How to survive a PhD in international law

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So, some time ago I wrote a post directed at those considering a PhD in international law. This post is aimed at those holding an acceptance letter in their hands. Congratulations: you’ve got into a doctoral programme, that’s no small achievement. However, let’s consider what’s ahead of you. My main themes here are: funding, timing, the emotional challenge, your relationship with your supervisor and a final word on the joys of the process. (Future posts will probably deal with questions of career planning and viva preparation.) Again, my aim is not to be off-putting but to highlight some of the things I think many PhD students don’t consider in advance.

The ‘F’ word

Do you have funding for your PhD? This is not something your institution is likely to counsel you on and the issue can be emotionally fraught. If you have a scholarship – very well done. If not, you need to carefully consider the personal and financial cost of three-to-four years of study.

“But,” you may say, “I’ve got all this time to work on my PhD. I can pick up some teaching or a part time job to live on, surely?”

Well, yes, you can and many do. However, it will almost certainly make completion in 3 years hard or even unlikely.

A PhD is a full-time job. Pretty much every day worked elsewhere will delay graduation by a day – or more. Progressing a PhD requires sustained effort. Those who attempt it part-time are, to my mind, admirably brave but embarked on a hard path. It’s tough enough with funding, three years and your full concentration. With divided energies and commitments, it obviously becomes that much harder.

A day a week working on something else, especially in your second and perhaps third year, is a good thing if it gains you relevant experience and is probably manageable. More than that, especially if it has no long-term career upsides or tangential benefits to your research is a risk.

Also, check your institution’s rules. UK universities are under increasing pressure to see full-time students complete in 4 years. There can be financial penalties or tough bureaucratic procedures now before submission out-of-time is allowed. The completion of a PhD over a decade is a thing of the past.

Teaching opportunities at your law Faculty are also likely to be limited. Unlike the US, there is basically no culture inUK institutions of ‘teaching assistant’ graduate students who deliver lectures. There are certainly exceptional cases where graduate students do run courses, but more usually only a limited number of undergraduate tutorials will be on offer – and even then certainly not enough usually to make up a living wage.

You don’t have much time – and your topic will change

Writing 100,000 words of research in 3 years may seem leisurely at the outset. It’s not. Many students find their first 6 months is about the changing direction of their research topic. It’s very usual to discover the initial topic was:

(a) too broad (easy solution: narrow it);

(b) too narrow (unlucky: broadening is harder, but usually achievable);

(c) impossible (very unlucky: you now need a new topic); or

(d) irrelevant in light of major new developments or a huge new study by a significant author (also very unlucky: but be reluctant to conclude a big new book in your field renders your interest irrelevant – reading the book and noting what you disagree with may highlight how much more there is one could say).

In any event, the first six months is very often about reading yourself into the chosen field and fine-tuning the topic. This usually leaves students scrabbling and pressured to complete an ‘upgrade’ paper, the formal ‘qualifying’ step required to allow you to proceed with PhD study thereafter. The upgrade paper will usually only be 15,000 words or so, meaning you then have only two years to produce another 85,000 words.

You need to work steadily and efficiently to meet that goal. By this, I don’t mean never take a holiday and feel guilty every second you’re not working. However, I do mean that reading a lot and taking only haphazard notes for two years and then trying to ‘write up’ is a very risky strategy.

It may also be tempting to travel a lot and visit other institutions during your PhD. Be careful and ask yourself if this will really aid your research. Six months abroad at another institution often invovles several other highly disrupted months spent on logistics, packing and unpacking, finding accomodation, establishing routines, getting the internet connected, etc.

The emotional challenges

Outside of academia, many people won’t get what you’re doing or why you would want to do it. You may often be treated, even by close friends just as much as casual acquaintances, as if you are being paid (or are paying) to pursue a hobby. They will not appreciate the hard work involved. Only your fellow PhD students will really get it. Cultivate them. They will be vital when you hit the inevitable rollercoaster of doubt and fear.

The rollercoaster of doubt and fear is my term for the highs and lows of any long-term project. On a good day, it’s a joy to work on and you wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Such days are often the ones when you’re making connections between ideas, getting lots of writing done, have realised how to articulate what you think is missing in the debate on your topic. On bad days, it’s nothing but endless drudgery, and crippling fear that what you’re doing is irrelevant or that you’ll never finish it. The point about bad days is knowing that they end.

The other thing to take from the rollercoaster analogy is that a PhD is not a smooth upward trajectory of learning where you will steadily become increasingly more confident in your approach. You may often get stuck. A PhD often involves moving past a series of ‘threshold concepts’: pinnacles which are difficult to climb, but the view from the summit tends to change your entire perspective. Still, such moments are much of the joy of a PhD.

A different way of getting stuck is one more article syndrome. Avoid this like the plague.

If I can offer a personal piece of advice: treat the PhD as a job and remember to have a life. Working yourself to death is unlikely to help you finish faster or produce better work. Regular work habits are hard to achieve but can lead to a much smoother PhD experience that the stereotypical graduate student who procrastinates all day then works from the late evening through ’til dawn. The difficulty with getting into the habit of working anti-social hours is that it can progressively isolate you from the the friends and family who can be a source of support.

You and your supervisor

There is a big push in universities to set some standard core expectations for PhD supervision. This is a good thing. Supervising PhD students is one of a research academic’s greatest responsibilities, and it should be discharged professionally. That said, there is an alchemy to the relationship between student and supervisor that cannot be legislated into existence. Some students may appreciate brisk, focussed supervision meetings that always focus on discussing a draft in detail but a supervisor who otherwise largely leaves you to get on with it. I certainly did. Some students require more, or a very different style, of supervision.

