Timely Completion of a PhD. But How?

COVID-19 and Students’ Mental Health
January 18, 2021

Timely Completion of a PhD. But How?

“I’m nearly done with my PhD, and I can’t bring myself to finish what’s left. I’ve never felt burnout like this before”. This statement from a PhD candidate is among thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of similar statements, that shed light on the level of psychological pressure, at times, unbearable frustration, and most commonly a great responsibility that rests on PhD students’ shoulders.

Also from another perspective, in an article written by Dr Timothy Colin Bednall published on The Conversation, Timothy points out that “many students enrol in a Master or PhD postgraduate research degree, but few complete them. From 2010-2016, 437,030 domestic and international students enrolled in postgraduate research programs in Australian public universities. Only 65,101 completed within the same six year period.”

Yet, in another interesting statement, Charlie Pullen, a Teaching Associate and current PhD student at the Queen Mary University of London, describes the challenges he faced in the beginning of his PhD project:

“And where will you begin?”

“This question, which my two supervisors asked me at the beginning of the month, filled me with dread. It’s a good question, but I had no idea how to answer it. And instead of trying to decide for myself, I would rather they had told me where they thought I should begin. Where do you start a research project that will last three or four years and will culminate in a thesis of something like 90,000 words?”

Based on my experience, having conducted academic research in both Masters and PhD level and completed both milestones on-time, I can confidently say that not only the nature of challenges and obstacles vary and change as a PhD candidate takes one step at a time towards completion (average 3 to 6 years), the quality and dynamics of student-supervisor relationship may also change over time.

This is where PhD mentors and professional thesis coaches make their unique contribution to fill the existing gaps in your progress, particularly, when the quality of student-supervisor relationship may have weakened due to a number of reasons (Not always negative ones, rather out of control- change of supervisor, restructure at the university level, changes in health, personal and family situation e.g.), or when the student feels the need to connect to a professional outside university for fresh perspectives, external validation and additional support, which are aimed to complement the existing formal supervisory guidance they normally receive on campus.

The scope of problems that PhD candidates face is fairly large due to individual differences between each candidate, disciplinary differences, university policies, research environment and facilities, funding and budget, and supervision relationship dynamics, to name a few. However there are some commonality that can be observed across most PhD candidatures, and both supervisors and PhD mentors who are fully aware and familiar with most common issues that candidates face, may be more effective in providing support and assistance.

A PhD is probably the biggest single project you have ever undertaken, and it has its own peculiar problems.

These problems include:

  • Time management
  • Motivation
  • Procrastination
  • Organisational issues
  • Issues with self esteem
  • Problems with supervisors
  • Problems with data collection
  • Problems with writing
  • Juggling family, social life, work, study and health
  • Not really knowing what to do or how to do it (from initial idea and crafting a proposal, to data collection, analysis, thesis structure, and final thesis write-up)

Good PhD Mentors and Academic Coaches are student-centered, not self-centereed. Dr Zacharia Ebrahimi

PhD mentors can also serve as role models, provide career advice, and to support the PhD candidate’s professional advancement. The main responsibilities of the PhD students being mentored (the “mentee”) are to accept responsibility for their own intellectual and professional independence, to build on their strengths, and to bolster their weaknesses. This means you can not only benefit from structured and formal supervision and guidance that you receive from your supervisory team on campus, but also have a role model and qualified expert off-campus to support you further in highlighting and leveraging your strengths while continually improving upon your weaknesses.

Finally, there is nothing more beneficial than having a professional mentor that can guide and motivate you to improve your interdisciplinary knowledge, research skills, communication skills (writing, speaking, teaching, negotiating, resolving conflicts, and managing the social media), professionalism (within the institution, within the scientific community, and within society), employability, and leadership and management skills.

All in all, it is fair to say that in spite of many strategies and procedures in place at Graduate Schools and Research Centers, reducing Doctoral attrition rate and improving timely PhD and MPhil completion, remain as some of the on-going challenges that governments, public and private universities, and research centers face. The role that qualified academics capable of providing effective and professional mentoring and coaching services to  Higher Degree Research students play to aid timely and successful Doctoral and MPhil completion is undeniably important, if not absolutely essential and critical for the timely success of students.