The Realities of Completing a PhD: How to Plan for Success
reviewed by Veselina S. Lambrev - November 29, 2021
The realities of completing a PhD: How to plan for success, by Nicholas Rowe, is a timely book in an era when higher education has been evolving in response to changing economic, professional, and social developments. Recent research into the economic prospects and wellbeing of PhD candidates has revealed alarming trends in dropout rates and mental health among graduate and post-graduate students in universities internationally (Bira et al., 2019; Lani, 2020). The Realities of completing a PhD addresses these currents by taking a practical approach to support both prospective students and university staff, and help them understand and prepare for the doctoral journey. Therefore, while it is a book intended to support mostly prospective and current doctoral students, it offers key knowledge to university faculty and mentors who work with students in doctoral programs.
Although there are many books that aim to support PhD students in the process of successfully completing (or surviving) a doctoral study, what is different about this book is that it aims to help potential applicants make an informed decision about (1) whether they are positioned to complete a PhD, and (2) what to take into consideration when choosing and applying for doctoral programs. That being said, the book does not aim to discourage candidates from applying to PhD programs, nor does it offer tips for PhD survival. Rather, what Rowe builds is a realistic picture of the PhD endeavor grounded in a detailed statistical overview of the state of doctoral level admission, completion, and experienceor, as the author puts it, to enable future PhD students to walk into their programmes better prepared and ready to face the challenges ahead (p. vi). Especially valuable in this regard is the focus on supporting prospective applicants in understanding crucial elements of the doctoral studies related to employment prospects, wellbeing, and balancing of academic and social commitments.
The realities of completing a PhD is divided into two parts: a section that presents published data outlining admission, completion, and emotional factors surrounding wellbeing followed by a more student-focused part containing actionable knowledge about submitting a well-planned application. In the first part, Rowe provides an overview of the situation of PhD realities using data from the U.K., U.S., Asia, and Europe. First, the author discusses the nature of the PhD and distinctive graduation requirements related to independent research (e.g., theses, dissertations). The chapter outlines critical questions such as the level of preparedness for independent inquiry as well as having a genuine interest in a specific area as crucial for assessing ones motivation to pursue doctoral studies. An important point that this section makes, even though on a brief note, is the distinction between the PhD and the professional doctorate. For faculty members teaching in professional doctorates and advising prospective applicants about which degree aligns better with their life and career goals, this discussion is especially noteworthy as it has the potential to support advising in both PhD and professional doctoral programs so that students enter with a well-informed decision about which degree to pursue.
Specific attention in the first half of the book is given to a chapter called Emotions and Wellbeing. As with the previous sections, the narrative follows evidence-based international data that shows the vast number of PhD students and graduates who have sought help with anxiety and depression. The chapter discusses challenges, successes, and life circumstances that students must consider when committing to a high-level study and the reality of working on a PhD, which often involves isolation and prolonged time away from family and friends. A key section is again devoted to universities and funders, who are strongly advised to move towards reducing causes for anxiety rather than just providing counseling services.
After the first part establishes the context of admission and completion of a PhD, the author then moves toward a practical guide on preparing for the PhD study in the second part of the book. The section begins with an overview of the first important steps in the application process, namely selecting a research topic and choosing the right university supervisor. Prospective applicants will be pleased to find a helpful discussion on how to approach potential supervisors and what to include in an introduction email to them. The next sections discuss admissions eligibility, choosing a program, and preparing common application documents. Given that many PhD programs require the submission of a research proposal or a statement of research interests, Chapter 7 outlines the components of a research proposal and tips for writing it. Again, following a very practical model, the next chapters advise prospective applicants on elements that need to supplement the application, such as a research plan, program plan, and access to university and external facilities and resources. However, the book does not stop with the admission process but continues with providing a glance of the types of PhD theses required by various programs (e.g., monograph thesis, publication, portfolio, etc.).
The last chapter, Being an Independent Learner, Supervision and Support, concludes the discussion on the nature of the PhD journey by stressing students responsibility to own learning and the importance of self-directed learning skills. In the form of charts and tables, this section highlights the studentsupervisor relationship as an important element of a successful, smooth, and productive PhD study. In this part of the book, the author underlines that students should not be super-agreeable (p. 74), but rather focused on asking the right questions and helping supervisors understand their specific situation, timelines, and needs. This advice will be especially helpful for the prospective students planning process as it outlines a dynamic that is specific for the PhD field, namely types of supervisor models and matching of expectations with realities. Lastly, after reading the book, applicants will find it helpful to complete the form titled Your PhD checklist, which aims to ensure a well-planned application.
Rowes book is particularly needed and valuable for both potential doctoral applicants and university faculty and staff. It is engaging and contains an abundance of useful information that will serve as a step-by-step guide for future students. The rich discussion of statistical data related to PhD completion draws an authentic picture of the realities one needs to expect when embarking on a PhD journey.
Bira, L., Evans, T. M., & Vanderfort, N. L. (2019). Mental health in academia: An invisible crisis. Physiology News, 115, 3235. https://doi.org/10.36866/pn.115.32
Lani, J. (2020). Almost 50% of all doctoral students dont graduate. Statistics Solutions. https://www.statisticssolutions.com/almost-50-of-all-doctoral-students-dont-graduate/
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