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In late 2012, I commenced a PhD at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK as a fortunate recipient of Jameel funding. Last week I emerged out of the other side relatively unscathed and with, as far as I can tell, my sanity intact. In this short blog piece, I reflect upon my experiences by sharing Six Points for a Successful PhD.
1. Read How to Get a PhD by Phillips and Pugh
I read this in the months after winning the scholarship but before enrolment. It stood me in great stead. In very clear and accessible prose, the authors explain the mechanics of the PhD process and offer key advice on such issues as ‘managing your supervisors’ and avoiding common pitfalls. A thorough perusal can pre-empt problems and psychologically prepare a wet-behind-the-ears postgrad for the long trek ahead.
2. Pick a topic that inspires passion
Make no mistake about it: the PhD is a long, hard slog through the woods. The last thing you want is to run out of energy or motivation half-way through. So don’t pick a topic that simply interests you; pick something that makes your heart pound. The joy of discovery should be the oil that keeps your midnight lamp burning – night after night after night…
(For me, it was actually freshly chopped wood that burned, night after night, as I conducted fieldwork in the icy mountains of Bulgaria).
3. Always submit your best possible draft of work – on time!
Supervisors are busy people and, along with you, have a thousand other balls to keep juggling in the air. Many schedule time in their diaries to read and comment on work in advance of a supervisory meeting (note for supervisors: providing written feedback in advance of a supervisory meeting is extremely helpful for the student). Capitalise on the professional expertise your work can benefit from by submitting the best possible draft you can muster; not something the dog spat out the night before. And a great rule of thumb I assiduously stuck to: submit anything you want to discuss at least a week in advance of your supervisory meeting.
4. Present at conferences and get your foot on the publications ladder
One of the goals of the PhD is to socialise you into the world of academia, gradually equipping you with the tools to carve out a career for yourself. This can best be achieved by engaging in a number of ancillary activities over the years. Key among these is subjecting your work to peer scrutiny by presenting ideas and findings at conferences – which are also great forums for networking and encountering cutting-edge research in similar fields. Book reviews are the simplest way to get your name into a reputable academic journal and, if your supervisors think you can manage it, go for a chapter in an edited book collection or, even better, an article in a peer-reviewed journal.
5. Keep plugging away through thick and thin
A little like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the journey is long, arduous and taxing. Emotional as well as intellectual highs and lows will assail you as you plod along. Personally, my third child was born after three months and my house flooded after three years (as part of the 2015 Boxing Day floods). Each event probably set me back several months. But in spite of the obstacles that invariably pop up don’t take your eye off the ball. Tenacity and grit are just as essential as reading and writing.
6. Enjoy the experience
The sheer, unadulterated bliss of having little to do other than plough through a pile of books is an experience probably never-to-be-repeated in your professional life. Make the most of it. Read widely and voraciously to master your topic and broaden your intellectual horizons. The PhD is a journey of personal and intellectual growth: you start out a student and finish a scholar. Every step of that transformation is worth relishing.
These are my reflections at the end of the PhD. If you want to compare notes, here are some thoughts I shared when I was still in the thick of it.
 Those readers who have some familiarity with the subject of my doctoral research, the Tablighi Jama’at in modern Britain, should ‘get’ the pun in the title. Everyone else: please rest assured the humour doesn’t rock the Richter scale.
Dr Riyaz Timol (he’s the one on the left, next to eminent sociologist Professor Grace Davie and fellow doctoral scholar Matthew Vince) was a Jameel PhD Scholar. He successfully defended his PhD in June. Riyaz is the founder of thinkBRITE Services, providing training on Islam and Muslim culture. Visit his academia.edu page here.
Exploring the lives of Muslim communities in Britain
Unless otherwise stated, the views contained within this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Cardiff University.