The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

Reflections on doing a PhD

Reflections on doing a PhD
  • Dr Jako Volschenk
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Food for Thought, Research
11 minutes to read

SHARE

Article written by Dr Jako Volschenk

So there I was sitting in the third row of the Endler Hall, about to receive my PhD degree from Stellenbosch University. There was a large group of PhD graduates, a record number for the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences. Naturally, I was prompted to think about the characteristics that separate this group from those that attempt but do not succeed with their PhDs.

Determination

It is not difficult to guess that determination is a requirement. For most people, a PhD is the biggest single piece of work they have attempted or may ever attempt. 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 you hence have to steel yourself to keep going.

Some people believe you have to be super smart to do a PhD. And, 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 would have less to do with my intellect than my ability to keep my bottom glued to my chair.

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.


A good topic

A second requirement that the admissions panel looks for is a workable topic. Most topics change as work progresses. My PhD journey took me a full seven years, with the topic changing completely in the second year, and my final result only vaguely resembling the revised topic. My research was qualitative, and it is not strange for such topics to change over time. If your topic is quantitative, it is often less likely to change.

An aspect of your topic that should be considered is the nature of the contribution you will make. Your research can potentially make a contribution to:

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

Making a contribution in only one of the areas listed above is potentially not enough for a PhD, while trying to make a contribution in all three may be overreaching.

That being said, Prof Arthur Money argues that there are only two requirements for a PhD. The first is to ask a good and interesting question. 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 the degree programme, do not consider access to data sufficiently. And this small aspect can often cause you the greatest delay. Even before 2010, I was dabbling in a particular PhD topic but had to let go of the idea because the data were locked away in a government department.

Motivation for doing a PhD

Lastly, when starting a PhD, you have to think very carefully why you are endeavouring to go on this journey. Some do a PhD to boost their egos. Personally, I think that this is a very bad reason. Your ego will receive a number of massive knocks along the way. As a number of my fellow PhD travellers will tell you, academics at the PhD colloquia can be ruthless and if you wish always to be right, it will be a bumpy road.

Some do a PhD to boost their egos. Personally, I think that this is a very bad reason.


Another reason for doing a PhD is that you have something to say to the world. This motivation is not far from the first. It also does not take much digging to establish that very little in the world is new. As a seasoned academic once told me: if you cannot find previous literature dealing with your topic, it says more about you than about the literature. As such, this group also eventually has to adjust its expectations down to making a minute contribution to that which has already been said. Do not 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.

Points to consider before embarking on a PhD

Before you embark on a PhD, I would suggest a number of actions. It is important that you do not start a PhD if you cannot finish it. It becomes an epic declaration of defeat when all your friends ask you how you are progressing and you have to admit failure.

The first thing you should consider is whether a PhD is the right thing at the right time. Doing a PhD too early in your career, especially if you are not in academia, can be limiting to your career development. In fact, the return on investment of a PhD is often very low if you are not a seasoned consultant or if you are not planning on an academic career.

Doing a PhD was worthwhile for me. As an academic, it grants me a licence to speak with authority about my field of research.


Secondly, do you have the time to do this? If you have small children, you will be absent from their lives and you will miss many family trips to the beach. How does your spouse feel about your PhD plans? Does your bread-and-butter job allow you time to do other work? Do you have a little bit of time to write every day?

Some universities offer doctoral research and training programmes for prospective PhD students. It may be good to attend one of these if you wish to make sure of your potential decision to do a PhD. The advantage of this route is that you can ascertain early-on whether a PhD would serve your needs at a personal and professional level.

Was it worthwhile for me?

Doing a PhD was worthwhile for me. As an academic, it grants me a licence to speak with authority about my field of research. It also provides me with opportunities to teach at other institutions across the globe. As with most worthwhile things in life, this was not an easy accomplishment, but it certainly gave me a stronger and more confident voice.

 

Dr Jako Volschenk is a Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He holds a PhD in the area of Coopetition. His interest lies with how entities that compete collaborate to address environmental problems, with a special interest in the value that is created for different stakeholders in such initiatives. He has published in the areas of coopetition, energy, sustainability, as well as microfinance.

Related articles

Aug 01

9 minutes to read

The SABPP Women’s Report 201...
Jun 11

11 minutes to read

A Seat at the Table: Capacitie...

Join the USB community

Receive updates on the latest news, events, business knowledge and blogs at USB.

SUBSCRIBE NOW