The four irons laws of post-graduate studies

MAY 31 — Maybe it’s the pandemic or just the over-supply of post-graduate programs in the country, but have you noticed that more and more folks are talking about continuing their studies? Maybe do a PhD or DBA or MBA or whatever? I have.

Yet often “doing a PhD” can sound as enthusiastic — and as short-lived! — as “joining a gym.” A lot of folks start, but not many finish.

So if you’re one of those presently thinking of doing such a program, I’d like to offer what I call my “iron laws” to check if you have a good chance of completing it.

Having seen friends finish their PhDs, DBAs and MBAs (and many more fail or drop out) and having supervised numerous students over the years, I can more or less predict who will finish, who will finish faster than usual, who will (probably) drop out, who will need to keep extending and extending their semesters, etc.

So, behold, the four iron laws of post-graduate studies:

1. Never do a post-grad degree if you’re being forced or pressured to 

Every time someone tells me they’re applying to do a post-grad course because, oh, “my boss wants me to” or “my family says I should” I’m like, hello? Are you still 17 years old or what? If other people are so hard-up for a PhD, you ask them to do it lah!

Now, don’t get me wrong. If someone is offering to sponsor you to complete a worthwhile program, by all means consider it hard. Think about it. And not just the usual concerns like “years of bond you need to serve.” 

I mean ask yourself if you really want the degree; never embark on a post-grad program simply to please or appease someone, let alone out of guilt or obligation.

2. Never do a doctoral program part-time

I submit to you that doing a part-time DBA or PhD is a recipe for failure (an MBA is still possible, but see note 1). Ninety per cent of folks who sign up for a PhD whilst working full-time will either 

a) drop out or 

b) get someone else to do it for them or 

c) take 10,000 years to finish

But, honestly, if you DO decide to pursue a PhD part-time, this is what you have to do: Quit your job, get a divorce (or dump your partner), give up your kids for adoption, tell your pastor or imam or monk you’ve stopped believing in God, drop all your hobbies, delete your Facebook account, trash your phone all so that you can, well, convert your degree to a full-time one.

Because a PhD needs time.

There is no bleedin’ “short-cut” to a PhD. You either spend hours (and hours and hours) reading or researching or experimenting or whatever, or you don’t deserve the degree. There is really nothing more to say.

When it comes to studying for your doctoral, 'marketability' should take a hike. — Pexels pic
When it comes to studying for your doctoral, 'marketability' should take a hike. — Pexels pic

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I know someone who used to print out tons of material to be read (and underlined and notated!) in airplanes and hotel rooms, all over the region where he travelled. 

I also know people who kept asking colleagues and subordinates to download material for them and even “help to draft” chapters for them. 

The first example is someone who will absolutely finish because he put in the time; the second example is someone whom I will never respect as a PhD holder but whom I will very likely not have to because such folks will never finish their program.

Because if I’m your supervisor and I discover that you’re reading only about, say, an hour a week or writing a paragraph once in a while (or “only during weekends”), I will tell you to either quit your job or quit the program. It just isn’t happening.

There is simply no integrity in your research if you’re doing “bits and pieces” here and there.

3. Love your subject or don’t start. 

When it comes to studying for your doctoral, “marketability” should take a hike. Motivation and drive are the key factors and the one thing that’ll pump them up is love love love.

You have to be so infatuated with your topic, your spouse wonders if you love him or her any more. This is really the only way you’ll keep suffering for two or three or four years.

Dreams of a cooler-sounding title won’t give you 200 per cent motivation to spend an hour downloading 20 articles. An intense curiosity for your subject will.

Thoughts of a bigger office won’t keep you skimming through dozens of e-databases for articles (because, oh my, this IR 4.0 stuff is complex as heck). Passion for your topic will.

A higher salary won’t make you get up at 4am just to add that extra few thoughts to chapter 3 because what Helen Scales wrote on ecology is brilliant and must be added to your section on marine tourism. But, of course, love will.

Sure, the luckiest post-grads are those whose subject will also substantially elevate their career prospects. But this must be strictly a secondary concern, especially when it comes to drive and motivation.

This is a marathon. Whatever else you’re thinking about, you must enjoy running.

4. If possible, do a proposal early.

Beware doctoral programs with a “coursework” component. I don’t mean to disparage the quality of such offerings or suggest there’s anything untoward academically. But one major problem I’ve noticed about such programs is how candidates don’t normally require a proposal to get a foot through the door.

So one frequent consequence is that many candidates sort of “breeze” through the first year or so, until they come to the all-important dissertation stage.

Then all bets go out the window and the Koyak monster starts to rear its ugly head. Because — especially in Malaysia where there are often hundreds of foreign students with very poor English proficiency — you can fool some of the lecturers some of the semesters but you can’t fool all of them throughout an entire doctoral academic calendar (and you sure as heck can’t fool the viva committee).

A proposal done early (or even as an entry requirement) at the very least forces students to demonstrate an acceptable modicum of research skills.

So there we have the four iron laws of ensuring maximal chances of completing a PhD with integrity and without a breakdown. All the best.

Note 1: An MBA can be, and is mainly done, part-time because such programs are specifically catered for busy business people i.e. the “flexibility” of an MBA program is priced-in to the demands of the syllabus. Having said that, the drop-rate for the average MBA is still around 30 per cent. I suspect this is heavily due to the very thing which attracts people about MBAs in the first place: Its part-time character.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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