What is a PhD?

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What is a PhD?

Very Important Development
To Do or Not To Do a PhD
The Difference Between a PhD Thesis and an MBA Thesis
The Difference Between a PhD Thesis and a Consultancy Research Report
The Relationship Between a PhD and a Journal Article
The Difference Between a PhD and a DBA
The Difference Between UK PhDs and US PhDs

‘What is a PhD?’, I first asked this question when I was still doing my MBA. The answer that I got was, ‘A PhD is an original contribution to knowledge.’ ‘Now what does that mean?’, you may all ask. Believe me, it did not make much sense to me at that time either. I can make more sense out of it now. However, I feel that that definition is woefully inadequate and is in need of further elaboration and explanation. Now, to a layman, ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ can mean many things. However, in the context of a PhD what it actually means is that a person can only be awarded a PhD if he or she has made a discovery that no one else has reported. In the natural sciences, such as biochemistry, it may mean the discovery of new cures for illnesses, the discovery of how certain viruses can be killed by certain drugs, etc. In engineering, it may be the discovery of how previously undiscovered petrol additives can enhance fuel economy (this was an actual PhD project by one of my friends in one of the leading universities in the UK). In the management sciences (of which I am more familiar), it may, for example, involve research to find out whether workers with certain personality traits are more satisfied and perform better if they work in certain types of environments (Ahmad, 2001). The outcome of practically all PhD research is the discovery of something valuable to the academic community that has not been reported elsewhere. By that very definition, it implies that such a discovery must be worthy of publication in an academic journal. Your findings, if published in a journal, may even be cited in a textbook relating to the subject area.

Another crucial requirement for the award of a PhD is that your research must be original. Again, the word ‘original’ may mean different things to different people. What does the word ‘original’ actually mean in the context of a PhD? Well, according to Phillips and Pugh (2000, p. 63), originality can comprise any one or more of the following:

  1. Carrying out empirical work that hasn't been done before.
  2. Making a synthesis that hasn't been made before.
  3. Using already known material but with a new interpretation.
  4. Trying out something in this country that has previously only been done in other countries.
  5. Taking a particular technique and applying it in a new area.
  6. Bringing new evidence to bear on an old issue.
  7. Being cross-disciplinary and using different methodologies.
  8. Looking at areas the people in the discipline haven't looked at before.
  9. Adding to knowledge in a way that hasn't been done before.

The question that I am sure you will ask now is whether it would be sufficient to satisfy only one of the above-mentioned criteria. I would advise against research that would only satisfy one of the above criteria. For example, you may be tempted to adopt only criteria number four. This would be the simplest route. All you have to do is fish out one article from a journal where the study was conducted in a foreign country, and replicate the study hook, line and sinker in your home country. I would be extremely reluctant to supervise such students, unless they can show me that they intend to fulfil at least a few other criteria as well. Students may want a quick PhD or take the simplest route. Believe me, there are no shortcuts in a true PhD. The saying, ‘no pain, no gain’ is extremely appropriate for PhD degrees. That is why they are rare, compared to other degrees.

Very Important Development

In addition to the above requirements, it has become increasingly apparent to me when I was Chairman of the PhD committee at the Faculty of Business and Accountancy, University of Malaya, that a new requirement seems to have surfaced—that the PhD student is required to find out exactly what was wrong with the previous studies in the subject area—and how the research proposed by him or her overcomes or avoids this particular problem. In addition to this, there also has to be a contribution in the literature by coming up with a new theory. Although I have accomplished these in my PhD thesis, I have come across several PhD theses in the past where these were not done. It seems more likely that in the future, students who fail to address these issues, will also fail in their PhD viva (oral exam).

To Do or Not To Do a PhD

I believe that it is not the degree in itself that is valuable, but rather the person you become as a result of pursuing a PhD course to its successful completion. If it was just the piece of paper, then you can purchase a PhD qualification on the Internet without having to submit a thesis or sit for examinations! You will still be the same person, perhaps a couple of thousand dollars poorer. What is important is the journey itself which will transform you for the better, not the certificate. You would have cheated yourself of a valuable experience and misrepresented yourself to others. I recall one internationally renowned wealth guru who said something to this effect: ‘It is not the million dollars that is important but the person you become while you obtain the million dollars that is important—for if the million dollars were gone, you would be no less a person as a result of it.’ If you lost that million dollars, you can easily get it back because of the person you are. Many people have become millionaires only to lose everything. But their fighting spirit never allowed them to give up and they managed to get it all back and even more! Thus it is not the paper certificate or even the thesis in itself, but rather the person you become as a result of the successful pursuit of the PhD that is important. Hence there are several wrong reasons for doing a PhD.