It’s a funny relationship and it’s possible to expect too much of it: as the wonderful Dr Inger Mewburn (of the Thesis Whisperer blog) notes some students come looking for “a combination of friend, mentor, sounding board and coach”. Certainly a supervisor should be encouraging and supportive. They may, however, also need to convey quite unpalatable and discomforting news. If they don’t help you vigorously challenge your own logic, argument, research etc they are probably not doing their job. There is obviously a continuum between cheerleader and slave-driving task-master and different students may need supervisors positioned  at different points on that spectrum. From the supervisor’s point of view it is often a delicate question as to whether any given student at any given time needs encouragement or ‘tough love’.

I don’t want to dwell on war stories about bad supervisors. I have no doubt there are genuinely bad supervisors in the world, but there is more commonly a bad fit between supervisor and student. However, there are certainly some red flags you should look for as a student (the piece I link to here is excessively defensive piece, but it’s worth reading the ‘managing upward’ section).

The most essential role of a supervisor is to comment on drafts of your work. There should be clear expectations about how long comments will take to turn around. In my view, waiting for more than two weeks for comments from a supervisor is not really acceptable under ordinary circumstances. Ask what the policy is on such matters and find the document where the policy is contained. Supervisors who always take a month or more to return comments are delaying your progress and are probably not performing to an acceptable standard. (That said, never say: ‘I can’t do anything until I have comments’. There is always other work you could be doing, especially catching up on reading.)

Ultimately, it’s a very unequal relationship. As you are intensely focussed on your PhD, your supervisor will loom large in your life. For your supervisor, supervising you should be an important priority – but inevitably will be only one of many. (He or she will have other PhD students, courses to teach, papers to publish, Faculty administrative duties, etc etc.) Fortunately, supervision usually works out well for both parties; but it does have the potential to go wrong. In such cases you shouldn’t feel alone. Know who your point of contact is in the Faculty if you have a bad supervision experience. You should have some form of PhD programme director other than your supervisor you can speak to.

The good news

If you’ve got this far, you may be feeling I’ve been excessively negative. Part of the point of these blog posts is to give some unvarnished advice that you may not get anywhere else. (That said, there’s a lot of PhD blogs out there: find some you like and follow them.)

The good news is a PhD can be a fabulous experience. If you are set on the academic career path, this is a privileged time. You have the freedom to read anything and pursue your own interests largely (at least in the ideal case) un-distracted by the demands of teaching and administrative work. The opportunity to devote a large block of time to a single project is rare. Hopefully, you will also meet terrifically interesting people in or through your PhD programme. Most importantly, your work will make you  grow and change as a scholar.

As this post is already over-long, I’ll save my thoughts on career planning and preparing for a PhD viva for other occasions.

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Arman Sarvarian says

November 12, 2012

Thank you very much for this useful and informative post, Douglas. I certainly endorse all that you say. Having completed my doctorate last April, I would only add that certain fundamentals must be in place from the outset to (hopefully) avoid being derailed by avoidable doubts. Although getting them right is no guarantee of success, as you rightly point out that it is a sustained effort over a three-to-four year period, but at least they can improve the probability. Here are a few points that come to mind:

1. Topic: not only should one not only be genuinely and deeply interested in the topic but it should also be logical from a career standpoint. In other words: who is going to read it? Will it be publishable? Although there are candidates in some jurisdictions who complete doctorates without any intention of publishing their work, the merit of this approach to a doctorate is doubtful if one wishes to sustain interest in the topic over a sustained period of time.

2. Career plans: reading a doctorate 'for the sake of it' may be defensible and has been argued by colleagues in the past, I rather doubt the wisdom of it. The cost in time, money and energy entailed is considerably greater than that required for a masters degree. A clear idea of how this doctorate and this thesis fits into your overall career goals is a good reassurance to have during the inevitable downs of the process. That may involve a career outside of academia but more commonly will not. Although one can of course never be sure just where life will take one, it behooves the candidate to at least have a fairly solid idea of how the doctorate will fit into his ambitions for the future. This will hopefully preclude having to continuously justify the project to himself.

3. Financials: this is the true gravimen of the candidate. Without a minimum of financial security, it will be very difficult to invest the effort and energy into the project that is required and simultaneously undertake heavy and generally not very lucrative part-time work. Considering the economic times, the lack of available credit and the fiercely competitive academic jobs market the cost-benefit analysis of the potential Ph.D. applicant should be well-informed and realistic. Investment without reward will be a bitter pill to swallow after years of sustained effort. If done with inadequate resources, it may even lead to the entire project being derailed - the worst possible outcome.

4. Personal life: none of us are automata without personal lives. However, we should be aware that the peculiar demands of the project in exclusive attention and focus (largely deriving from the research and writing process) reinforce the need to ensure that we have a reasonable level of calm and stability in our personal lives. Competing demands can make it difficult or even impossible to complete within the specified time and with less leeway in the system than previously allowed, we should be careful. Whilst we cannot foresee a bereavement, we can consider carefully the competing demands of romantic relationships and parenthood for instance.

Hopefully, having got the basics right, we will be able to complete a viable and publishable project in which we have a sincere personal interest. We will know that the project fits into an overall career development plan, that we have sufficient financial security without having to rely on part-time work to survive and that our personal lives offer the requisite stability and time to work. All that then remains is the small matter of completing the project.

Douglas Guilfoyle says

November 16, 2012

Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment Arman. The only note of caution I would strike (as I did in an earlier post on this topic) is on (2). Generally speaking, the odds of securing an academic position after obtaining a PhD are no longer as good as once they were. So the student narrowly focussed on (2) may well be dissapointed. As with all career planning, a Plan B is vital. (More on this in a future post.)