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Starting your PhD

[dropcap1]A[/dropcap1] Chinese proverb says “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao-tzu, The Way). Your doctorate is like that journey. However, such a journey is not just something you start one day and then see where the road will take you. If that’s how you are going to tackle your PhD, you will find that it is a long and windy road, with more uphill stretches than downhill ones.

So, “Let’s start at the very beginning, that’s a very good place to start.” (The Sound of Music: James St James).

A PhD. starts with an idea in your head that intrigues you – you may have been wrestling with a knotty problem or have been working in a field where there seems to be a lack of solid information about an issue or you’ve been concerned about situations taking place in your community. You will have completed your Masters Degree and perhaps something in your research has piqued your interest and you want to take the idea further. It should also be something that you are passionate about – that passion will drive you to succeed. Without it, you may well be tempted to give up somewhere along the way.

The problem is conceptualising it in words – an area where many prospective PhD students really struggle. But it is crucial to the success of your thesis that it be conceptualised into a topic or a title that can be developed into fully-fledged research. The norm is that:

  • it should be no more than 15 words in length;
  • it must be completely original; and
  • should not use the words “An investigation”, “A study of” etc.

A tall order? Yes, but if you can get it right, the whole of the thesis will fall into place much more easily than if you have a vague and indeterminate title.

I usually ask three questions when I am reviewing a title for a thesis:

  1. What is the issue?
  2. Whom does it affect?
  3. What is the context in which the problem occurs?


For example:

Issue: Social Entrepreneurship

Whom does it affect: Citizens

What is the context: Rural areas in South Africa

So by derivation, the title would be “The impact of social entrepreneurship on citizens living in rural areas in South Africa” (14 words).


Let’s try another one:

Issue: Quality assurance

Whom does it affect: Private tuition providers

What is the context: Legislative regime of India

So, again by derivation: “The challenges of quality assurance for private tuition providers within the legislative regime of India” (15 words).

The title then encapsulates the whole idea of the thesis.

The thesis is then built around that title which provides the basis for the “golden thread” that must run through the thesis. This is essential to providing a coherent thesis that reads logically and makes sense to your reader.


By Dr Jacqueline Baumgardt, Academic at The PhD Consultancy

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