Friday, 10 December 2021

Ten PhD preparatory tasks

Starting a PhD is scary. It is a huge chunk of our life if we are a young student and able to do this following on from our undergrad degree and a Masters (or undergrad and honours). We effectively double our time investment and go for eight years of overall study to smash out a PhD (and yes, I know many of us will be hoping for three years, but the time usually creeps towards four years and beyond). If we are in a job, we get the grind of a part time PhD where we are not allowed to finish in fewer than six years, but must finish by eight. Both of those scenarios require a long time to commit to one idea and to follow it through. We need endurance to finish, because this race is not a sprint: it is about toughing it out.

I have blogged about Tara Brabazon a number of times (here), and earlier this year she served up yet another pithy dose of excellent advice to those who are about to start their PhD, gleaned from a number of academic and non-academic sources (2021).

View the video (Brabazon, 2021):

To summarise, in the order that I would tackle each of these, what Tara explored (Brabazon, 2021) was as follows:

  1. Reflection. In undertaking this PhD project, we need to think deeply about what frightens us; what we are worried about. We need to write about it. We need to dig into it. We need to consider what we think we need be informed about before we begin. This is deep work, and must not be superficial, and shapes the following steps.
  2. Personal Outcomes. We need to consider our personal goals. We must understand our own motivations. Tara suggests that we answer the question “What do I want to achieve from this PhD” (2021, 21:50) in writing. We can then use this to remind ourselves, as we get into the project, of what we are aiming for, what skills we need to gather.
  3. Literacies. Tara then talked about academic and information literacies, citing Linhart who called information literacy “neglected essential learning” (2021, 14:56; Linhart, 2008, p. 1). We need to get to grips with GoogleScholar, databases, courses in library science, and to understand that we will need to build a good relationship with our librarian. We have to get to grips with the software, and the referencing. From the reading and the writing, we should know who the top authors are in our field, and what our key words are to lead the search for what we need to read.
  4. Read. A lot. Methodology. Current articles in our field. Read as much as we can – and set aside time to read every day to build the habit before we apply enter the programme. It takes – as I recall – about 90 days to build a habit. Throwing three months at a project which might last four or eight years is not that big an additional ask. It is pre-training.
  5. Write. “Write early, write often, write now” (Brabazon, 2021, 11:35). As we read, take notes. We are reading every day, so write up what we read, every day. This act will not only improve our writing, but it will help us to synthesise our ideas as early as we can. Early on this will help us to understand the shape of the environment we are going into; later it will get our write up done as we go (read my post on how long this takes here).
  6. CV. Tara suggests that we create an educational CV including publications etc, if you are looking for academic work around presentation, conference presentations, consultancy, community engagement etc. While this probably feels unnecessary for those who are already in sustainable work, we will need a CV for our PhD application to reassure our prospective institution and intended supervisors that we understand the process and the expectations on completion.
  7. Workspace. Determine where we will work, and how we will work – possibly in a shared space. Create space. Be clear about privacy. Be clear about others and our own silence. Have thought through likely distractions, set delimiters, and be clear if a shared space what our signals are.
  8. Clarify relationships. We need both professional and personal relationships to get the job done (see item 3 above, too). We need to be clear about what each participant’s rights, responsibilities and expectations are. This includes our significant others, our supervisors, our peers, our whanau, and ourselves as a supervisee. If we have clarified what we each expect from each other - our ‘job descriptions’ so to speak – we are less likely to have problems later.
  9. Project Outcomes. Tara started this item with “Start with the end in mind”, citing Stephen Covey (1989, p. 95), suggesting that we start the project aimed at what it will look like when it is completed. We need to design the project so that we stay focused on the outcome. To prepare for this, we need to read successful PhDs in our field, understand construction, read our institute’s regulations for submission so that we understand the processes, and what our outputs and outcomes will be.
  10. Learn about teaching and learning. Learning about how to learn will be useful. While I am less convinced about teaching – many PhDs no longer begin or end with the idea of going into teaching – learning how to ‘teach’ when we deliver our candidature presentation and our viva will certainly be useful. This though, in my mind, is the least important item in this list.

I hope you find this list of Tara’s useful: I certainly did.




  • Brabazon, T. (2 July 2021). Vlog 276 - Preparing for a successful PhD programme [video].
  • Covey. S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful lessons in personal change. Franklin Covey.
  • Linhart, R. J. (2008). Information Literacy: A Neglected Essential Learning. [Doctoral thesis, University of Tasmania].

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