Risk Management in your PhD

Committing yourself to a PhD project is a serious undertaking – you are committing yourself to between three and six years in the pursuit of answering a question, or exploring and making sense of new ideas and new thinking.

Inevitably, there will be roadblocks and obstacles that present themselves which can impede your path to completion. Some of the roadblocks are easier to deal with than others and today, I would like to share with you a non-comprehensive list of hypothetical questions and ideas that you may want to take on board when you consider the risks associated with your PhD.

Before you start your PhD

The process of managing risks in a PhD project starts well before your enrolment. Some of the questions I would ask myself to identify key risks would be:

  1. Is my potential supervisor someone I can get on with?
  2. Do I understand why I’m doing this particular PhD?
  3. Do I understand what I hope to achieve by completing such a program?
  4. Am I entertaining the idea of doing a PhD because I am procrastinating making decisions about my own life goals?
  5. Is doing a PhD a logical step towards achieving my career (or other) goals? Is it absolutely necessary to do a PhD, or can I get there another way?
  6. Does completing a PhD form part of my greater career strategy?
  7. Does completing a PhD deliver value to me?
  8. Is the area of research a hot topic where competition to be the first to publish is strong?
  9. Am I prepared to sacrifice my social life and financial security in pursuit of obtaining a degree?
  10. Do I have an exit strategy, should my PhD fail for whatever reason?

Developing the “business case” of your PhD and how it delivers value to you is really important is in terms of maintaining your motivation right throughout the program; it is a long and hard journey and you will need all the motivation you can draw on to make it to the end. Marrying this risk-analysed profile of your PhD to your personal values and goals allows you to focus on the tasks of actually completing your project. Ideally, you want to position yourself so that you don’t have to worry about where you will end up at the end of it. Answering the first ten questions in detail is a good place to start. If you find that you can’t answer these questions satisfactorily, I would contend that you may need to reconsider your motivations for pursuing a PhD.

The early stages of your PhD

Often, the first step in starting a project is to perform the literature review. It’s a good place to start, but my belief is that the literature review is inherently flawed for one simple reason: it is purely academic. The ecosystem in which your PhD resides lives in the real world. The biggest mistake that you can make is to the believe that a literature review tells you the majority of the things you need to know about your PhD ecosystem. Committing this mistake narrows down your ability to “see” all of the aligned and competing elements that may affect the outcome of your project, because you miss the real-world elements that will also have some role to play.

For example, if you are working on a project where industry and other commercial entities are also working within, you may be missing critical information by not performing patent searches. Alternatively, if information in your area of research is more skewered towards “know-how”, do you have the networks, contacts and linkages to elucidate this information? If you don’t, how do you know you are not replicating know-how that may have already been established previously, outside of academic literature?

By considering these elements, you are effectively taking the risk out of your PhD project. Why? Because you are identifying unknowns in your project.

By identifying these unknowns, you are highlighting to yourself that you have insufficient information to make a decision on how to achieve your particular objectives. In doing so, you are developing a framework in which you need to implement in order to elucidate this information. So perhaps, you don’t know anything about a particular technology that your PhD encompasses – you could then implement a strategy to go out to various industry bodies and companies to discover this information; it could be formally or informally. This is where networking becomes important, because you need to find the right people to get you the information you need in the most efficient manner possible. In my experience, I have learned more about the things I needed to know about my PhD ecosystem through talking to people in industry, more information than I could ever have found by trawling through textbooks and literature.

If you’re not sure where to start, start with your supervisor'(s’) contacts – in most cases they will be happy to introduce you to the people they consider to be important. Otherwise, we have been blessed with something they call Google and “social media” – Twitter and other online communities such as LinkedIn groups, ResearchGate and Reddit allow you to get in touch with other like-minded individuals that will be more than happy to help. It’s very easy to feel isolated in the laboratory/office/broom-cupboard, but the Internet breaks down the communication barriers to information-gathering.

However, nothing beats face-to-face interaction. Making efforts to find networking events in your area where you can meet other people that maybe working in your area, or in an area related to yours is always really valuable. If you’re not comfortable in social situations, make a concerted effort to learn how to be.

A strong reason for building good networks with people within your PhD ecosystem is to understand the different goals and objectives of stakeholders that influence your project. You may find that you need specific people to enable you to reach certain milestones, and achieve certain goals. However, stakeholders do not necessarily share the same values and outcome drivers that you may, and you may find that values and goals between stakeholders are often in conflict. Identifying these potential conflicts will allow you to manage them more effectively as you go through your project; it’s not an easy task. If it was, someone would have already done it and there would be no need for a PhD (potentially), right?

Planning for your career beyond the PhD

Looking for your next position is something that needs to be considered right throughout your PhD. Difficult decisions take time, and if you haven’t given yourself enough time to incubate the ideas and possible career paths in your head, you may find yourself doing this at the end of your PhD. It’s not an ideal situation; your transition to your next position is disjointed and may leave you in a financially difficult situation.

Though your PhD may keep you busy, remember to give yourself time to take stock of the things that are happening both in your PhD and in your life. You may not be able to answer certain career questions and may not have access to all the information you need to make an informed decision about where you see your career progressing to, but you will be exposed to a lot of new ideas, new information, and new people. Those ideas, though possibly unrelated to career development, may act as a catalyst for you to explore new areas in your personal development – leverage these new insights and ideas into building your understanding of your overall career ecosystem. If you find that you can’t overcome particular roadblocks in your personal head-space, it is worthwhile seeking a number of mentors (they don’t have to be in your area of research, in fact, I’d recommend mentors outside of your area for the reasons I list here) to help you overcome the barriers – a sounding board for your ideas is always useful.

So I’ve talked about a number of different activities that a budding or early-stage PhD student would ideally need to undertake for successful completion of their PhD (aside from the actual PhD thesis requirements) and for thinking about their early career options. These skills (that industry often values) have included:

  1. Developing a completion strategy and identifying risks/unknowns for your PhD (Skill: Risk Management)
  2. Finding supplementary sources of information (Skills: Patent searching, seeking market intelligence, establishing collaborations)
  3. Networking to accelerate the information-gathering process (Skills: Developing professional communication skills, defining your value proposition, pitching your ideas, finding and engaging mentors)
  4. Engaging with key stakeholders as part of risk management (Skills: Networking, developing professional communication skills, pitching your ideas, project management)
  5. Gaining global overview of your project ecosystem (Skills: Strategic planning)

Gaining a global understanding of your PhD and career ecosystems by developing short, medium and possibly long-term strategies via risk management approaches is something I believe PhD students and early-career researchers should strongly consider. You are setting yourself up for successful completion of your PhD, as well as developing your pathways to future career success.


3 thoughts on “Risk Management in your PhD

  1. I wished I had an answer for all 10 questions I should have asked myself before I started my Ph.D. Unfortunately, I don’t. As a grad student, I am still constantly learning about the “learning process” as well as my research.

    After all, life is too short to be worrying about anything 😀

  2. Pingback: Transitioning out from a PhD to “industry” – It’s all about YOU! | Synkronicity

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