Thinking About Doing a PhD?

Well, you’re at the right place! Before I embarked on my PhD journey I did a lot of research on PhD programs and possibilities because, let’s face it, it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly. So, here are my thoughts on doing a PhD…

1. You’ve got to LOVE what you’re studying. This is really important. You are going to spend several years studying this one particular topic. If you don’t love it, it will drive you demented. When I first started thinking about pursuing postgraduate studies I had to think about whether I wanted to begin a Masters in Education or in History. A Masters in Education seemed like the logical choice because I had just received my Bachelor’s in Education, but I just couldn’t think of an interesting topic to study. I’d often browse through the theses in MIC’s library looking for inspiration but interesting historical topics kept popping into my head. And I was getting waaaay more excited about those ideas than any of the potential Education topics I had in mind. Ultimately, I chose to study History and I’ve never regretted it. I absolutely love what I do. I really enjoy getting up every morning, sitting at my desk with a coffee and writing, researching or reading.

2. You’ve got to be disciplined. I’m doing a research PhD which means that there are no classes or exams. It also means that there is no structure. Not that I mind. In fact, I prefer it that way. But that’s because I’m an organised person. Teaching a class of thirty will do that to you! If you undertake a research PhD then you have got to be disciplined with your time. It’s so easy to waste the first, or even the second, year of your studies if you’re not disciplined with you’re time. Even though I don’t have any classes I have established a routine so that I am as productive as possible. If a research PhD isn’t for you then there are some structured options available. As far as I know, most, if not all, of the PhD programs in the US are structured.

3. You’ve got to be prepared to defer gratification…for a long time! Doing a PhD can last for anything between three and ten years. I’m guessing that the average time is between four and six years. This means that you are going to be a student for quite a long time. Depending on the funding you get, it probably means that you are going to be a poor student for quite a long time. This didn’t bother me too much as I’ve only got myself to look after. But if you have a mortgage or a family to support then you need to seriously consider it. That being said, I wouldn’t let a lack of money totally turn you off doing a PhD. If you really want it then you can make it work. And it will be worth it in the end. Well, that’s what I keep telling myself!

4. After you’ve done your PhD you’ve got to be prepared to work hard. Or, should I say, continue working hard. You may have reached the top of the student ladder but you’re at the bottom of the academic ladder and it’s going to take time to work your way up. I’m not speaking from experience here because I’m not at that stage yet but I’d love to hear about how recent PhD graduates have survived the job market.

How I Research

For all you budding researchers, I thought I’d share with you how I conduct research. It’s very important to establish a good system at the beginning of your studies, and it helps to be organised. I wasn’t a particularly well-organised person until I first began teaching and your life is ten times more stressful if you’re not organised so I adapted pretty quickly.

Anyway, this system can be used for primary and secondary source research. It can also be adapted to suit your particular needs. I like writing. Like, with a pen and paper. But I know that a lot of people prefer writing directly onto a computer so that’s fine too.

Here is my step-by-step guide to researching:

First, I read the material and take notes.

Whenever I come across an important piece of information I write it down exactly as it appears in the source. It’s okay to paraphrase but I prefer to have the exact quote – I can paraphrase later if I want. Make sure to take note of the page number if it is a book or if it’s a diary, letter or some other archival document write down the date of the document, who wrote and/or received it and other important information. This will save you loads of hassle when it comes to writing your chapter or paper later.

All of this note taking is done with pen and paper in my notebook and I keep all the notes for a particular source or document together. The name and location of my source is clearly written at the top of the first page. For example, ‘Nathan Hill Papers, Duke University’ or ‘Ronald E. Butchart, Schooling the Freed People’. Sometimes, to save myself the hassle later, I include the other information that will be needed in my footnotes or bibliography, such as date and place of publication.

Second, I record the important notes into a word document.

This is the most important step but it does not have to be done immediately after the first step. Sometimes I wait a day or two to give my head a break! I’m still working during those couple of days, I’m just doing something different.

I have five running word documents for each of my thesis chapters saved onto my computer. For example, I have a word document entitled ‘Northern White Teachers’ and another entitled ‘Black Teachers’. As I read through my hand-written notes for a particular source, I record the relevant notes into one of the five word documents.

Let’s say I’ve read the diaries of a black teacher. Most of the notes I have taken from these diaries will be used in the chapter about black teachers. Some notes, however, could be useful in another chapter, perhaps if it supports a point I plan on making somewhere else or if it contextualises an issue I raised somewhere else.

As you record your notes into your word document you categorise them. This is the most useful part of the process. So if I’m recording my notes from the diaries of a black teacher and I have a quote which suggests black teachers’ motives, I will put that particular quote under a section entitled ‘Motivation’. This process happens naturally. You don’t need to have created subsections prior to beginning your running document. Then, at a later stage, when I’m in the process of recording my notes from another source, and I come across another quote that suggests the motivation of black teachers, I will put that quote in the same section. Just be sure to clearly mark your source at the end of each quote, otherwise you’ll be very confused when it comes to writing your chapter!

Does that make sense? I hope so! I was kinda hard to explain…

Third, I write my chapter!

This system works very well for me because as I continue adding new sources and new quotes to the word document, my word count increases bit by bit. These quotes are the foundation of my chapter. They are the evidence I need to back up a particular point I’m making. The rest is just filling in the blanks. So by the time I start to write my chapter, a huge chunk of the work is actually already done.


So that’s how I conduct research. Everyone has a different method. I could probably save myself some time by recording my notes directly into my word documents but I find that I get too distracted that way. It’s whatever works best for you! Feel free to share how you conduct research.