Why a Postgraduate Degree is the Best and Worst Choice You Can Make—Part 3

Why a Postgraduate Degree is the Best and Worst Choice You Can Make—Part 3

Before tackling the topic of today’s essay – the don’ts of the PG degree – I return to my opening metaphor: the rollercoaster. A postgraduate degree can help you touch the skies just as it can send you plummeting to the seabed. There is however one inaccuracy in the metaphor: postgraduate students don’t realise they are boarding a rollercoaster.

Instead of walking voluntarily toward the structure, someone is escorting you, usually blindfolded, whispering promises of elation as you stumble into the unknown. They paint a picturesque landscape where personal growth and professional opportunities abound. Professors and peers will help you progress intellectually; your potential will expand just as your social mobility will soar. The moon, perhaps Jupiter is the limit!

At some moment, your escort goes silent, and you find yourself locked in a car making a slow ascent. A gust of wind whisks your blindfold off as the car nears the peak. When your gaze adjusts to the surroundings, the picture appears a little less rosy. You notice that your companions are jittery, that the car is driverless, and that your mobility is restricted by the bars pinning you down. Even if you could slink out, what awaits you is a perilous climb (I’ll leave out the fatal fall). You bite the bullet and accept your fate just as the car careens at high velocity. In this scenario, what sentiments might we expect other than terror and regret?

I hope my reflections on PG studies strip the blindfold sooner. What you face when undertaking your degree is an imposing challenge that is fulfilling and discombobulating in equal measure. You require a fair share of courage to launch into it just as you need an even greater share of discipline to make the most of it. Some of you will enjoy the loop-de-loops; some of you will vomit. Different aspects of the experience will appeal to different personalities; to be frank, some will appeal to none. Each postgraduate degree is a unique experience, to be sure, but the foundations of the practice are akin to the pyramids and will persist long after our departure. By familiarising yourself with the foundations, you’ll learn to navigate them, rendering your experience less harrowing, maybe even nominally enjoyable.

In this penultimate essay*, I provide concrete tips to help you transcend the morass, covering what you should avoid, for I’ve noticed that PG students do what they ought not to all too often. Skirting common faux-pas is a vital strategy for improving your overall experience and staying the course. You’ll still make mistakes; there is no getting around this and there is no need to get around this. With an understanding of where you’re likely to stumble, the road ahead will appear more hospitable.

[*I apologise for adding an additional essay to your reading list. Compressing the don’ts and dos into a single 2000 word blog post proved impossible. In the months ahead, I promise to follow my own advice and to embrace concision.] 

1- What You Shouldn’t Do

I believe the most formidable barrier to PG success is a poorly conceptualised project. Largely because of the misunderstanding I detail in Part 1, the proposals students submit to gain admission to PG programmes or to pass their upgrades are flawed. Why is this?

First, due to the prevalence of taught master’s, the PG sector is engorged with students. Yet, master’s students are mostly recent undergraduates or mid-to-long term professionals, individuals with nary any experience in academic research. As is to be expected, their proposals are trial by fire, generating sufficient kindle to scorch the campus. Moreover, as these programmes only have minimal research components, completion is no guarantee of competence. We require you to learn just enough to survive your dissertation and degree. And even then, the dissertation usually plays second fiddle to coursework, resulting in the proliferation of sub-par research.

Second, since PhD programmes draw applicants from the previous pool of students, many applicants submit crude proposals. It’s one of the reasons supervisors rarely hold students to them afterwards. Admissions committees make offers based on research potential and supervisory fit. We expect you to build your project as you work your way through the programme. My own PhDs devote their initial year to developing a new proposal, to their chagrin I admit. It’s a reality check as students are forced to accept that their master’s didn’t provide the grounding needed to succeed at the doctoral level.

If you’re drafting a proposal or working on a dissertation, please pay close attention to the following five don’ts. These are the most common and, crucially, the most damaging. You need not berate yourself for making these mistakes: all PGs are guilty of them and many academics as well (I can write about them because I’ve suffered them). However, your PG experience will improve immensely if you do not succumb to these familiar pitfalls.  

