This Q&A page is intended for readers of the book PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life” to ask questions related to the content of the book.

Just leave your question in the comments section, and I’ll do my best to answer all. Particularly good questions may be featured in subsequent editions of the book.

You can ask anything you like, but there are a few common questions I can’t answer:

  • Please can you suggest a thesis topic?
  • Can you write my thesis for me?
  • My deadline is in 3 days and I haven’t got any data, what should I do?

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It will be available on kindle and other electronic formats soon…

38 thoughts on “PhD Q&A”

  1. Hi James, I am planning to apply for phd next year and recently started reading your book. In the book, you have mentioned that one should look for good supervisor than just school. My background is in applied mathematics and is kind of applicable in many fields like marketing,finance,operations and statistics. I find operations and stats more interesting but I am unsure about how to find topics within these subjects given their broadness(reading research papers and getting to know mathematical algorithms usually takes a very longer time). Also, how should I approach universities’s professors regarding their research. Should I approach everyone irrespective of topics they do research on within these subjects or should I read more and seek what I will be more interested in. The latter process is quite slow and get slower with the current job. Also, in this area , one might start research in one thing and end up coming with research in some other topics(or maybe its just in my mind) which make me think that I should be more flexible. I am bit confused about all this, any suggestions would be helpful.


  2. Hello, James!
    Your book is amazing! Very useful, interesting and easy to read. I just wanted to say thank You for Your advice and tips!
    I am also wondering if it is possible to read Your actual thesis? Since I am doing my phd in the similar scientific field, I thought it would be useful.

  3. Hello James,

    I just started reading your book and I already love it!

    I found the situation you described in the beginning somewhat similar to mine. This year I was about to finish my masters and go back to industry, but I was offered a sponsorship on my PhD and decided to give it a go.

    There is one problem that bothers me right now, and I would like to hear your advice. I work with two professors (advisor and co-advisor). Whenever I talk to them about my research, the first one seems to not care about it much (he’s ok to roll with whatever I propose), and the second one does care (says that he doesn’t see my ideas scientific enough), but he always says that the decision is solely up to me and I should think for myself.

    I understand the sentiment, but I think this is wrong, as I just started my program and I need some guidance to become a professional researcher. And I just feel like I’m not getting any real help.

    What do you think? If you were me, how would you approach this case? Also, according to the rules of my university I can’t change my advisors, but I can collaborate with more professors that have similar interests. Would it be sensible to start looking a more “approriate” advisor now?

    Thank in advance!

    • I’d say try to talk to as many fellow researchers as you can- not only to get guidance but also to take an interest in their research.

      It may be that nobody will tell you what to do, and that your supervisors want you to just try something before they get involved. Don’t worry about making mistakes, especially in the early stages!

      That said, if the atmosphere is such that you can’t ask questions and that nobody talks to anyone else about research, I would probably leave.

  4. Hi…Hayton…

    I have been read your book, and part of it is in agreement with my experience. More or less we have same experience with long working hours in the lab with not certain result afterward. But that time is already pass then I came to the writing process at the momment. I can say that lab work is more interesting and easier compared to writing. This writing process is the most challenging part that I can feel at this time. Moreover, as the PhD student who write my thesis english as the second langueage, sometime I face diffliculty to express my idea in the really good sentence. And I think this english story will be the questioning by my supervisor instead of my research result. Even I work hard in the lab and I generate high quality data, but without nice sentence formulation, people will not understand enough about my result.

    Please give me any advices to deal with that. Is proof reading became a best solution or is there any other way?

    • Proof reading is probably a good idea once you have a finished document.

      While you are writing, go slowly and take your time to check your grammar and sentence construction. It will be slow, but it is only by going slow that you can improve your language skill.

  5. in your book you did mention that ” You shouldn’t cite anything you haven’t read and understood, … (para3, pg 170) sometimes, i felt that i really need to cite a paper eventhough i am not 100% understand the content of the paper and always the authors of research paper assumed that the reader would have fundementals of that particular subject. i have contacted some authors but they just give me another their published paper and told me that i need to read that paper in order to undestand their latest paper. my question is how you develop a strong fundementals in science subject in order for you to understand what the other authors have tried to convey in the journal paper? since you came from physics field which dealing with an endless morass of equations, I hope you can share some tips on how you grasp a strong understanding of undergrad subjects (since I tend to forget what i have learned during undergrads) in order to understand journal articles…

    • In what context do you feel you need to cite these papers?

      To grasp fundamentals, research papers are not the best places to focus. As you say, there is an assumption that the reader already knows. This means you have to look elsewhere- textbooks, wikipedia, YouTube, or asking someone to explain something. You will not be able to do this for absolutely everything, so part of your job is deciding which concepts you really need for your research.

