Monday, December 13, 2010

The Motivation for Doctoral Study

The Motivation for Doctoral Study
Understanding Why You Want to Do a Ph.D.

Jul 22, 2007 Alistair McCulloch

Doing a PhD is a huge undertaking. Understanding your motivation will help you succeed and also help your supervisor support you. Five motivations are discussed here.

The Importance of Motivation

‘Doing a PhD is unlike anything else you will ever do. You must be sure you want to do one to succeed.’ That’s the advice any admissions tutor worth their salt will give an applicant for a doctoral degree. In your application form and during an interview, they will want to explore an applicant’s motivation for wanting to ‘do a PhD’.

A PhD student’s motivation can stem from a variety of different sources. Understanding your own motivation for doctoral study is important because it will dictate, in part at least, the type of research degree you study for and your likelihood of success. Understanding your motivation will also help your institution (through your supervisor) support and encourage you in the best way.

There are five main sources of motivation for the research student.

If you are doing a PhD which includes a project related to improving your employing organisation’s performance, then it is probable that you will have at least part of your fees paid and that you may be given time in which to study. The motivation here will be to complete a qualification where failure to deliver could have a potentially negative impact on your career because the qualification is tied so closely into your current occupation. Your project will be highly applied and, once started, and unless you change employer half-way through, you will have a very high chance of successful completion.


A research student whose motivation falls into this category is interested in doctoral study as a way of enhancing their employability. If this is you, you are likely to be as interested in the general skills and broad knowledge that you can pick up along the way as you are in the final qualification and the specific skills you need to complete the doctorate. You want these additional elements that the doctorate can provide as you believe they will make you more attractive to future employers. There is a high chance that you will choose to pursue a professional doctorate.

Career Change

There are a few careers where possession of a doctorate is a pre-requisite. These include university teaching and research scientist. If this is what motivates you, you will want to concentrate on completion of the qualification as quickly as possible and are likely to want to complete a UK-style ‘big-book’ type of thesis. Additional skills training will be valued only as far as it contributes to your planned career path.

Read on

* Improving PhD Completion Rates
* Choosing a Topic for a PhD Thesis
* Where Should I Do a PhD?


A student who pursues a PhD in a topic in which they are already interested and about which they want to know more, is likely to be highly focused on that topic, and will specifically seek the skills they need to complete it. If this is you, you may well be relatively indifferent to the requirements of prescribed generic skills programmes, although you may be motivated to attend for the ‘social’ benefits of meeting with other students. This will be particularly true if you have retired from employment.


If you are taking a PhD primarily as a means of self-development, then you are likely to be what has been trermed a ‘lifelong learner’. The very act of studying is its own motivator and, given the fact that you have studied successfully at the full range of levels prior to commencing doctoral study, you are likely to complete your PhD. However, given your emphasis on the process as much as the qualification, you must be careful not to run out of time.

Concluding Comment

It is true that studying for a PhD is unlike anything else you will ever do. Anything you can do to enhance your likelihood of success should be welcomed. Understanding your motivation will help you do this and also help you to choose your doctoral subject and the type of PhD for which you study.

Note: This article draws on a Guide to Postgraduate Supervision to be published later in the year by the Society for Research in Higher Education. The Guide focuses on Part-time Students and is written by Alistair McCulloch and Peter Stokes.

Read more at Suite101: The Motivation for Doctoral Study: Understanding Why You Want to Do a Ph.D.

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