Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) Featured PhD Programmes
University of Hull Featured PhD Programmes
University of Hull Featured PhD Programmes
Posted on 30 Jul '20

What Makes a Successful PhD?

Embarking upon a PhD is not for the faint-hearted. There are any number of reasons a PhD can go off the rails and unfortunately, not all of them will be up to you.

For example, you never know for sure whether your research is going to be plain sailing or whether at some point you’ll find yourself stuck up the proverbial creek without any means of propulsion.

However, there are a few things that will certainly improve your chances of making it to the end unscathed. Here is a short list of those attributes that will contribute to a successful PhD.


This finds itself at the top of the list for good reason. Completing a PhD requires an awful lot of motivation, not least because it involves a great deal of independence.

No matter what the subject matter, your research project is exactly that: yours. Although your supervisor will undoubtedly have input, ultimately it is up to you to drive it to completion.

With this freedom comes the inevitable temptation to let things slide. But I can assure you, the ”I’ll get up in five minutes” attitude is going to land you in a horrible mess. You’re not in undergrad anymore, Toto.

On the flip side, if you’ve got that motivation, you’ve got a key ingredient for a successful PhD.

Desire to learn

Of course, a PhD is all about making new discoveries and developing your knowledge of the field, but all of that relies on knowing what others have already discovered.

And the amount of that existing knowledge is vast, with new discoveries being made every day. To stay afloat (and not suffer the wrath of your supervisor for failing to recall the methodology of a paper published 10 years ago in the journal VeryObscureFindings), you will need to actively want to learn as much about your subject as possible.

If you don’t have that desire then after reading your 4th or 5th paper on the same niche subject, all written in a way that would make the dictionary look like a Dan Brown novel, you’ll find it really hard to give a hoot anymore.

But if you’re the sort of person that likes to take an encyclopaedia to bed with you and keep a copy of Nature by the loo*, then you’ll breeze through the existing literature with ease.

*Other toilet-side publications are available


It’s rare that research is ever straightforward. It is quite likely that you’ll find yourself, at some point or another, coming to difficulty and seemingly unable to move forward.

Whether it’s a minor nuisance or a potential project-stopping disaster, you will be faced with challenges that can make you wonder if a PhD is really worth the suffering.

At times like this it takes a good deal of grit to not to throw in the towel (or perhaps more appropriately, the unfinished thesis), and go and find something less demoralising to do.

But if you’re made of the right stuff, you’ll find there’s always a way to overcome a challenge, no matter how impossible that might seem at first.


I’ve mentioned that you will be in charge of directing your PhD in any way you see fit, but this can be a bit of a double-edged sword.

On the one hand you have the freedom to drive your project in any direction you choose, but on the other hand if you’ve got no clue which direction that is then you can end up floundering.

In order to avoid being stuck in the doldrums you need to have a vision for your project.

Sure, you might still be pulled off course by unforeseen problems, but if you have a clear idea of the ultimate destination of your project, you’ll have an easier time directing it along the way.

A good idea

They say everything begins with a good idea and a good PhD is no different. There are a lot of ideas out there and sadly they’re not all PhD worthy.

Starting out on your quest for a doctorate with a bad research idea is, well, a bad idea. Whether it’s that you run out of places to go because the idea was too shallow, or you find yourself unable to even begin because its objectives were unrealistic, you will find yourself wishing you had chosen something better.

If you are writing your own research proposal, we have some excellent guides on how to go about that (*cough* shameless plug *cough*). Hopefully these will help you develop your idea to one worthy of a PhD.

If you’re buying off the shelf as it were, you are less likely to run afoul of a problematic idea. Even so, you should always try to make sure the project has a clear direction. After all, you don’t want to end up as an underpaid research assistant.

Once found, a good research idea will certainly boost your chances of a successful PhD.

Final thoughts

This is by no means a comprehensive list but hopefully it serves to let you know what completing a PhD will involve.

So, if you have the right mindset, a love of learning and a great idea, you can look forward to breezing through a fun and trouble-free PhD*.

*Assumes the possession of a four-leaf clover, a dozen horseshoes and a live leprechaun.

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