Examples of wrong reasons:

  • I want to become a millionaire.
  • I want title, prestige and glamour.
  • I want to climb the managerial corporate ladder.
  • If others can do it, why can't I?

When I was contemplating doing a PhD, I often made the mistake of asking others and myself the following question: ‘What do I have to do to get a PhD?’ I have lost count of the number of my students (Masters and undergraduate) that have asked me the same question. I am also sure that many of you readers out there have also asked the very same question. It is blatantly obvious that when we ask such a question, we have certain motivations. We are more interested in getting the qualification of a PhD and the title of ‘Dr’ rather than the knowledge that can be gained by pursuing a course at the PhD level. If that is all that you are interested in, you will find yourself dropping out of the course shortly after embarking on it. Believe me, it is not worth the pain or mental anguish it can bring, not to mention the high cost (which includes opportunity cost). If any of you think along these lines, it is my sincere hope that this book will make you rethink doing a PhD. It is not the objective of this book to discourage readers from doing a PhD. Rather, this book will hopefully make you reassess your motives, and if you do finally decide to do a PhD, it will be for the correct reasons. I can safely say that a person who enrols in a PhD course will soon be disillusioned and discouraged as he or she progresses through the course. If the wrong motives are not substituted by the correct ones during the duration of the course, there is a strong likelihood of such a student dropping out. In managerial positions, the cost often cannot be recovered because you are not automatically promoted by virtue of having a PhD. Notice that my statement is confined to only managerial positions. You will more likely be promoted in the technical field (e.g. an engineer with a PhD in petrochemical studies, who works in the R&D department of an oil company). In the academic sector, a PhD is not only desirable but also regarded by many as essential for promotion purposes.

Hence, the correct reasons for doing a PhD are:

  • To excel in the academic sector. A PhD is vital for promotions and having credibility especially in lectures and conferences.
  • To fulfil a desire to become a researcher (whether in the natural sciences or social sciences), and to equip oneself with the necessary tools and knowledge.

In my opinion PhD courses offered in the UK are the best training grounds for a budding researcher. It is also a test of whether you have the necessary intelligence, personality, attitudes and temperament to be a researcher. A PhD candidate has to be insightful, resourceful, articulate and tenacious. I feel that in view of the long periods of solitude, an introvert would be more suited than an extrovert as a PhD student, ceteris paribus. Temperament here may refer to determination, perseverance and application. Also, as uncertainty is inherent in a doctoral programme, a tolerance of ambiguity is a prerequisite for successful research work. I feel that a student who significantly lacks any one or more of these attributes will face more difficulty in completing the course.

In summary, if your future aspiration is to become an academic, then a PhD is not only desirable, but essential. If you are currently a researcher in the R&D department, then a relevant PhD in the natural sciences will no doubt be beneficial. If your future aspiration is to climb up the managerial corporate ladder, then a PhD should not be undertaken as it would be a waste of time and money and may even jeopardise your performance in your current job (since you will be taking time off to do your PhD). A manager will not automatically be paid more by virtue of having a PhD. In some instances it may reduce chances of obtaining jobs elsewhere, as often a PhD holder would be branded a theorist and ineffective in the real world (a perception that I thoroughly disagree with).

Another question that a person might ask is, ‘What is a thesis?’ The word ‘thesis' is often used loosely by students in Masters or even undergraduate courses when they refer to their project paper. The word ‘thesis' in the context of a PhD is different altogether. The word ‘thesis' is derived from the Greek word ‘place’. Thus, it is a position that you wish to argue. A PhD must have a thesis in that it must put forward an argument. In order to do so there has to be a storyline in the form of a coherent thrust which pushes along an argument or explanation. The argument can be operationalised by way of a number of hypotheses. A hypothesis is basically an unproven statement or proposition about a factor or phenomenon that is of interest to the researcher. It may often be a tentative statement about relationships between two or more variables or it may be a possible answer to the research question. There are different opinions among researchers on whether the formulation of hypotheses prior to data collection is mandatory in research. For instance, I have came across theses in which there were no hypotheses. There are some supervisors who advocate that hypotheses are not always necessary in research and that they unnecessarily restrict the imaginative researcher. You may want to consult certain books on research methodology if you wish to follow this line of thinking. The more popular view, however, is that one should have hypotheses in research. One such author, Kerlinger (1986), says that hypotheses can play a valuable role in systematising research. The hypothesis is a prediction and can be tested and shown to be probably true or probably false by reference to more powerful evidence than simply observing without prediction. ‘Hypotheses are part of the rules of the game’ (Kerlinger, 1986, p. 23). He went even further to explain why hypotheses play a valuable role. He advocates that even when the results were not as predicted by the hypotheses, knowledge was advanced:

