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How to survive a PhD journey

How to survive a PhD
  • Dr Jako Volschenk
  • Oct 19 2017

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To earn a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Business Management and Administration can be a very rewarding experience, both for your personal and professional life. But starting a PhD can be a daunting experience. How do you know that you will be able to balance family life, your challenging career and the extensive research that needs to be done? Dr Jako Volschenk, an MBA alumnus of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) who completed his PhD in 2016, shares some of the typical characteristics one must have to successfully complete a PhD:

Determination

It’s not difficult to guess that determination is a requirement. For most people, a PhD is the biggest single piece of work they would have attempted by the time they start on the journey. Many fail because they lose motivation, lose focus or life provides them with some other reason to stop. Resilience is a requirement; not a luxury. There are often only a handful of people that understand the lonely road you are walking, and hence you have to dig deep to keep going.

There are often only a handful of people that understand the lonely road you are walking, and hence you have to dig deep to keep going.

A good topic

A second requirement that the admissions panel looks for is a workable topic. Most topics change with time. An aspect of your topic that should be considered is the nature of the contribution. Your research can potentially make a contribution to:

1. Theory (you show that existing theory is limited);
2. Context (you show how the existing theory applies in a unique context); or
3. Method (you use a new method answer an old research question).

Prof Arthur Money, a facilitator of USB-ED‘s Doctoral Research Training Programme (DRTP), says there are only two requirements for a PhD. The first is to ask a good and interesting question and the second is to answer the question with oomph, i.e. with good numbers, good arguments and good stories.

Data

A third requirement for successfully completing a PhD is access to data, information, or people that can answer your research question. In my experience, most students, regardless of their degree programme, do not consider access to data sufficiently. And this small little aspect can often cause you the most delay.

Motivation

Lastly, when starting a PhD, you have to think very carefully about the reason you endeavour on this journey. Some do it for their egos. Just remember that your ego will receive a number of massive knocks along the way. Academics at the PhD colloquia can be ruthless and if you wish to always be right, it will be a bumpy road. Another reason for doing a PhD is that you have something to say to the world. It does not take much digging to establish that very little in the world is new. Don’t get me wrong, a minute contribution is all you need to make. But it takes humility to continue when you realise that the massive contribution to humanity that you envisioned has turned out to be barely visible to the untrained eye.Some people believe you have to be super smart to do a PhD. In fact, the admissions committee will consider your intellectual ability when admitting you on the PhD programme. Yet, I can concur with a mentor from many years back who told me it had less to do with my intellect than my ability to keep my bum glued to my chair.

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