A- It’s an Investigation, not an Argument

Prospective PG students rarely write proposals; they compose editorials. We learn plenty about what you will argue, why you will argue it, and why your arguments are better than those of others. Sometimes you regale us with the argument itself. When encountering this type of proposal, I invariably ask the student a single question: “why research at all? You’ve already ascertained your critique, findings, and solution. Save yourself a tonne of reading and publish a book with Penguin.” I know we’re in deep trouble when they miss the sarcasm. 

A research proposal is a plan of investigation. The author tells the reader what they will investigate, why they will investigate it, and how they will investigate it. As you are preparing a proposal, ask yourself if another researcher could carry out the project by following the plan you’ve outlined (and not whether they agree with the plan). If the answer is affirmative, you are on the right track; if not, revisit your proposal. Ultimately, you should adopt an inquisitive rather than an argumentative mindset and tone.

Your dissertation will contain an argument; all research does. However, your argument will form as the research unfolds. At the proposal stage, you have only completed a cursory review of the literature; contemplated the requisite data and method(s) for obtaining it; and perused the theory(ies) you think suitable for your analysis. In short, you are not in a position to make an argument (yet).

B- Don’t Omit the Obvious or the Essential 

In a recent PhD upgrade, one of the examiners opened with a simple instruction: point us to your research question. That we could not locate it raised eyebrows. That the aspiring candidate spent the next few minutes speaking to the importance of the project without articulating the question was a crimson red flag.

If nothing else, academic research is structured; even bland, stale, and soul-shattering academic research is structured. We prefer scholarship that is absorbing but will insist on scholarship that is coherent and rigorous. A structured proposal is the first step toward rigorous research and few things will put off a prospective supervisor or an admissions committee quicker than a poorly structured one.

How to avoid poor structure? Before you begin, identify the elements that must appear in your proposal. While disciplines vary, all proposals will contain some core elements. I outline these in Part 4 and encourage you to follow a plan. Once you’ve identified the elements, arrange the order: what comes first, last, and in-between? Avoid tossing these elements pell-mell into your document; avoid repeating yourself; and, above all, avoid the mystery novel format, privileging expository prose. And while supervisors and examiners will overlook some indiscretions—e.g. repetition or improper language use—others will torpedo your effort: a missing research question.

Drafting a proposal is like getting dressed: turn on the lights, contemplate your day, decide on the appropriate attire, and put on each garment in order. Just as it would be silly to slip into your trousers before your boxers, your problem statement must appear before your methodology. 

C- Breadth Belongs in the Bin

PG students consistently overreach, overestimating what they can cover in a dissertation and underestimating the labour associated with the activities. To be sure, ambition is commendable; however, in a proposal like in a dissertation, it can prove fatal. Many proposals we read are sweeping investigations into everything (even almost everything is too much). Students want to carry out dozens of interviews with participants from five different constituencies. They wish to examine the development of capitalism in three countries and across two centuries. They propose to build a hydrogen-powered engine. In one proposal, the student suggested establishing a new regulatory frame for FDI.  

Again, ambition is laudable and I seek not to temper your fire. At issue is the breadth of the proposed research. When evaluating proposals, a key metric is manageability: can you complete the investigation in the allotted time? More often than not, students propose an opus rather than a project. For a master’s, avoid interviews altogether. For a PhD, you might manage 10-12. For a master’s, examine the development of an element of capitalism in a single state across a solitary generation. A PhD could extend this to capitalism itself and perhaps over three generations. These are simple examples that underscore the wider lesson: your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Aim small for it is easier to expand from a position of scarcity than to cull from a position of abundance.

D- Don’t Forget That You Are in Dialogue With Others 

In Part 2, I describe the nature of academic research. Recall that academics deliberate scientific topics that we segment into disciplines, fields, and debates. The list is endless: gene-splicing and plant traits (biology), capital punishment and recidivism (law), matter and black holes (astrophysics), etc.

Students tend to disregard this key tenet, omitting from their proposal the most important element of all: other scholars. Key to any academic project is the relationship between your investigation and that which others have completed. Who are you in dialogue with? How does your research relate to theirs? Are you advancing, challenging, or complementing their findings? By reflecting on each of these questions, you will develop greater mastery over the debate and your project, both of which you will recall from Part 1 are essential to success in a PG programme.