  6. I am wondering if you have had much feedback from people writing dissertations in the humanities (especially literature or philosophy) as to whether your thesis advice (which is delineated in your book), which was born directly of your experience writing a thesis in the hard sciences, has direct relevance to the challenges they faced in completing their dissertations. The main point of divergence, I imagine, concerns the very different notions of what “research” consists of and of what count as “results.” I ask because I am about to write a thesis in philosophy and philosophical theology.



    • The book isn’t just based on my experience- I’ve spoken to hundreds of PhD students (including a few philosophers and theologians) in the process of forming and refining my ideas.

      While I talk about “data” quite a lot, many of the principles should still apply to non-empirical research. The extensive sections on writing, for example, are universally applicable.

      Whether the book will be useful for you or not, I don’t know, but I hope enough of it will be relevant to make it worth reading.

  7. I am currently doing my Masters’ thesis and I am torn between researching a topic in a field that has been explored in my organisation before or an expansion of my previous research study. I am finding it difficult to articulate my topic and was wondering if you could help me make sense of what I am trying to research.

    topic : the research aims to explore the perceptions of line managers on their role in facilitating talent management.

    • Is there a way to examine the viability of the options you are torn between? Sometimes it’s good to invest a little time in preliminary investigations to help decide which option is best.

      I don’t know if you’ve read the chapter on developing a research project? That has far more detail than I can give here!

  8. Hello Sir,
    I have completed 2 years of my Ph. D. Unfortunately with no publication in my credit. I am tense and unable to chalk out plan of work. Kindly suggest me to plan my work as i have more 2 years to submit my work and wish to complete Ph. D. with good number of publications.

    • It’s really difficult to tell you how to plan a PhD through a comment on a blog post. I know nothing about your work, so how can I tell you how to plan it? The idea of this page is to answer questions related to the contents of my book, which goes into a lot of detail about how to do a PhD. I’d suggest reading it first then I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.

  9. recently, I am planing to start my Thesis of Master, is there any steps or videos that can help me also can I get sample Video of how to defense my thesis -eg, video of candidate who defense his dissertation?.

    • I don’t know what help to offer, because you haven’t stated a problem. It is much easier to offer advice if you say something like, “I am starting to write, but find myself overwhelmed by the number of ideas”, for example, than if you just say, “are there steps that can help”.

      As for videos, there are some on YouTube, but they may not be the same format as used at your university.

  10. i am not asking you to suggest a topic ,just asking for your opinion .is it good enough to work on it or i should search another one.??

    • I don’t know. It’s impossible to tell from a title alone, because it depends what you want to do within that topic… As I say in the book, there are many factors that make a research project viable, and what may be a good project for one person may not be suitable for another.

  11. Mr James can you give me an advice regarding my thesis topic. i am an undergraduate student and looking for a good thesis topic , i have selected the one” percieved parental acceptance cause resilient, and good leadership qualities in the children”

    • I cannot provide people with topics. There is an entire chapter in the book about how to develop a research project- if you read it and have a question related to what I wrote then I’ll happily answer it.

  12. Hi Dr. Hayton,

    I’m in the second year of the PhD in Environmental Sciences. I started with a proposal that I figured it was very hard to do in terms of obtaining data and logistics, so I quit that idea and started looking for other options by the end of the first year. I spent summer and fall of my second year looking for a good idea to collaborate with a researcher and I finally convinced her and my advisors about my idea. Now I’m kind of stuck again because I am feeling that this research is very hard science based and kind of out of my background possibilities. I am getting to that conclusion after taking some modeling and math classes that are related to my topic, and I think they are pretty interesting but way hard to understand for me, I feel like I am way behind to catch up. I don’t know if to take this as a challenge or just quit this second topic and pass to something I am more familiarized with. That would probably mean I need to change half of my committe, and despite this is still possible, I feel like I can be in trouble with finding a new committee and I’ll be probably seen as non very reliable. Changing topics for me would be very radical (from marine ecology to social-management science I think). I will really appreciate your opinion on this.


    • The whole point of a PhD is to learn skills you don’t already have- and this is hard to do no matter what your topic. It helps to choose something you have an interest in, but if you keep changing your mind every time it seems difficult then you will never get anywhere.

      • That is very true. It’s just that it’s been terrifying to share classes and presentations with such excellent students, super advanced in the field. I ignored how hard it was going to develop my current project while even some people ask me why I was choosing that instead of what I was working on. I thought it was exciting but now I am overwelmed. That’s it. But I will follow your advice and try to came up with something that makes more sense for me within my current proposal. Thank you very much!

