Top 5 PhD rules of the game

It’s not all about thesis writing.

  • Gemma Conroy

Credit: uzenzen/Getty

Top 5 PhD rules of the game

It’s not all about thesis writing.

15 August 2019

Gemma Conroy


Six weeks into her PhD, Niamh Brennan quit. “I had an awful time,” says Brennan, now a professor of management at the University College Dublin in Ireland. “There was no mentoring, guidance or assistance.”

When Brennan returned to her studies more than a decade later, she figured things out on her own, discovering her love of research in the process. “I don’t want anyone else to experience what I did in the beginning.”

This led her to document what she had learnt, in “100 PhD rules of the game to successfully complete a doctoral dissertation”, published in January in the Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal. A follow-up paper described 100 research rules of the game, previously covered by Nature Index.

The 100 PhD rules are organized into eight sections that cover common challenges experienced by students, including finding and maintaining a good relationship with a supervisor, choosing a topic, and writing a dissertation.

Brennan says following them is the hard part. “It’s easy to read the rules, but enacting them can be quite a challenge.”

Below is a selection of five of Brennan’s 100 rules for successfully navigating a PhD.

1. Rule #57: Start writing your dissertation on the very first day of your doctoral studies

Wait, what? It might sound extreme, but given that a dissertation is around 200-300 pages long, it’s important to start tackling it as early as possible.

It’s also helpful to see writing as a habit rather than one big chore, but it takes practice and discipline to make it a routine daily task. “It doesn’t happen naturally, you have to train yourself to do it,” says Brennan.

Writing (almost) every day (rule #69) from the start also allows you to clarify ideas and give your supervisor written - as well as verbal - reports of progress (rule #41).

It’s also a sure-fire way to improve your skills. “How do you learn to write? You just keep writing,” says Brennan.

2. Rule #22: Pick a research-active supervisor

If publishing your research in top international journals is your goal, teaming up with a well-published supervisor will increase your chances of getting there.

Brennan says research-active supervisors with publishing experience are more likely to pass this knowledge onto their students.

“If a student works with a supervisor who is not publishing in good journals, this can hinder their own ability to get their own work published,” she notes.

3. Rule #5: Be determined, dogged and persistent

While it might be easy to assume that innate intelligence is the key to success for PhD students, Brennan says that cultivating grit “is more important than IQ,” when the going gets tough.

Completing a PhD is a lot like riding a rollercoaster, she adds. There are intense high and lows, but they are a normal part of the experience.

When experiments fail, papers are rejected and funding seems out of reach, determination and persistence are the qualities that will carry you through to the end.

“Visualize yourself as a dog with a bone,” says Brennan. “Do not let go until you get what you’re trying to get done.”

4. Rule #39: Avoid the flounder factor

It’s important to settle on a topic that you are likely to teach (rule #35) and that makes a substantial contribution to the existing literature (rule #32).

But be careful not to spend too much time ploughing through journal articles and gathering ideas. Brennan says the quicker your choices are narrowed down, the better.

One way to do this is to start wide and work your way into a niche. First, decide on the category of the discipline you want to do your research in. From here, pinpoint the sub-categories and decide which one to pursue. Rinse and repeat until you uncover your niche.

5. Rule #1 and rule #100: Enjoy your doctoral studies

Brennan’s 100 research rules of the game begin and end with the simplest of them all: enjoy your doctoral studies. It’s also the most important, she says, but it’s easy forget in the midst of deadlines and conference presentations.

While this enjoyment often sits between pleasure and pain, students who relish the challenges and hardships of doing a PhD are more likely to become successful researchers after completing their studies.

“It’s a very important rule, as it’s very hard to be good at something you don’t enjoy,” says Brennan.

Read next:

Q&A Niamh Brennan: 100 rules for publishing in top journals

6 ways to deal with rejection

Q&A Wendy Belcher: How to write a journal article in 12 weeks