After having completed a PhD degree myself, and having supervised and co-supervised a number of PhD students, I would like to offer some humble advice and pointers to those aspiring to pursue a PhD degree. I find that many people misunderstand the purpose of getting a PhD degree and the commitments and sacrifices that it calls for.
A PhD is the highest academic and research degree from a university. I have seen both remarkable successes and disappointing failures amongst students pursuing this academic accolade. It takes more than just brain power to complete a PhD.
A degree by research is very different from a degree by coursework. A degree whether at the undergraduate or masters level is heavily structured. Students just have to be disciplined and rigorous in following this predetermined structure regimentally, without much creativity required of them. Of course, creativity is demanded from the student in completing assignments and projects but the demand is nothing close to what is required for a PhD degree be it PhD by coursework or PhD by research only.
The most important prerequisites for pursuing a successful PhD programme are passion, inquisitiveness, creativity, discipline, persistence, perseverance and meticulousness (or attention to detail). I did not mention intelligence not because it is not important, but because it is less important than the other attributes I have mentioned. Others may have different views. Of the aforestated attributes, I consider passion to be the most important. Some students start out enthusiastically but lose steam halfway through or towards the end. They lack passion or the love of knowledge. As the saying goes: “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going”, success in a PhD is simply that. The harder it becomes, the harder you have to strive. Sometimes, you do not see the light at the end of the tunnel but you still keep looking for it because you know it is there. When you love what you do, failure is not an option.
Some people do PhD for the wrong reasons. Some take up postgraduate studies because they could not secure a job after their first or second degree. Some do it because the jobs they have taken up require them to acquire a PhD, for example, an academic or a research position. These cannot be the sole reasons for pursuing a PhD. You cannot force yourself to do a PhD. You must have the passion to do it.
The PhD is an academic journey. There will be failures but mainly successes along the way. You may encounter some foes but mainly friends in the same boat as yourself. It always helps to be in a group of students to share both your setbacks and achievements. Working alone in a silo is the worst you can do to yourself. There are certain things you want to discuss with your fellow students that you cannot discuss with your supervisor; matters that may be academic or personal.
Your supervisor is your mentor, guide and consultant, not your teacher. You have to teach yourself through his guidance and wisdom. He is more of your friend than your master. He does not dictate to you what you must do, he merely points you in the right direction. At the end of your PhD journey, you would have been more knowledgeable on the subject of your research than your supervisor. I have heard of students not being able to complete their PhD because they could not get along with their supervisor. This is the worst scenario that can happen to a PhD candidate. If you do not have a supervisor you can work with, you will not get your PhD no matter how good and how hardworking you may be. So, choose your supervisor wisely. Just a few months ago, I met a doctoral graduate in the Netherlands who told me that to be supervised by this one professor carries more prestige among his peers in the working world.
A PhD degree needs sacrifices, especially when you are a family person. Family is always important and should always be your priority. However, you and your family members must be willing to make sacrifices that are necessary. There can be no gain without pain. That is why when you finally get your PhD degree, your family members can even be happier and more proud of you than you yourself, because it is as much their accomplishment as it is yours. Their sacrifices must be duly appreciated.
So what does it mean when you have a Dr. before your name? Does it mean that you are an expert on a certain subject matter? Hardly so. It means that you are both a seeker as well as a generator of knowledge. It means that you have enriched the world and added on to the vast body of knowledge through your PhD contribution. The world has become a slightly better place from the knowledge that you have contributed through your PhD thesis, discoveries and publications. Your work get referred and cited by other researchers in your field, as they absorb your new knowledge to generate new discoveries and knowledge of their own.
Your PhD is an end that should be justified by its means. The research methodology, the analysis and the interpretation should justify the conclusion. The new knowledge must have been tested and challenged by your peers and rigorously defended by you. It is an accomplishment unequal by any other feat. Once you have obtained a well-deserved PhD degree, you become your own teacher as self-teaching becomes a common practice. You are always curious and tend to read a lot, not just on your subject matter but on everything. You will find doing new things, exploring new frontiers and taking up new challenges more scintillating. In other words, it will change your life and your perception of things.
I hope I have inspired some of you to pursue a PhD degree if what you read here is what you really want from a PhD. On the other hand, I hope I have also discouraged others who have a misconception of what a PhD degree entails, so that you will not go down the road of failure. A PhD is not for everyone.
Dr. Masauso Chirwa, Postdoc, PhD, MSc, MSc, BA