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Starting with the End in Mind – Envisioning your PhD

In Sweden when you get your PhD they give you a laurel wreath with your name on it. When I first saw one of these at an academic’s flat in Lund, Sweden, I thought this was such a wonderful tradition! I think that anyone who finishes their PhD damn well deserves a laurel wreath! The laurel wreath is a symbol for victory and was awarded to victorious athletes at the Olympic games in ancient Greece and to successful military commanders in ancient Rome. The process of getting a PhD is so similar to running a marathon or to waging a successful military campaign. Having a clear goal, being strategic, and being very clear about the reasons why you are doing it are fundamental. This is the first step in achieving your PhD.

Top performers and athletes often envision the results and goals they are working towards. This should be no different for you and I recommend spending some time envisioning your goals. You want to get a sense of how getting a PhD would feel for you – how do you envision it? What is your graduation day like? How does it feel to receive your PhD, to see the faces of your parents and friends beaming with pride, having your photo taken after the ceremony in your doctoral gown holding your degree surrounded by your family? How would this be for you? Imagine it in as much detail as you can – what you are wearing, who you are with, where you are. This is the result you are aiming for – the goal at the end of your PhD. It’s important to get a clear picture of what this would mean for you because this will drive you. If it helps, write down some of the impressions you imagine – every little detail you can see.

I’ll tell you what getting a PhD meant for me. When I was a child my mother took me to historic sites in Ireland, where I grew up, and further afield. She took me to ancient crumbling monastic ruins and medieval castles in Ireland, places of incredible beauty and romanticism, and to places of somber sadness – like the quiet battlefields of World War I in Northern France. I loved history and the world of books and ideas – of trying to understand the processes that made our world. I also wanted to follow the career path of my father who had a PhD in Pure Mathematics and who worked as an academic. This, combined with my passion for history and my desire to follow the example of my father, made getting a PhD a strong personal goal for me.

When I was fortunate enough to be in a position to pursue a PhD at the University of St Andrews in Scotland I made it a point to learn how best to achieve this by reading books, by studying successful PhD theses in my field, and by asking other PhDs who had completed their degrees for tips and insights. The process wasn’t easy, but I managed to finish my PhD in three and a half years without any student debt.

The day I graduated on a beautiful summer’s day in June 2009 was one of the high points of my life. Today it still ranks as one of the things I am most proud of. My supervisor and mentor whom I admired and respected winked at me as I made my way up to the podium to receive my degree. It was a subtle sign that I had done alright. Later, I posed for photos in the ruins of St Andrews cathedral with my mother and close family. The photo now sits on the sideboard in my living room.

What would achieving a PhD mean for you? How would it transform your life or how will you feel having mastered this process?

Action Steps

The first fundamental step to achieving your PhD is getting very clear about what this would mean for you.

Define what getting a PhD will mean to you. What are your motivations for pursuing a PhD? List your reasons for wanting to do a PhD – anything that comes to mind.

If you are thinking about pursuing an academic career path after your PhD, research this market and what a career in academia actually entails. Really investigate the Higher Education sector and what it is like to work in academia. Would this career appeal to you? What other careers could you pursue and how would a PhD be an asset to you regardless of what career path you choose?

Take 20 minutes to envision what it would be like to get your PhD. Envision your graduation day. Who is there with you? How does it feel? What are you wearing? How does this fit in with your broader life goals? Write a short paragraph with these impressions. Try to capture it with as much detail as possible.

Use the one page PhD Model Canvas to sketch it out.