  13. Hello Dr. James,

    I’m currently studying to become an engineer. I’ve plans to do my masters and have taken a spirit liken to a personal oath to pursue the field of academia to its farthest reach and deepest hollow. To me, this meant pursuing a PhD. All the way until I found your blogs. I’ve yet to imbibe the mature yet enlightening lessons on life that can be learned from your words however their mere exposure has had a humbling effect on my perception of the PhD. Behind the farce of those that curtail this experience to flaunt their resumes, I now see the resolve of individuals whose choice reflects their burning curiosity and passions to venture farther in the research field.

    Firstly, thank you for making me realize why I’d want to pursue a PhD. Secondly, would you recommend this experience for someone who has almost no interest in teaching, but merely in research? And my final question to you is, would getting a PhD today be of any help to an engineer (in a creative or intellectual way) that deals with the innovative inventions for modern society? Basically, how much of this experience would be of practical use to me in my daily engineering profession?

    Please excuse the broadness of my question as I’d feel that I’m overstepping had I phrased any of my insights in a more detailed and technical manner.

    Warm Regards,

    • Talk to people at your university about the PhD programmes on offer (current students, graduate admissions tutor, potential supervisors). They will be able to give you a much better insight into what it can offer.

  14. Hi James,
    I am about 9 months into my first year of PhD in Social Science coming from a more technical design degree previously. I am having all the symptoms you listed, with chest pains that seem to are the worsening more and more. I feel like my supervisors are neither interested or feel there is value in my topic (I have two experts from different ends of stick) and I know better than to take comments/feedbacks personally but starting to think maybe I just don’t have what it takes to articulate my research topic in writing. Keywords I have chosen still is too broad and I am having trouble with getting the scope of the question to address my topic.
    I find language sometimes can be so ambiguous and misleading,most of the time my writing does not seem to say what I had hoped it does. I tend to use pictures/diagrams in my work but I think that only be to certain extent. Especially in literature review discussing theories.
    I have about a month to write my first year report and my last feedback was not the greatest. I don’t know if its worth it to feel this much of stress.

      • I have, its nothing too serious- well not enough to kill me anyway… the stress of not working out a solution is not helping of course. What are your thoughts on how to structure a social focused research with less academic jargons?

        • You have to learn the terminology used in your field I’m afraid.

          I’m not sure what you are trying to do- find a research topic or articulate it? Some people start writing before they know what they want to say, hoping that a research topic will emerge from the writing, but I think it’s better to develop a research idea first.

          The book has a chapter on developing research ideas, but I’m not sure from your comment whether you’ve read it or not.

  15. Dear Dr. James,

    I am about to finish my coursework and will start working on my dissertation proposal next fall. I am very nervous about embarking on this journey. Ideally, I’d like to propose and defend my dissertation proposal within the academic year of 2015-2016. Beyond that, I’d like to not take more than an additional academic year to do the research, analysis, and write the dissertation. Any tips on how to best get started? Though I have already created a list of tasks and proposed deadlines for the dissertation proposal, I don’t even know what the list would look like for actually writing the dissertation itself. Any tips would be greatly appreciated.


    • forget about lists and deadlines for now, and certainly don’t worry about the dissertation. To write a proposal, you need to know what you are going to do for your research.

      It makes no sense to me to spend longer on the proposal than the research itself. To do all the research, analysis and writing within one year? I don’t know how much research experience you have, but unless you already have the necessary research skills, it will be very difficult to do everything that fast.

  16. Dear Dr.James

    Thanks for your concerned reply. I really am apprehensive about the vastness of my topic and when i meet people and discuss with them the various possibilities of reaching my target, they try to create a fear in me and this has hampered a lot. Basically i get discouraged very soon and hence has not been possible for me to come out of it. As you said, i should move ahead and put it down in words first.

    • I didn’t say put it down in words first- I said look at what you have and decide what your strongest content is (or where you want to focus within the vastness of your topic).

      Some say “just get words down and see what comes out”, but I strongly disagree with this- you need to have some idea where you are going in order to prevent the writing getting out of control

  17. Dear Dr.James,

    I am doing my Research on ‘ideological influence on women’s movements’ in India and i am half way struck with it and my deadline is Dec’ 2015. I started writing but am unable to go deep into the subject. for one or the other reason i simply keep postponing it. How to come out of such a situation. I need to focus on my subject. pl guide me.

    • It’s difficult to know what the problem really is- what is stopping you going deep into the subject? What happens, and what do you feel when you try? What do you then do when you get stuck?

      It might be fear of making decisions about what you want to put in your thesis- at some point you have to commit! I’d suggest taking stock of what you have, deciding what your strongest content is, and getting clarity about what you really want to say.

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