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If you are not interested in the subject itself, don’t do postgraduate research! If you are, then do it – you need have no other reason.

Much of what needs to be said about coping as a postgraduate is common to that for MSc and undergraduate students, especially for the project work that is required. The engage in research site will also be helpful. There are several features which distinguish postgraduate research (MPhil and PhD); principally you are responsible for the content and management of your studies now and nobody will tell you what you need to do next. You set your own objectives and strategy for achieving them.

Before you start postgraduate research you will need to ask yourself why you want to do it in that particular area, in that particular university and with that particular supervisor. This will involve some research e.g. reading past examples of theses, talking to existing students, academics other than the proposed supervisor (e.g. your undergraduate tutor), sorting out practical arrangements such as accommodation, your family and money commitments, whether or not you can work as a RA (research assistant), demonstrator or GTA (graduate teaching assistant) and if so whether your commitments as a research assistant will allow enough time to carry out your own thesis.

You can find a lot of practical information and advice at your Graduate School’s web site.

To write or not to write? In mathematics, science and technology, one usually needs to prove theorems, write programs, build equipment, run experiments, obtain results and a host of other things before beginning serious writing-up: in other subjects, the act of writing seems to act as the main stimulus to develop the thesis itself. What is certain is that writing interim reports, summaries of objectives etc. will clarify your ideas to yourself and your supervisor, and enable you to develop your writing style. So don’t leave it all to the end!

student doing research

To gain an MPhil or PhD you need to:

  • be knowledgeable of existing work in fairly closely-related areas (for example, your examiners will not be impressed if you cannot explain the standard theories and principal work in your broad area, show the basis of anything you have quoted or used in your work, or fail to demonstrate that you have actually read all your references!)
  • be workmanlike, clear and logical in the development of all your ideas and how you express them. Be honest and objective (especially when you do not achieve the results you wanted)
  • be original and occasionally inspirational, having a few real insights into what you are doing (this does not mean being a second Newton; applying existing theories or using known experimental or statistical techniques in a new area/discipline or with new data is sufficient)
  • have a thesis; that is to say you need to develop a viewpoint which you can defend and which leads logically to a testable conclusion.
  • have an open mind to others, making the effort to understand what they are doing.

Note that an MPhil or PhD is not simply a critique of existing work or a literature review (though this is part of it) and is certainly not a ticket to a job (except in academia or research companies; but note that the skills you develop during your research are sought after by most employers).  A major difference between an MPhil and a PhD (apart from length and scope of study) is that you will be expected to go to original research papers in a doctorate, whereas quoting from standard texts is acceptable for a masters degree.

A rough view of the PhD

Every PhD is different, but it might be useful for you to compare yours with this scenario. MPhil students will need to map the 3 years to their time span.

Year 1

  • Get straight down to it!
  • Read the proposal for your PhD and start reading the background textbooks and papers in your area.
  • Attempt model problems, simple experiments etc. as defined by your supervisor.
  • Write a mini-report on each and act on the feedback you get from your supervisor (in both content and presentation).
  • Find out what other research students in your department are doing.
  • if possible, attend taught courses at MSc level, especially if they involve experimental or programming skills you will need.
  • attend departmental seminars, even if you don’t understand everything!

At the end of the year;

  • give a presentation to your supervisor and fellow students on what you have/will do.
  • write a clear specification of the problem you intend to work on.

Year 2

  • Tackle the main problem, taking the initiative yourself.
  • Develop the main theory, programming, experimental set-up etc. and collect and analyse your data.
  • Write a major report on this work and present it, first in your department, and then at a conference.
  • Talk to others in your field at the conference, telling them what you are doing, asking for comments, suggestions, references to published work etc. and finding out about their work.
  • Update your CV and Web page.
  • Keep attending departmental seminars, even if you still don’t understand everything!

Year 3

  • Plan your career at the start of this year, so you don’t have to worry about that as well as your thesis submission and viva.
  • Continue with further work as independently from your supervisor as you can, making everything as complete and rigorous as possible. Give regular status reports to your supervisor.
  • Write draft chapters using your earlier reports as a guide – this will take a lot longer than you think!
  • Put the whole thing together.
  • Submit and defend your thesis and publish your results.
  • Update your c.v. and Web page.
  • Give a seminar at another university and sound enthusiastic, even if their PhD students don’t understand everything!

Beware of taking a job before you have finished the MPhil or PhD – it is an excellent way to ensure that you never submit your thesis.

Teaching undergraduates for a few hours per week during your PhD is very beneficial; you gain much needed money and experience, underpin your own understanding of the basics, and you get a sense of achievement even when your research is temporarily stalled. Take advantage of some teacher training sessions if possible and put them on your c.v.
You need to watch out though, since it’s easy to be side-tracked by students, and proper preparation of classes takes at least as much time again as the classes themselves. 4 to 5 hours a week is reasonable, but beyond that your research will probably suffer.

Coping with getting stalled

Yes – you’ll get disheartened at some stage, probably about half way through like everyone else.

You might feel bored with your work, regarding it as trivial. Before you discuss this with your supervisor, try writing up as fully as you can, what you have achieved and what is stopping you making further progress. The process of doing is quite likely to unfreeze you.

You may be unable to make progress. It is helpful to have several lines of enquiry on the go at the same time. Again writing or making charts, schedules and plans can help you identify precisely what is stopping you – this will then often result in a solution or suggest a new line for your research.

You may feel guilty that you are indulging yourself while others are supporting you. Don’t. You, your family and society as a whole are making an investment in yourself which will ultimately benefit you and them in many ways (for example, children of educated people are more likely to be successful in a broad sense as well as financially).

students studying

Getting the best out of your supervisor.

