Thursday, 28 May 2009

Case Study Research

Many part time PhD students begin with the premise that they might do their research based, at least in part, around a case study in their own organization. Something may have been happening in your organizational life that sparked an interest in research in the first place, or perhaps it is just the convenience of being able to combine research with work that appeals. A good idea might be to think through what’s involved in research using case studies. There are two books worth looking at, both by Roberts, but both very, very different.

Robert Yin (2008) Case Study Research: design and methods, SAGE: London

This is probably the most commonly cited text on case study research in management, followed closely by Kathleen Eisenhardt’s paper “Building Theories from Case Study Research” in the Academy of Management Review (1989) 14:4. Both have much in common and offer a rigourous approach which works well for some tastes. Think organised, design led and highly structured. The title says it all in many ways.

Robert Stake (1995) The Art of Case Study Research, SAGE: London

Same topic, different take. Stake’s view of case study work is presented as messier, richer and more ambiguous. Again, the “art of” in the title is significant. Very different from Yin but a more comfortable fit for some epistemologies and ontologies.

There is also an excellent account of the use of case studies in research, covering all this and more, in Chapter 5 of Research Methods (2nd Edition).

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Thinking About an Academic Career ...

Many people, exhausted by the rigours of life "in the real world" think to themselves ... I would like to change my life. One common answer is to think of a career switch from a commercial or managerial life to an academic one. Whether this is inspired by fond memories of student days, or by the observation that academics seem to have a nice life is immaterial. The conclusion is reached that giving something back, sharing some of your experience or just enjoying the long summer breaks between terms might be more rewarding than beavering away in your current role.

You may already have guessed that having a PhD might help. In fact, the academic world has been changing over the last few decades and it may be sobering to reflect, for a moment, on those changes. Up until the advent of various forms of research assessment processes in the UK and elsewhere, it was possible to make a mid-career switch from practice to academia. The last of this generation are now approaching retirement from their academic roles and the sad reality is that they would no longer be appointable in many institutions because of a lack of research activity. For a time, signalling that you wanted to start a PhD would be enough to sway an interview panel. Things then moved to appointing people who had already started a PhD, then to preferring candidates that were in the final stages of their PhD. Today however, many institutions demand that even the most junior lecturing posts be filled by people who have completed their PhD. The competition for academic posts is often such that applicants need a finished PhD, some solid teaching experience and a few decent publications already in print just to be seen as appointable. The competition then rests on which applicant has the best PhD, publications and teaching experience to offer. Mid career switches are getting harder as the academic world professionalises. You may have 20 or 30 years experience of running your own business or part of someone else's business and that managerial knowledge is invaluable in many, many ways. But the truth is that you'll be up against some in their early to mid 20s with a first degree, possibly a masters, definitely a PhD, some tutoring and teaching experience gathered en route and a few publications in the pipeline. If you want to compete, you need to develop a 3-5 year plan of how you'll put those pieces together on your CV such that you'll be seen as a credible candidate. Then if you're lucky and get the job you might begin to revisit the idyllic impression you had of academic life ... but that's a whole other story. In the UK the Foundation for Management Education offers support for people looking to make the switch to an academic career and might be a good source of advice and/or support. See

Pasted below is the job description for an academic job at a reputable UK university ... the post was described as being for a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer (which might help you make sense of the grades mentioned) ... and the thing to look for are the criteria that are seen as essential.

To undertake high-quality research in the subject area, actively contribute to teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level and to undertake administration as requested by the Head of Department

Main Duties and Responsibilities
For appointment at grade 7 (L) and 8 (SL) you will:
1. Develop and maintain individual/joint research projects in the subject related area and, where appropriate, to secure the funding required for the project

2. Contribute fully to developing and enhancing the research profile of the Department/Division including establishing a track record of publications of internationalquality in leading journals
3. Attendance and participation in appropriate research seminars/conferences within subject related area
4. Contribute fully to the planning, organisation and delivery of undergraduate and/or postgraduate teaching activities within the subject area in accordance with established Departmental programmes
5. Contribute fully to the ongoing development and design of the curriculum in a manner that supports a research-lead approach to student learning
6. Participate fully in examination and other assessment processes, as appropriate, using a variety of methods and techniques and provide effective, timely and appropriate feedback to students which supports their learning
7. Undertake departmental administration as assigned by the Head of Department
8. Engage in professional development activities as appropriate
9. Where appropriate, take responsibility for the supervision and training of postgraduate research students to ensure their effective development
10. Either sustain an independent research group in a subject related area or contribute to an existing research group

