Starting a research degree

Doing a research degree can be very enjoyable – you get to work on interesting things and you get to learn new things. Generally you also have a lot of freedom to decide what to do and how to proceed.

But it can also be a lonely process. You are more than likely to be working on a project you can really talk about with only few people. It is also a fairly long process. Doing a research degree takes a few years, or many years if you are a part time doctoral researcher. Years during which you are always faced with your project in process. Much can happen in these years.

The uncertainty about what is expected from a doctoral degree can be very challenging. Most of us only ever do one PhD. Since each PhD is unique, each PhD is a new experience, a step into an unknown direction. It is therefore not surprising that on average less than 60% of doctoral candidates complete (70% in Sciences) (Jiranek, 2010). The doctoral degree is said to be a test of perseverance. It is unlikely that you go through the PhD without great moments of doubt. This is when you need to remember that perseverance is key.

Tips explored here aim to help you set yourself up for success. They have been adapted from work by Kearns & Gardener (2005) set out in The 7 key characteristics of successful research students. Available from Thinkwell.

Tip 1: remind yourself of what motivates you

Not everyone has the opportunity to do a doctorate. While there may be difficult moment, it can also be very enjoyable:  you get to work on things you are interested in, you meet new people you can share your interests with, you get to be your own boss and you can organise your life around thinking and doing research.

Yes there may be tricky moments. In the end, doing a PhD is a test of perseverance. Your motivations will keep you going.

Tip 2: manage your supervisor

Supervisors play a key role in ensuring success and quality of your research experience. More detailed tips are in working with your supervisors, so you never have to do what is in the following comic.


Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Tip 3: be realistic, make sure your project is feasible

You may like to change the world, but that may not be a realistic expectation. Your thesis needs to be completed within the time allocated. Check whether you have the tools and the skills to do the research (or can acquire them) and whether the data you need are accessible.

Ask yourself whether your topic is likely to passionate you for the next few years.

Tip 4: remind yourself that you are only contributing to a conversation about your topic not searching for an absolute ‘truth’.

Knowledge advances and we all somehow contribute to this advancement of knowledge. You are not expected to make more than a small contribution to bodies of knowledge. Research is about changing paradigms, controversy and refutation. Doing research is largely about finding your place (or not) in these activities.

read Ioannidis, John P. A. (2005)’ Why Most Published Research Findings Are False’, PLoS Med 2/8: e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124.

Tip 5: start writing NOW!

You need to start writing early and often  – even if you feel you are not ready to write. Do not wait for inspiration, do not wait for things to be clear in your mind. Rely on writing to help clarify your thinking, organise and understand ideas and concepts and how they may relate to each other.

You should also write to get practice. The more you write, the better you will get at writing.

Start as early as possible to develop an outline of your thesis. Map out major parts of the thesis and add information in the relevant parts. This will allow you to keep in mind the finished project and position your writing in relation to the broader project.
writing easy

Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham

Understand yourself and what works best for you .

Some people swear by regular writing ‘routines’ including

  • find a dedicated writing place
  • identify moments when writing is likely to be easier
  • set regular times (from 30’ to 2 hour blocks) aside for writing
  • at those times, stay at your chosen place, write without doing anything else (no emails, no database search, no bibliography)
  • Just write ideas down – do not try to write in academic nor even correct English. The editing can come later.


 Waiting for the motivation fairy, an article written by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner

Others believe that successful writing practices vary from individual to individual. Helen Sword’s article ‘Write every day!’: a mantra dismantled offers interesting insights on writing routines.

Back up your writing at least once a week. Have it in at least 3 places e.g. your computer, a cloud, a USB. When you back up, make sure your use names that make it really easy to find the latest version. USBs deteriorate over time – the average USB is supposed to last 10 years when you are not using it, if used a lot they may only last 3 years. Refresh USBs every two years to make sure not to lose information.

To access more tips, go to the pages on writing.

Tip 6: look for models – check out a finished thesis

Have a look at completed theses. Check what they look like. You can find hard copies at the library (level D) or on or through the National Library’s Trove website (do an advanced search and limit the format to theses).