To be clear, most supervisors care not about your position in the debate; whether you are sanguine or sceptical is irrelevant. They are more interested in the level of awareness your proposal conveys about the state of the debate and how you situate yourself accordingly. Absent these contours, your research will resemble a ship lost at sea.

E- In Academia, How Trumps What

Methodology is a bugbear for students. So accustomed are they to asking what and why questions that they find how questions daunting. Almost all of my PG students feel a jolt of terror when I raise methodology and fear dissuades them from giving the topic its due regard. Students don’t appreciate how damaging this neglect is to their project and credibility. No matter how stimulating your project sounds, no matter how clever you appear, your supervisor will throw down the gauntlet on methodology.

How will you investigate your topic? What data do you need? How will you acquire it? Why did you select this data and these methods? Which theoretical lens will guide you when collecting and analysing the data? Without answers to these questions, your proposal appears amateurish and, crucially, incomplete. Prospective supervisors are weary of proposals that leave out methodology; they are damning when the project is already underway. 

What is required is a subtle shift in perception. In line with the research training leitmotif I develop throughout this series, PG students should treat research as practice instead of product. A research as practice approach shifts the focus: instead of producing a document, students are pursuing proficiency in the activities associated with research. You must learn to formulate research questions, to apply theories, to justify your methods, and so on. Supervisors guide you along the ins and outs of research just as examiners assess the quality of the research skills you’ve assimilated. We do this through a project, but the spotlight is on you and your skills. Shift your gaze to the activities you carry out and spend more time asking how questions. 

In this way, proposals amount to a set of directions. All trajectories have starting and end points and there are plenty of pitstops along the way. Departure and end points matter less than the navigation skills of the guide or the terrain they cross. Just as a poorly designed methodology will earn you plenty of ire, a sophisticated one will earn you an abundance of plaudits. 

2- What You Really Shouldn’t Do

I stand by the preceding five flaws. Addressing these will improve your performance, output, and experience in countless ways. There are others, of course, and since I don’t have the space to discuss them in detail, I’ll lob them into the ether in the hopes that they provide additional fodder for you to reflect on.

A- Don’t duck your supervisor: I understand you’ve missed another deadline and I get that you haven’t done anything since your last meeting. Still, we want to hear from you and nurturing a positive relationship is always to your advantage.

B- Don’t duck your students: I understand that they’re not following your advice and I get that you haven’t read the chapter they submitted a month ago. Still, their anxiety will always dwarf yours and you owe them a high duty of care and compassion.

C- Don’t delay writing: write wildly, critically, sycophantically, poorly, and [insert adverb]. It doesn’t matter so long as you write. A postgraduate degree is a marathon and, just as marathoners need miles under their belt, you need words under yours. I recommend 500 words a day to my students. It’s a slog but the momentum does wonders (even if you jettison much of the copy afterwards).

D- Don’t avoid talking about your research: whether at seminars, conferences, or in a viva, at some point you’ll have to tell others about your work. Better to stumble now than to drown later. Think about foundations – problem statement, methodology, hypothesis, theory, etc. – and practise delivering them in varied forms. Make note of the moment your listener’s eyes glaze over and practise that part differently the next time around.

E- Don’t avoid talking to others: academic research is a lonely endeavour. You’ll quickly find yourself isolated. Writing groups, method groups, viva groups, really just about any group is worthwhile (except for gripe groups … you should avoid those). Disrupt solitary confinement as often as you can; your mental health will reward you for it.


There is no shame in making mistakes; to the contrary, it’s an enriching practice. Nevertheless, there is no sense in repeating the mistakes of others, especially when you are forewarned. The don’ts I describe above are common, so much so that students seem to treat them as dos. I urge current and future PG students to reread this post and measure your proposal and behaviour against them. Minimising the don’ts is a wonderful way of reducing the risk of a poor postgraduate experience. 

[This week’s mood music…]

Photo by Hamza NOUASRIA on Unsplash

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