For appointment at grade 8 (i.e. SL) you will:
11. Sustain a substantial international reputation while developing and enhancing the research of the department/faculty, including establishing a track record of publications of international quality in leading journals, while securing the funding required for this research
12. To take responsibility for the planning, organisations and delivery of undergraduate and postgraduate teaching activities in the relevant and related subject areas, in accordance with the department programme
13. Take responsibility for the supervision and training of postgraduate research students to ensure their effective development.

Knowledge, Qualifications, Skills and Experience

A1 Good first degree and, a PhD or equivalent research profile in subject related area
A2 Comprehensive and up to date knowledge of research within subject related area
A3 Developing track record of published research and/or development and delivery of teaching
A4 Developing international research profile

For appointment at level 8:
A5 An established track record of published research and development and delivery of teaching
A6 An established international research profile

Skills - Essential
C1 Excellent communications skills both oral and written

C2 Excellent interpersonal and presentation skills
C3 Time management skills
C4 Ability to work independently and as part of a team
C5 Ability to work with little supervision
C6 Self Motivation
C7 Ability to accept collegiate responsibilities and act accordingly
C8 Ability for independent thought to generate original hypothesis leading to generating research income

Experience - Essential
E1 Minimum of 2 years postdoctoral research experience within own subject area
E2 Evidence of an emerging track record of academic publications of international quality

E3 Experience of applying/potential capacity to apply for and secure research grant funding, where appropriate
E4 Teaching experience at undergraduate and/or postgraduate level, including course development and quality assurance where appropriate

For appointment at level 8:
E5 Minimum of 3-5 years postdoctoral research experiences within own subject area.
E6 Established track record of academic publications of international quality.
E7 Experience of applying for and securing reserach grant funding.

Job Features
Develop and maintain research plans and, where appropriate, submit grant applications/proposals on an ongoing basis throughout yearProduce publications as appropriate to subject specialism within appropriate agreed timescales/periodPrincipal Investigator or co-investigator for research grant(s) as appropriate

Individual or co-supervision of postgraduate research student(s) as appropriate
Undertake teaching in accordance with a fair distribution of departmental workload
Planning and Organising ... manage time and prioritise own work load appropriate in research, teaching and administrative duties
Monitor, review and revise research plans/grant submissions as appropriate
Revise annually in advance of due date, course documents, handouts and assessments for undergraduate or postgraduate courses
Plan and organise administrative duties on an ongoing basis
Reactive functions – respond to queries from departmental staff/students within reasonable timescale
Decision Making ... decide on research direction, methodology and where appropriate, submission of grant applications
Decide on choice of journal(s) for publication of research and conferences to attendDecide on course content, teaching methods and applications by students

Internal/External Relations
Internal – Head of Department of exchanging information, research strategy, learning and teaching strategy
Functional officers in respect of relevant functions (Research Officer, Assessment Officer, QA Officer)
Academic staff for advice and motivation as appropriateResearch students, supervising and supporting them
Undergraduate and postgraduate students providing teaching and learning supportAcademic support services for appropriate advice and for exchanging informationStudent support services to exchange information, refer/support students
External - Links with key research players, nationally and internationally, in the development of the subject specialism through a range of appropriate academic channels, including relevant professional bodies
Grant funding bodies (income generation)Journals and book publishers (publishing)Problem Solving
Act as first point of contact for problems/enquiries from students involved with area of teaching/researchAssist postgraduate students with problems relating to research
Deal with administrative problems as appropriate to status with reference to HOD and/or colleaguesInvestigate research problems and questions in accordance with own and Departmental research strategy

Friday, 15 May 2009

Your Comments on the PhD Blog

what a great idea and what a wonderful initiative. – Congratulations - I’d wish, someone had done this much earlier and I’d known all this stuff years ago, it would have saved me so much trouble in what I am going though right now. Uwe

PhD or DBA

Doctorates come in more than one form. The two most common are the PhD and the DBA. So how do you distinguish between them ? A colleague used the following to differentiate them ...

