regarding certain aspects. I believe that How to Get a PhD offers an excellent overview of the doctoral process but that, for depth of coverage, students may need to read it in conjunction with other sources of advice.