Your supervisor is likely to be busy, so make sure you maximise the benefit of your contact time by:

  • making and keeping appointments,
  • preparing both yourself and your supervisor for the meeting by submitting well-written work in advance (if this is a poorly written first draft you will spend your time correcting the English or sense of what you have written). Be prepared to update your supervisor on what you are doing now at the start of the meeting.
  • being objective and not trying to cover up difficulties.
  • following their advice or giving explicit reasons why it will fail, why your ideas are better etc. and being enthusiastic. You are not a automaton to be programmed with the next task; you should tell your supervisor what you intend to try next and ask what they think.
  • discussing the “big picture” (i.e. time management, overall progress, thesis plan etc.) as well as the detail. If you are a Research Assistant working on a project, you will need to discuss the balance between that project and your thesis work.
  • setting objectives for both you and your supervisor (with dates).
  • setting the date, time and place for the next meeting. Ask for comments on your written work to be returned to you before the next meeting so you can read and act on them beforehand.

You can expect your supervisor to be reasonably accessible, open and friendly to you and enthusiastic and supportive about your work and career. During supervision sessions you can expect your supervisor to give you uninterrupted attention (e.g. by telling callers to call back). Your supervisor’s experience will enable them to be constructively critical of your work and its presentation, suggest ideas, references and resources, so you would be unwise to ignore their advice. They will be able to tell you how you are progressing against the normal benchmarks for a PhD, introduce you to other workers in your area, take you to conferences (especially when you are ready to present your own work), tell you when you are ready to submit your thesis, and promote your career by introducing you to others in the field and giving you a reference. You need to do everything you can to deserve this type of attention!

If the student/supervisor relationship is not working you will need to act tactfully; changing your supervisor without starting again from scratch is rarely feasible. It is much better to discuss the issues with your departmental research tutor, or similar academic, who can act to resolve the problems. Your departmental research director can also provide factual information on registration, progression and specification for the thesis.

Preparation for the Oral Examination.

The following applies to the examination of PhDs in the UK; in other countries, other procedures apply, for example giving public lectures and a public defence.

Remember that your supervisor will not have let you submit a thesis which is marginal. Nevertheless you can still fail by a poor performance in the Viva.

  • Prepare for it by reading your thesis again with fresh, critical eyes, writing down all possible questions you might get and how you’ll answer them. You will be allowed your own copy of the thesis in the Viva, so stick in all questions and answers on yellow post-it notes.
  • Find out about the External Examiners own work; read some of his/her papers if possible.
  • Present yourself as logical, organised and honest (otherwise the examiners may not trust your results)
  • Be smart; take a clean handkerchief, pen and paper, and presentation materials.
  • Discuss with your supervisor whether you should make a short presentation on what you have done, what your main results are and how they might be used.
  • Update your c.v. and Web page.

The Oral

The Oral is a debate not an argument. It should be an enjoyable, but rigorous, experience. It will usually last 1-3 hours, but this will flash by in what seems more like 10 minutes.

  • Be prepared for the opening question “Please tell me, in your own words, what you have done” or “What are the strongest/weakest features of your research?”. A closing question might be to outline where you think future development of your ideas could lead and how this might be done.
  • You will probably be asked questions on basic knowledge in areas related to, but outside, your thesis topic. Often these general questions will come from the Internal Examiner.
  • Specific questions of detail will be asked by the External Examiner. Failure to answer one or two questions does not mean you will fail the PhD; just say you don’t know, or ask for clarification of the question if you don’t understand what is being asked.
  • It is usually a good idea to have your supervisor present. They cannot answer questions for you (indeed they must be invited to speak), but can be helpful in clarification of questions, and to prompt you for results etc. which you have forgotten to mention in the heat of the moment. They can also take notes for you, especially if you need to modify the thesis.

At the end, you will normally be told either that you have the PhD, or (more often) that some amendments are required. This can range from substantial re-writing to mere typos, but either way it is essential to do this as soon as possible.

You should also write up your work in publication form, which usually involves a re-write in a much more concise format.

Getting a PhD place … and a job afterwards!

If you have read this far you must be serious about doing research and keen to find a studentship. Go and talk to your staff about this; even if they can’t help or have no funding for you, at this level it’s a small world and they’ll know others in the UK and elsewhere that you should check out on the internet and then talk to.

Virtually all UK PhD places are advertised at so sign up. Also sign up to

Good luck!

Further Reading

  • It would be a good idea early on to read this very useful guide to the structure of a thesis
  • Many of the issues raised here are explored in detail in “The research student’s guide to success” P. Cryer, Open University Press and “How to get a PhD” E. M. Phillips and D. S. Pugh, Open University Press.
  • Some of the information in this guide can be viewed in this PowerPoint file. This is mostly written with science and technology students in mind.
  • Postgraduate Research Leaflet (print double sided and fold into a leaflet)


About the Study Skills for Mathematics pages

These pages were originally created by Martin Greenhow.

Creative Commons Licence
Study Skills in Mathematics by Martin Greenhow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Study Skills – Introduction

Study Skills – Time Management

Study Skills – Lectures

Study Skills – Reading

Study Skills – Projects and Essays

Study Skills – Using Charts and Graphs

Study Skills – Problem Sheets

Study Skills – Experiments

Study Skills -Presentations

Study Skills – Revision

Study Skills – Exams

Study Skills – Getting a Job

Study Skills – Help

Study Skills – Postgraduate Research

Image Credits

Featured image by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Education – Creative Commons” (CC BY 2.0) by NEC Corporation of America
Finals” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Don Burkett