A DBA produces a researching practitioner
whereas A PhD produces a practising researcher

The distinction rests with the default location of your next job. If you want to stick in a managerial role but are interested in researching your own setting and your own practice, then a DBA is the right choice. If you want to become a professional researcher, then the PhD is the qualification of choice. There are many good DBA programmes, mostly at accredited schools. There are many, many more PhD programmes because the degree has been around for a lot longer. In either case, you'll have to write to "doctoral standard" and be on top of the literatures that you engage with. The DBA is often broken up into sub-projects that are taken one at a time and build toward your thesis in modular fashion. This is not so true for a PhD.

Recommended Reading

These are just a few things that might be worth reading ...

"The Production of Knowledge: the challenge of social science research" by William Starbuck, 2006, Oxford University Press: Oxford
this is effectively a memoir from a leading US management researcher and is full of honest self reflection about what worked and didn't work over a career publishing and editing the world's top journals.

"The Nature of Managerial Work" by Henry Mintzberg, 1973, Harper Row: London
this is the book version of Mintzberg's PhD thesis. It may be dated now but it is well written and the appendix to the book sets out his research process in graphic detail and is therefore very instructive.

"How to Get a PhD: a handbook for students and their supervisors" 1987, by Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh, Open University Press: Maidenhead
One of the most popular references for those who embark on a PhD and it covers everything from starting to finishing the process.

"Research Methods for Business Management" by Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh, 2015, Goodfellow Publisher: Oxford
This is a succinct overview of the research process from finding a project, through how to review the literature and on to methods, ethics and writing up.  Try a free chapter.

Writing Skills

In your PhD you'll be learning to write again. Imagine almost that you're going to be asked to write with your other hand, so if you're left handed, you're going to have to master writing with your right hand or vice versa. That should give you some idea of the challenge you'll face. You may be great at written work in many other fields, and it may even be part of your core job at work. However, learning to write within the confines of the academic genre is a different thing.

First there is learning to write with brackets scattered over the text (Smithers-Jones, 2006), then there is writing in quotes "which is not the same thing as plagiarising" (Bloggs et al., 2009:15). You'll need to master the Harvard style or some similar citation protocol. But that is just the basic grammar. Beyond that you'll need to learn to summarise and critique other people's work and to write with an appropriate citation density. If you're not sure, pick up any top-rated journal article, squint your eyes so that its out of focus ... or if you're of a certain age, just taking your glasses off can achieve the same effect ... and look at the pattern of the text. The ratio of words to (citations, 1993) is critically important. Most good academic scholars have mastered the art of summarising the literature by using citations. They don't under cite with only one or two citations appearing sporadically, or by repeatedly citing the same text book. Equally, they don't over cite. Writing with the appropriate citation density is part of the apprenticeship of a PhD and it takes time to master. This is because you're beginning to write for a different type of audience. Your readers should be assumed to be on top of most of the literature that you've reviewed. So when you say that Mintzberg's views on strategy downplay predictability and control for key strategic actors (1973). You are assuming that the reader will have read and remembered the contents of "The Nature of Managerial Work" by Henry Mintzberg. Text books assume that you haven't and then proceed to tell you what the book was about, etc. Academic articles or literature reviews assume that you've read the original citation and that the author of the article is trying to help lead the reader through a particular take on the literature, or to synthesis it or to develop a critique. Most of the words available to the author are dedicated to developing an argument, not to re-telling you what someone else said.

Therefore, good academic articles tend to appear impenetrable to novice readers because they aren't designed with that audience in mind. Gradually, as you spend endless hours of your life getting to know your field of study, you'll become familiar with this shorthand style of citation writing. Then you'll find yourself better able to emulate it.

I have written a more detailed account of how to write well for academic purposes in Chapter 12 of Research Methods for Business Management (2nd Edition, 2015).  There are also two other great books on writing for academic purposes that you might consider looking out ...

One is Anne Huff's "Writing for Scholarly Publication" ... the other is "How to Write a Thesis" by Rowena Murray.

