So, you want to do a PhD?

phdmadI’m always excited when I get approached as a potential PhD supervisor – but sometimes find that some potential students seem to be confused as to what they need to do (or in fact what a PhD is!). Doing a PhD is a great achievement – and something that takes a bit of planning… especially before approaching potential supervisors. I hope the following points make the process of securing a PhD place a little easier – at least if you are looking for one with me as your supervisor!

What is a good PhD topic?

The main point to remember is that – at least in the UK, and especially in business – a PhD is something that you as the future PhD-holder “owns”. Even if the PhD student ship is part of a larger research grant, it’s important that the topic of your PhD is yours – and not just a write up of what the “main research” is all about (which really wouldn’t be a PhD at all). Almost all universities will require you to submit a Research Proposal with your application, often a short summary of your proposed research (at Hull, this is around 2500 words). Sometimes this can be pretty daunting – especially if you have never written one before (I remember I hated that the most about my PhD!). However, it really shouldn’t be a big hurdle: There are different views on this, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m very happy to give feedback and discuss a research proposal before the formal application. The most important part is probably the Research Question, which should be something that is worth of an extended study and that makes a contribution to the field. While this can sometimes be a simple question – simply giving the question is not enough to be considered a serious research proposal. However, the worthiness of the question should be proven  by conducting a critical Literature Review showing how far the current knowledge has come – and where the gap in the knowledge is (i.e. the research question begins). If you can describe how the knowledge you hope to gain from your research will fit into the wider debate, then that is pretty much perfect.Remember though that the research must be quite focused: three years (or five years part-time) is not a long time to complete the work!

A crucial component of the proposal is the Methodology section. A thorough literature review should really help you a lot in writing this – take some inspiration from people who have done research before you! I often find that this seems the most problematic part – lacking in clarity, justification or simply the proposed research is far to broad to be useful. It’s important to concentrate on what you will do, how you will do it – and if what you are doing is realistic (in terms of time, resources etc). Interviewing experts in 25 countries would be great – but really isn’t realistic. Equally the data you collect must be relevant to the question, and have the potential to answer the question you are proposing – a muddled research question will bite back badly at this stage!

Finally, I’d look for a suggested Timescale. Of course, some things will change during the course of the PhD. But showing a realistic timescale and demonstrating awareness of the various steps involved in carrying out the research emphasizes that you are serious about the research.

Shall we meet?

Somewhat controversially, I’d always encourage having a meeting fairly early on during the PhD application process – even if you are planning on doing the PhD from a different country. The point of such a meeting is that both myself and you should be comfortable with each other – and that we can work on the research proposal together. While theoretically this is possible by never meeting face to face, having a face to face discussion makes things a lot easier. It is, of course, even more important if you want to do the PhD full-time and on site in Hull – but either way, my experience is that once we had a face to face meeting then it’s often easier to work jointly on making the research proposal work both for you as the PhD student and for me as a supervisor (oh, and the university campus in Hull is really pretty nice!).

I hope this little overview was useful. If you are looking to do a PhD, especially in social marketing or cross-cultural marketing – then please get in touch!

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