Negative findings are sometimes as important as positive ones since they cut down the total universe of ignorance and sometimes point up fruitful further hypotheses and lines of investigation. But the scientist cannot tell positive from negative evidence unless he uses hypotheses.1

Furthermore, during my candidature as Director of the PhD programme, I observed a trend that hypotheses are almost always

mandatory in research. In light of this, I strongly suggest that you should form hypotheses in your research.

1 From Foundations of Behavioral Research, 3rd edition, by F.N. Kerlinger, © 1986. Reprinted with permission of Wadsworth, a division of Thomson Learning.

The Difference Between a PhD Thesis and an MBA Thesis

The differences between a PhD thesis and an MBA thesis are summarised in the table below.

Differences between a PhD and an MBA
PhD thesisMBA thesis
Length100,000 words10,000–30,000 words
MethodologyNewReplication
Sample sizeLargerSmaller
Period taken to complete3–6 years3–6 months (if the thesis is done in partial fulfilment of a taught course)
Depth and widthGreat depth, narrow focusWide focus, relatively shallow

From this table, it is fairly obvious that a PhD thesis is lengthier than an MBA thesis. One is also given more time to complete the PhD. A PhD thesis can be ten times longer than an MBA thesis. However, length is not the only difference. A more important difference is that of depth. A PhD thesis focuses on a few issues but investigates them at great depth. For example, an MBA research project often requires the student to go to a company, identify the problems faced by the company, and recommend some solutions to solve the problems. Whilst this is acceptable at the MBA level, it is not acceptable at the PhD level. The focus of the MBA is the company in which the research was conducted. The focus of the PhD, however, is the nature of relationships between variables . Another distinction between an MBA thesis and a PhD thesis is the level of analyses. For example, at an MBA level, a student can investigate the relationship between personality and performance. However, although this study looks at the relationship between variables, it may not be sufficient for a PhD. At the PhD level, the student has to go one step further. He perhaps has to investigate the moderating effect of the work environment on the relationship between personality and performance (Ahmad, 2001). Notice that the level of analysis in a PhD is more complex and at a higher level than that in an MBA. There may be PhDs in the past (over fifteen years ago) that have merely looked at the relationship between personality and performance. These were done before the Windows versions of statistical programs were available on personal computers. Statistical analyses were much more difficult to conduct in those days. However, such theses may not be sufficiently complex in this day and age. Yet another difference between an MBA thesis and a PhD thesis lies in the citations and references to original work. For instance, in an MBA thesis, it is permissible to quote an authority quoting someone else. For instance, a student can quote from a textbook regarding say, Maslow's theory of motivation. However, this is not acceptable for a PhD thesis where the student would be expected to have read and evaluated Maslow's article in the original publication.

The table below shows the differences in behaviour between students pursuing a PhD and those pursuing an MBA.

Differences in student behaviour
PhD courseMBA course
Interaction with teachers and studentsLessMore
SupervisorLaissez faireDirective
ClassesNone or only in the first yearMore
TimeMore time for reflection, inspiration and finally proofreadingTime is of the essence, hence speed is paramount

It can be seen that a PhD student spends a major part of the course in solitude compared with the MBA student who has the benefit of interaction with other students in the classroom. A PhD student has to spend far more time on thought and reflection, as the supervisor often will refrain from giving explicit instructions on what to do. The student will have to find out things by oneself. Often, the student is left alone, and the feeling of being abandoned by the supervisor is common. This does not necessarily mean that the supervisors are irresponsible, unhelpful and uncaring. Rather, it is part of the training for PhD students to discover things on their own. After all, I believe (after this fact was drummed in by my supervisor) that the objective of a PhD course is to train you to be an autonomous professional researcher, not an efficient research assistant! The thesis has to be carefully crafted like a book, hence more time has to be spent on proofreading, clarifying ambiguities, and correcting grammar and typographical errors. However, writing a PhD thesis is more difficult than writing a book. In a PhD thesis, research has to be conducted, data analysed and findings reported in a satisfactory manner. Furthermore, a student has to be careful of what he writes as he can be cross-examined on any statements he has made in his thesis. Theoretically he must be capable of defending every statement in his thesis. Thus a valuable piece of advice that I can give to readers is this: after you have finished writing every statement, ask yourself whether you are able to defend it.