Studying Part Time - what is involved

Many ex-MBA students want to pursue further learning and a PhD seems a good way forward. So what's involved ? How much of a commitment are you making ? and will it just be the same thing as studying for your last degree ?

First, doctoral degrees are not taught degrees and this makes them qualitatively different than any prior educational experience that you may have. At best you might think of them as a bigger, longer dissertation since most UG and Masters level courses have projects, dissertations or theses as one of the final pieces of assessment. However, in most doctorates, the production of circa 100,000 words is the only piece of assessment. Its more marathon than sprint. One former MBA student who subsequently completed a PhD described the MBA as "like a series of assault course obstacles, plan it out, attack the task, survive the exam or assignment and regroup for the next item." Whereas, the PhD process was described as "trekking across the polar cap, on your own, with no buddies and only occasional moral support from your supervisors, friends, peers to sustain you."

In terms of time commitment, the PhD requires regular, high quality attention if it is to thrive. Cramming in two weeks of solid work does not counterbalance months of neglect. Aim to spend at least 8-10 hours a week, almost every week. Binge studying tends not to work well in PhD study. What should you be spending these hours doing ? The two key tasks are reading and writing. The temptation may be there to read a lot but not quite feel ready to commit things to paper. Most successful PhD candidates look back and feel that they should have started writing earlier. The process of writing, even when its ill-formed, inadequate or patchy is better than waiting for inspiration to strike. Make yourself write. There are specific things that it makes sense to formalise and write such as research questions. And try to write in sentences, at least some of the time. Richard Rumelt, the strategy scholar says ...

If you ... put aside the bullet points and just write three coherent paragraphs about what is changing in an industry and why - the difference is incredible. Having to link your thoughts, give reasons and qualifications makes you a more careful thinker and a better communicator.
(in Strategy's Strategist, McKinsey Quarterly, 2007, No 4, p56)

Given that PhD study is going to take you at least 3 years full time and realistically 4-5 part-time, finding the time required is an issue. Its not just a question of finding 8-10 hours every now and then. Rather, it is worth thinking through the likelihood of finding that kind of time week after week, year after year. If you can't commit to this level of effort, the PhD probably won't work out well. Most people, and especially part-time students, have a life outside the PhD and you'll need to negotiate a workable, long-term set of arrangements around these other commitments be they loved ones, hobbies, career ambitions, etc. Also, given that a PhD takes several years many students experience what might be termed "life-events" during their studies. Some cannot be anticipated and you'll just need to deal with those when they come along. Others however, you could see coming if you took a five year time horizon. Be honest with yourself. Realism is better than idealism at least in relation to this choice.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Structuring Your PhD - the three pillars of a thesis

There are two trinities in your PhD ... one is the three ologies (see "being clear about methodology" in a separate post) ... the other is the relationship between the literature, the method and your empirical material.

Imagine three separate documents set out on a table, labelled as follows ...

A. My Literature Review
B. My Method Statement
C. My Empirical Work

The vast majority of PhDs will have chapters on these three themes, but for the moment, imagine them set out next to each other going from left to right ... A, B, C.

The ideal is that they each (i) make sense in and of themselves and (ii) link smoothly to the others. In summary each needs to do the following.

Document A. Your literature review needs to set out the broad territory that your PhD will sit within. This often entails setting out different schools of thought within the one broad area e.g. the econometric and the social views of strategy that can be seen in the research literature and that delineates between the research of people such as Michael Porter in the former case and Henry Mintzberg in the latter. Gradually, having set out your broad area and reviewed its genesis and development, your review needs to work through to the specifics of your interest. As you get deeper into the literature, you move from schools of thought to specific prior work or studies. Hopefully allowing you to get to a clear and articulate research question that you have demonstrated is not answered in the existing literature.

Document B. Your method statement follows a similar pattern to document A in that it typically moves from the general to the specific. First, you are looking to establish that you are aware of the range of choices facing any researcher and that you can set these out. This does not mean setting out a table that says quantitative vs. qualitative but rather, it implies being much more sophisticated than that. See the separate post on methodology again. Having set out your ontological and epistemological position, you need to move to the specifics of your research design. That means that you should set out the mechanics of how you'll execute the research. For example, you might be looking at blockages to growth within small, family owned businesses and you might be looking to find some firms that have been stuck at one level of turnover for a number of years, another that seem to have grown at a steady pace over the same timeframe and third group that were stuck for a while but somehow broke out and began to grow again. Within these three sample groups you might then want to look into owner-manager motivations, etc. Be specific. Say what you're going to look for, how you'll gather the data, what you'll do once you've got the data and how you'll know if you've answered the question you've set yourself. Of course, now Document A (which concludes with a research question) needs to articulate seamlessly with Document B which sets out a method for answering that question.