  • Look at structure, sections, length, language…
    Get an idea of what a thesis looks like

Note there are many possible structures including traditional structure (humanities), publications and creative theses.

Tip 7: manage your research

Treat your research and study as a job and have regular work hours. This will also allow you to enjoy free time without feeling guilty.

Develop a research plan. This will:

  • help you be clear about what needs to be done
  • break tasks in smaller more manageable chunks
  • inspire confidence
  • give you a sense of where you are at

read How do I approach the PhD like a project?

  • Develop a plan by starting from the end (thesis submission) and then adding steps you will need to get there. Check interactive templates available from
  • Breakdown large tasks in smaller tasks – use a plan that can open up tasks in smaller bits. Use lists, charts and mind maps to map out what needs to be done to reach major milestones.
  • Include deadlines for tasks (and double the time you think they will need – things always take longer).  Don’t ignore other commitments and connections.
  • Include time spent to keep healthy (eat well, exercise, spend time in the open air).
  • Reassess the plan each semester, record completed activities, monitor what is ongoing and develop new plans.
toolboxConn et al (2013) ‘Strategies for a Successful PhD Program: Words of Wisdom From the WJNR Editorial Board’, Western Journal of Nursing Research XX(X) 1-25.

Lord, Andrea (2001). Thesis Writing, Guru-Style, Sciencemag Blog page

research cycle

Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Tip 8: do not over commit

Time can be a major issue as most candidates combine research, studies, work and family. If you feel you never have enough time it may be important to understand where times goes. Are you over-committed or spending too much time doing things that are not that important?

To find out, you could ‘audit’ how you actually use your time, try the weekly time-table sheet  and check Time Management Resources which provide some useful time management strategies.

Once you understand how you use your time, you could:

  • Set up a timetable of regular activities. This would look different for everyone as we all have different habits. But regularity and a certain routine helps.
  • Free yourself from some commitments.
  • Don’t take up anything new without seriously considering it, and without giving up something else. Learn to say NO.

Further suggestions are available from the booklet The Balanced Researcher.

Tip 9: be involved

Participate to events and attend faculty/research institute seminars. Share your research and use the degree as an opportunity to meet others and talk about research. Ask for feedback. Being part of communities of research practice is important (Murray, 2012)

Make sure not to become socially isolated, keep contact with friends and family even if they do not understand much about your work.

Tip 10: understand procrastination

Join the Procrastination Research Group

Swanson, Helena (2016), The real reasons you procrastinate — and how to stop. Washington Post workblog. 

Urban, Tim, How to beat procrastination, Wait But Why blogpage

Tip 11: look after yourself

Doing a research degree can be very demanding. Caring for one’s physical and mental health, family and social relationships and financial and economic obligations are important to keep intellectual stamina, remain motivated and finally succeed.



Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

What to do when things go wrong?

It is highly likely that you’ll face some problems over the years. Hopefully they will be small problems. Most problems can be solved, but to be able to be solved they sometimes need to be shared and solutions explored. Talking about problems also allows to realise that others are facing similar problems, or faced similar problems in the past and overcame them. Sharing problems can be a first step in the development of strategies to overcome problems.



Brabazon , Tara (2010) How not to write a PhD thesis Times Higher Education January 2010.

Feel like a fraud? You might have imposter syndrome (2013), The Conversation

Marino, Jacopo , Stefan, Melanie I & Blackford, Sarah (2014). ‘Ten Simple Rules for Finishing Your PhD’, PLoS Comput Biol. 10/12: e1003954. Published online 2014 Dec 4. doi:  10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003954

Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27, 369-386.

Murray, R. (2012). Developing a community of research practice. British Educational Research Journal, 38/5, 783–800. doi:10.1080/01411926.2011.583635

Kearns, H., Gardiner, M., & Marshall, K. (2008). Innovation in PhD completion: The hardy shall succeed (and be happy!). Higher Education Research & Development, 27(1), 77-89.

Ten tips for the first 100 days of a PhD

Phillips, E.M. & Pugh, D.S. (2005). How to get a PhD. A handbook for students
and their supervisors (4th ed). Open University Press.  McGraw-Hill: Maidenhead.

Zerubavel, Eviatar (1999). The Clockwork Muse. A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Harvard University Press.