Another distinction that I have made recently is that the theoretical and conceptual framework is crucial in a PhD thesis. In a recent viva in which I was the external examiner, every student was questioned about his or her theoretical framework and conceptual model. Students were required to draw from their literature review, a theoretical framework which could be distilled into research questions and hypotheses. Without this, no student could ever hope to pass his or her viva.

The holder of a doctorate is someone who is recognised as an authority by the academic and professional sector. Some have proclaimed that a PhD is a licence to teach. However, I feel that it is much more than that. I believe that a true PhD holder is a fully professional researcher and is able to demonstrate all of the following:

  • You must have a command of what published research has been conducted in your subject area not only locally but worldwide.
  • You must have sufficient command of your subject area in order to become aware of the limitations of the past research and where you can make a useful contribution.
  • In addition to the analytical tools that you have used in your research, you must also be familiar with other analytical tools that could have been used in your research. You must be able to argue why the methods that you have chosen are superior to the alternatives.
  • You must be aware of the limitations of your research and of others'.
  • You must be aware of the paradigms and work within them (at least during your candidature as a PhD student).
  • You must be able to communicate your results effectively in conferences, seminars and other venues in the professional arena.
  • You must be aware of the ethical principles governing research and work within them.

In order to be awarded a PhD, you have to be able to carve out a researchable topic, master the techniques required and put them to appropriate use. You must also be able to communicate your findings clearly and convincingly. Your research must have both theoretical and practical contributions. The award of a PhD is evidence that you have mastered certain research skills and that you have obtained the skills necessary to become a fully professional researcher.

The Difference Between a PhD Thesis and a Consultancy Research Report

There are also differences between a PhD thesis and a consultancy research report. I have come across many students who wanted to do a PhD but proposed to do a research that resembled more of a consultancy research. The main difference between a PhD thesis and a consultancy report is this: a consultant would investigate the problems in the company and come up with several alternative solutions and some recommendations for management. The sole purpose is to diagnose and solve the problem unique to that company. In a PhD thesis, however, a general phenomena has to be investigated. For instance, in the subject of industrial organisational psychology, one would investigate whether extroverts would be more satisfied if they were made to work in large groups rather than small ones (Ahmad, 2001). The actual study should be conducted in a few companies. In the consultancy report, the focus would be on the problems unique to the company, whereas in the PhD the focus would be on the behaviour and attitudes of people in general (or people of a certain category).

The Relationship Between a PhD and a Journal Article

As mentioned earlier, the findings of the PhD research can be published in journal articles. In fact it almost always is. A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a PhD to be awarded is that the research must be worthy of publication. Very often the findings in the PhD research can be broken down into three or four separate parts and reported separately in different articles. As such, several articles reported in management journals may actually have been derived from one PhD thesis.

The Difference Between a PhD and a DBA

One question that has been asked of me of late is, ‘What is the difference between a PhD and a DBA?’ This question was frequently asked because lately, there have been several overseas universities that offered DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) courses in Malaysia.

The Manchester Business School, University of Manchester also offered DBA courses together with the PhD. When I was a PhD student there, I asked some of the resident professors the very same question. According to them, the DBA was first offered by Harvard University in the US. It was formed with the intention that it should be more practical rather than theoretical. The DBA in Harvard was of course prestigious because of the association with that particular university. However, recently many other universities have started offering DBAs. In the Manchester Business School, there are many similarities between the PhD and the DBA. However, on average, DBA students have been known to finish the course quicker than PhD students. Also, in principle, the requirement for theoretical contributions in a PhD thesis is far greater compared to a DBA thesis. These two factors have resulted in many students (who were envisaging a career in the academic sector) to opt for the PhD.