Document C is your empirical material. It needs to set out the original or secondary data that you've gathered. It then needs to say what you've done to the data perhaps in terms of coding, categorising, comparing or counting things within the data. Finally, having made all of that clear, it needs to set out your analysis of the data. Now, Document C needs to be the actual execution of the proposed research design set out in Document B.

Most texts on how to do doctoral research suggest simply that you need to do A, then B, then C in a nice, neat, logical and linear process. The lived experience of conducting research is however, a little more messy. Consider what happens when the data you gather doesn't actually answer the question you've set. Or the method you've decided upon turns out not to be workable. Most doctoral researchers experience something more like the need to reverse engineer the connections between documents A, B and C. You might find yourself thinking "given that this is the answer that I can get from my data (in document C), what might a good question look like (in document A) and how would I best describe the method that I use to get there (in document B)." Though this may seem a little odd, or perhaps even disingenuous, it is the lived experience of most researchers that unexpected things happen along the way. Your PhD will take you at least three years and if there are no hiccups along the way in methodological terms, then perhaps someone will publish something very similar to your own work just as you enter the final stages of your PhD. Hence, you find yourself with the need to go back and establish a slightly different contribution than the one you'd be thinking of.

The key thing is that the readers of your eventual thesis, and in particular your examiners, can see some cohesion between your take on the literature, your views on method and the empirical work you've undertaken. This structural integrity is the thing examiners home in on. Perhaps because PhDs are written over years not hours or days, it is not unusual to spot big inconsistencies. Take a single sheet of A4 paper and try to capture in a few sentences the key messages from your equivalents of documents A,B and C. Be clear with yourself the links that you need to make and always, always work backwards from the end of your PhD study to double check that the three pieces stick together neatly. In the early years of your studies the pieces can move about dramatically as you tweak or abandon early plans. In the latter years, the pieces begin to settle into particular locations and take root there. You still need to revisit the relationships between them however, to help signal to the examiners that you've thought through how your PhD "hangs together".

Being Clear About Methodology, Ontology and Epistemology

When you begin writing your PhD you'll need to get to grips with some academic language. Your degree title is a Doctorate in Philosophy and this suggests that a minimum requirement is that you are conversant with the philosophy of research. In particular, you need to get on top of three very important concepts.

Methodology ... to do with the tools and techniques of research
Ontology ... to do with our assumptions about how the world is made up and the nature of things
Epistemology ... to do with our beliefs about how one might discover knowledge about the world

Whilst there are some philosophical traditions that problematise these concepts, most research students need to articulate their position in relation to each term individually and collectively ... even if it is simply to refute the need to do so because you are subscribing to a view of the research process which denies our ability to subdivide in this way.

These three words form relationships to each other in that your epistemological and ontological positions should have some bearing on the methods that you select for your research. In the social sciences getting on top of these individual concepts and their relationship(s) to each other is vital if you want to (a) be able to write articulately for publication and (b) want to avoid social gaffes in your viva. You'll find another posting offers a Top 10 Hints on handling the dreaded "ologies" which you'll find here. The Methods Map is a clear and structured approach which links these concepts in a way that is easy to follow.  You can download a free chapter which explains the Methods Map by clicking here. Even better, you can build your own Methods Map using the free, interactive tool which is available in multiple languages by clicking here. If you like the Method Map tool please share the link with others.

There are several books that set the territory out for you and many PhD programmes include smaller taught elements that cover this material. If you haven't done it yet, get hold of one of the following books and begin your journey into the murky realms of the social science research debates.

Some helpful reading might include ...

O'Gorman, K. D. and MacIntosh, R. (2015) Research Methods for Business and Management, 2nd Edition, Goodfellow Publishers Ltd: Oxford.

