Mastering the Move from Master’s to Doctoral Study: A How-To Guide | Lex Academic Blog

After admission to a PhD program, many students may find themselves struggling to navigate new expectations for study. The structure of the program itself can vary widely across universities, departments, and fields, but the demands of doctoral-level research are generally overwhelming: a master’s thesis is around 20,000 words, while a doctoral thesis is around 80-100,000 words. The first year of a PhD may be considered notoriously difficult as students adjust to a mode of study that can be surprisingly unstructured or undefined. The first tentative steps into the murky waters of doctoral research are typically the hardest, and this is also when guidance is most needed. Once installed firmly at a workspace, what should a new doctoral student do?

Seek out your supervisor and meet often

Your supervisor is your first point of contact for questions and concerns. The beginning of the academic year is a busy time for any academic as the demands of teaching and queries from undergraduates multiply exponentially. But once the new term has gotten off to a start, try to arrange regular meetings (e.g., once a month) and ask your supervisor for some immediate goals to achieve. Use the interim period to engage with other postgraduate students and PhDs in the department. Whether on campus or off, these social connections can become a valuable part of a network for opportunity.

Meet long-term goals by preparing for the short-term

Most universities will provide students with a list of benchmarks for each year of the doctoral program. Be sure to read the list closely! It should address coursework and research milestones. However, you will also need to create space for professional and academic development activities. With an overall plan in mind, break milestones down into smaller, more attainable tasks. Then, focus on strengthening time management and organisation skills.

While you have probably already developed these on some level, this is the time when you develop management systems that will carry you through the remainder of your studies. Do you have an hour between classes? Use that time for writing or reading. Are you starting to read journal articles on your research interest? Figure out how you will organise saved files for easy retrieval. Here, the point is not to work around the clock. Rather, it is to gain control over the amount of time spent working so that it doesn’t run away from you.

On the subject of organising and managing the gulf of time between now and graduation, Professor Tara Brabazon recommends to “start with the end in mind”. The more you are able to reverse-engineer the path to completion, the fewer surprises there will be along the way (although research is, by definition, a path riddled with culs-de-sac and their attending consternation).

Narrow your focus as much as possible

In terms of research, a common first step is to work on a literature review. This review will help both you and your supervisor become aware of the state of knowledge on your research topic. But for many students, the task of reviewing the literature can be akin to scaling a mountain. To begin, identify a specific area or theme. Then, focus as closely as possible on it. You will likely soon find articles that approach, but do not directly address, your area of interest. These may be worth reading, but avoid falling into a rabbit hole or including them in your review. They are there to help you gain a sense of the layout of knowledge as relates to your research topic. Still, you want to keep the focus of your literature review as narrow as possible. This will help you refine your own ideas and clarify your research project. A constrained research project is a more propitious venture, which is far easier to reverse-engineer. Even well-defined projects can grow in size: apparent niches are often the tips of enormous icebergs. For what it’s worth, you are also likelier to outmanoeuvre doctoral hubris by picking a narrow topic and mastering it, than a broader topic and finding its literature already almost exhaustive.

Prioritize understanding and ask questions

One element of adjusting to doctoral study that often goes unmentioned is the nature of learning. Compared to undergraduate and even master’s level study, doctoral study demands a deeper conceptual understanding of the content. A student is not expected to understand everything right away. Instead, their understanding grows over time through practice and continued engagement. Many students find they have to adjust their approach away from concentrating on passing a class with a good mark towards taking in what is being taught and trying to apply it to a project.

Don’t be afraid to ask basic questions (after all, this will show that you are thinking more deeply about the ideas being presented in class). Get accustomed to reading more slowly, too; a good paper can provide a wealth of instruction on how to structure a research project and apply theory to real-life situations. Perhaps even more importantly, slowing down and focusing on understanding can reignite your love for learning – providing the sort of motivation that can propel you forward in your study even when you want to quit.

Learn to take feedback gracefully, not personally

Doctoral study involves a great deal of writing and therefore a great deal of feedback, especially as you begin to seek out publication. Professors, supervisors, colleagues, editors, and peer reviewers will all have something to say about your work. Good feedback is worth gold. It can transform not just how you structure an argument, but how you think about your subject. Praise from an esteemed colleague or even an excited peer reviewer can sustain your confidence in your own work for years to come. Unfortunately, feedback can also be rude, dismissive, and discouraging. This is both a feature of academic life and rarely ever personal. So, try to strike a balance between defending your work and being open to revision. Consider the volume of feedback an opportunity to learn a critical life skill: how to recognize and take good feedback productively while rejecting bad feedback as just that.

Socialize, be collegial, and seek out new experiences

Last (but certainly not least), make an effort to get to know the people in your department and beyond. Your first year of study is a time to try new things, such as attending a conference, giving a paper, or taking a research trip. You may help more senior colleagues plan conferences or seminar series, set up and run research forums or networks, or even just edit proposals and papers. These sorts of experiences will familiarize you with academia, develop important skills, and expand your network of contacts. Putting in face time at various events will make you recognizable so that when opportunities arise, people will remember who you are. For a doctoral student, these opportunities can be critical to a future career in academia.

Adjustment is generally difficult for everyone. It can be both hard and isolating. But learning can be so rewarding and empowering, as those who are motivated to pursue doctoral studies in the first place likely already suspect. Try to keep the overall aim of your desire to study in mind and create space to enjoy the process as it unfolds.