Recently I have come across several foreign universities that were offering DBAs in Malaysia. An interesting thing was that in the course, students were expected to prepare an assignment for each subject (totalling about eight to ten subjects) and a final dissertation of between 30,000 and 70,000 words. This can be contrasted to the UK PhD in which the students are expected to write a thesis of up to 100,000 words that has to be defended rigorously before two examiners (excluding their supervisors). I have come across many PhD students who have failed their viva or oral examinations despite having managed to complete writing their 100,000 word thesis.

One Australian university, for example, claims that their DBA course is not meant for those who intend to pursue careers as academic lecturers at universities, but rather as practitioners in the corporate world. It is just as rigorous as a PhD with the exception that it does not require the student to come up with a contribution to theory (i.e. the student is not required to come up with new theories). The contribution to knowledge is only empirical. Now a graduate with a DBA is entitled to have the title ‘Doctor’ very much like a PhD graduate can. Many would therefore be tempted to do the DBA rather than the PhD because of the time constraint. Of course, I may be biased, but I have never regretted doing a PhD instead of a DBA. However, the choice is yours. You would have to weigh all the pros and cons.

The Difference Between UK PhDs and US PhDs

The nature of the work undertaken in a PhD course in the UK differs substantially from that in the US. In the UK, the thesis forms the main part of the course. For instance, the thesis is substantial in length (around 100,000 words). Not only that, the degree of difficulty and the contribution to knowledge (explained earlier) have to be substantial. In the US, however, the structure of the PhD course is very similar to that of an MBA in that there are several taught subjects and students have to sit for examinations in those subjects. After that is done, the students have to do a small dissertation of around 30,000 words. Obviously, the standard required is higher than that of an MBA. But the structure is the same in that there are taught courses with examinations and students only spend about 25 per cent of the duration of the course on the thesis.

I did my thesis in the Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, in the UK. We spent the first year going to classes; sat for the statistics examinations; prepared assignments for several subjects such as social research methods, applied statistics, literature review, and epistemology; and did a pilot project. However, the main purpose of the assignments was for the university to determine if we had the necessary skills and knowledge to proceed with our research. At the end of the year, we were required to give a research proposal presentation. It is at this point that the university determines whether the research that we have proposed is viable. If the university is of the opinion that our research proposal is viable, then we are allowed to proceed. If not, then they will either ask the student to revise the proposal to one that is satisfactory, or recommend continuing along the MPhil (Master of Philosophy) route instead. Of course, the student may also choose to voluntarily drop out. In other words, the research proposal presentation is the basis on which the university forms the opinion of whether the student has a viable research plan in which to carry out and write up his research. It is vital to determine this at this stage as the research and writing up is a process that will normally take at least another two and a half years for a full-time student. In some cases it can even extend to another four years, even for a full-timer. If the university is of the opinion that the research proposed is not satisfactory, then the university will inform the student of this fact. Thus no further time (of the student and his or her supervisor) will be wasted. The pilot project (mentioned earlier) is also another factor in which the university assesses whether the student is capable of conducting research. The pilot project is actually a part or a component of the overall research, conducted on a far smaller sample of around fifty people. Success in the pilot project is persuasive evidence that the research proposal is viable and the student is capable of handling the research. The thorny issue of access is resolved, as the student has demonstrated that he or she is capable of gaining access to respondents in the research that he or she has proposed. In the Manchester Business School, success at the research proposal stage acts only as a green light for the student to proceed. It does not, however, guarantee that the student will pass the viva or oral examinations even if one manages to carry out the research as per the proposal. I have came across several students in my university and many more in other universities who did not manage to complete their PhD successfully even though their proposal was approved earlier. This may be because the students had not been able to express their arguments cogently, coherently and clearly in the thesis or in the viva. Students have had their theses torn to shreds (metaphorically) by the external examiners.

One cannot say decisively which type of PhD is better—UK or US. There are pros and cons of each type. If you are exam-oriented, prefer to study a wider range of topics and are not able to write long dissertations, then I suggest that you do your PhD in the US. However, if there is a particular field that you wish to specialise in and you wish to conduct detailed rigorous research (say in a particular aspect of psychology), then the UK PhD is probably better for you. A UK PhD is more unstructured. Many moments are spent gazing across open fields chasing that elusive idea. I enjoyed my PhD since I was always trying to come up with something new and novel. It taps the creative element in you. However, at the same time, it is also demanding in that you are constantly required to work on the same problem for many years.

As for Australian universities, I have heard that some universities there have adopted the US style while others have opted for the UK style. It is best that you check directly with the universities before applying.

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What is a PhD?

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