Burrell, G. and Morgan, G. (1979) Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: Elements of the sociology of corporate life. Heinemann: London

Whereas, the following journal article offers a masterly overview of the terms in relation to the field of management research ...

Tranfield, D. and Starkey, K. (1998) ‘The Nature, Social Organisation and Promotion of Management Research: towards policy,’ British Journal of Management, Volume 9, Number 4, pp 341-353.

If you can read and follow the Tranfield and Starkey paper you're making progress and you should follow up some of the references it cites. If it reads as a foreign language then you've got some work still to do.

This is the most popular posting on the site ... if you've found this helpful don't forget to look around at the other posts as they form something of an interconnected set of ideas that underpin doctoral standard research.

On Researchable Questions

When reading any piece of academic research, a tell-tale phrase is "my research question is ..."

Some scholars within some research traditions would say that the very notion of a research question is an offence and that their enquiry journey doesn't need such obvious structuring. If you, or perhaps more importantly your supervisors, go down that line you can avoid what follows. If not, some research questions are better than others.

Good research questions help by (a) structuring your thinking and (b) suggesting ways of building a way of investigating or answering your question. Good questions should have a "?" based on grammatical merit rather than as an ironic twist on a provocative statement. Compare the two examples below.

1. Researching organizations might help change the world ?
2. Does A effect B more than C does ?

Example 1 above is more of a catchphrase or strapline. It might be poetic or provocative but it is also loose and unhelpful when it comes to the conduct of the research itself. Example 2 by contrast is highly structured. It implies certain givens. First, that we know and can define what A, B and C are. Second that we think that there is some implied relationship like increased sales or reduced staff turnover which may or may not be causal in its nature. Third it at least deserves its question mark. Fourth and finally, it suggests that there might be ways of answering the question. You could take a collection of "Bs" and try some A and some C on them, then compare the outcomes you get. There is an implied research design built into the question itself.

Don't try to force fit your research question into the style of example 2 because, in all likelihood, it won't fit. However, think of of example 2 as an exemplar of a particular type of research question ... in terms of being explicit, succinct and researchable, it is hard to beat. These represent good aspirational characteristics for any research question. Try writing your research question down in 30 words or so ... do so regularly and don't put it off.

Then, if you're interested in where research questions come from and why they sometimes change in the conduct of research you could read this paper on the evolution of research questions.

Finding a Gap in the Literature

If you're going to pass your PhD you need to contribute some new knowledge about something. That means you need to be able to establish what is usually referred to as "a gap in the literature" i.e. something that has not yet been researched. Mapping out the literature is a major job in itself. You need to be able to articulate what previous studies have shown and use this as the means of pointing toward things that are not yet known. Helpfully, academic papers often conclude with a call for further research on something or other. This might be a useful starting point. However, you shouldn't rely on others to solve your problem. Whenever you read anything, an article, a book, a chapter, a thesis ... write out your own summary of what they've told you and what you still don't know. Use mind maps, tables, pictures, post-it notes, or whatever works for you but keep tracking the relationship between known, unknown and your contribution. One former colleague suggested thinking about it like the free application "minesweeper" that is often bundled with Microsoft operating systems. Try to find an empty square and be clear about the contents of adjacent squares. Miles and miles of clear white space around your own interest might mean that you have found something really interesting that no-one has ever thought to research. However, the downside to such splendid isolation is that it can be hard to find related studies to cite in your literature review. There is more detailed advice on both finding a gap and reviewing the literature in chapters 2 and 3 of Research Methods for Business and Management (2nd Edition) ... try a sample chapter here.

PhD Assessment Criteria

One of the most difficult things to comprehend about a PhD is how can you tell if you're going to pass ? Unlike every other kind of taught course, the PhD has no past-papers or worked examples. Sure, you can read ones that have already passed and that is an eminently sensible thing to do. But it does leave the nagging doubt that yours might still not be ready. The issue usually rests on establishing a contribution. Did we learn something we don't already know ? By implication, PhD candidates are required to establish that they've already become familiar with "what we already know" in the form of an extensive review of relevant literature and past studies. Most candidates set off with the hope of curing cancer, alleviating world hunger or discovering free, renewable energy. Most people who have passed their PhD look back and laugh when they realise how "itsy bitsy teeny weeny" the contribution actually needs to be. So long as its there, the Nobel prize is intended as a bonus. Aim high, but accept that it might be just a PhD.

PhDs are usually examined by some combination of an internal examiner and an external examiner. The Viva or oral examination represents their opportunity to grill you on your work. Most institutions provide their examiners with some assessment criteria. There are broad similarities from one university to the next. What follows is a list of criteria that are used by an unnamed but highly reputable UK university. They give you some idea what the examiners are looking for in your PhD.

A PhD must show the following …

1. A distinct contribution to knowledge

2. Evidence of the discovery of new facts or the exercise of independent judgement

3. The author’s ability to present well written and suitably documented research

4. That the original work presented in the thesis merits publication, if publication has not been achieved

5. That the author has become competent in independent work or research, and that s/he could repeat the process in a fresh project

6. An understanding of appropriate techniques

7. Critical appraisal and use of related work in the field, from published work and source material

When You're Thinking About a PhD ...

The idea of doing a PhD might have sneaked up on you or it might be loitering with intent. One way or another you need to figure out how to move from "thinking about it" to "doing something about it." Its not that difficult but it is also not that well explained because you'll need to learn to think a bit like an academic. There are a few challenges.

Number 1 is figuring out what you want to research. A former Dean of mine used to say that your PhD had to be like a quest ... something that you really, really want to figure out. That might seem straighforward but most people without a PhD struggle to articulate their quest in a way that would get them a PhD. Typically, applicants paint their quests with far too broad a brush. Something like "I want to do a PhD in Strategy" or "I want to study leadership" can be simultaneously true and yet woefully inadequate as an starting point for a PhD proposal. PhD's are awarded on the basis of contributing something new to our existing knowledge base (see separate post on PhD assessment criteria). Given that we have been researching and producing PhDs in management for decades and in the social sciences more generally for a lot longer, "newness" usually comes in modestly sized packages. Figuring out what to research actually takes some research to get you started. Three key tips are ...

  1. Try to dip into the literature on the topic that you're thinking of ... see what has already been written. If its already written its not going to offer you "newness" for your own PhD but it offers a good starting place.
  2. Think about potential supervisors ... and be specific ... read their recent publications, see what questions they ask. If you can think of links or additive questions you may be onto something.
  3. Make your quest researchable by thinking about how you might best investigate it. Trying to figure out whether job interviewees lie might be interesting for your research but asking them whether they lie opens a difficult can of worms. How do you know that they're not lying about their lying ?

Challenge Number 2 is finding the right programme, in the right school and in the right institution. Study patterns, fee levels, reputations all vary and in that regard a PhD is like any other service offering. Look around and find a provider that you feel comfortable with. Golden rule is to look at more than one provider. At least that way you'll know you didn't just fall into the programme because it was there. Critically, the other thing that varies from place to place is specialisation. Most institutions specialise in research areas and may have world-leading experts in those areas but only the really, really big schools claim to cover everything. This links back to challenge number 1. School X and School Y may both have experts in the field of strategic management say. The likelihood that they are expert in the same detailed sub-fields is much lower. In all probablitly, their respective experts in the broad field (strategy, marketing, leadership, etc) will focus on very different things, using different methods or in different sectors. They may even strongly disagree with each other. Academics are, after all, parochial.

Challenge Number 3 is the process of wooing a potential supervisor. You might think of yourself as the customer in this regard and might even fool yourself into thinking that Programme Directors, Deans or individual supervisors should be grateful to you for showing an interest. To some extent this is true but it only up to a point. Actually, potential supervisors may view you not as a potential customer but as a potential distraction. Unless you can demonstrate that you (i) have the brainpower to complete the programme, (ii) are willing to research a topic that they, the supervisor, are interested in (iii) think that their preferred methods are just right for you too and (iv) that you've linked your research proposal to their on-going research trajectory. If you meet these criteria, then a busy supervisor might just think of you as a helpful addition to their unpaid research team. If not, then they are likely to view you as a high-maintenance, high-risk distraction from their own research agenda. Good supervisors are usually focused on their own next steps and you need to key into that. You should be wary of an overly-welcoming supervisor. There's usually a reason and its not usually that they are just desperate to make your life better.