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Six key traps to avoid in order to Successfully Complete a PhD in the Social Change Sector

Craig Zelizer

October 15, 2019

For anyone starting or advancing a PhD in a field related to social change it can be a long-hard journey (see our blog series on PhDs in Social Change). There are many challenges that can impede or end the PhD journey.  Here are some key highlights from my experience that I hope others will find useful. Also welcome input on your own suggestions for maximizing one's chances of completing the process.

  1. Trying to write/research a grand opus for one’s doctoral dissertation - It is essential to find a doable focus and not try to solve the entire world’s problem in one thesis. Many PhD students aspire to complete their magnus opus. While this is an admirable goal, in my experience the best thesis is one that finished. This doesn't mean one shouldn't put in effort to pick a topic that can positively impact one's particular field and perhaps a bit wider. One of the best visual guides that I've seen that can help guide in picking a PhD topic is the The Illustrated Guide to a PhD (please take a look)
  2. Not putting together the right committee - Selecting a committee is one of the most important decisions one has control over and that can help make or break the thesis process. Make sure to think carefully about what type of support one needs as well as how faculty may or may not work together. While it is great to have committee members who can challenge you do things better, it is essential to also have some faculty on your committee who are your allies. In my process I had a wonderful committee, who provided useful guidance along the way and actually pushed me to do less cases rather than more in my research (thankfully I listened to their sage advice).
  3. Life gets in the way - A PhD is a long hard slog in many cases. Life has a way of getting in the way. Sometimes there are family obligations, one needs to make money with a job or consultancy to pay the bills. There are many brilliant PhD students who never complete their degrees and get stuck in the frequent all but dissertation status. By many estimates only 50-60% of students in the social sciences complete the full process
  4. Not developing a system to writing - A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. It is essential to develop a system that one follows (as much as possible) that can be working X # of hours per day, writing X # of pages per day, reading , etc. Of course taking an occasional day off to play and rest, but too many people don’t setup a useful method to stay on track. While it may be necessary sometimes as one reaches a critical goal to write more intensively (I remember as I did the final edits/part of my thesis I wrote for 24 hours straight), this shouldn't be standard practice.
  5. Develop a peer community - While faculty are great, many times it is one’s peers that are critical to help one stay motivated, deal with the ups and downs and getting much needed support. One of my top suggestions is to setup a peer PhD support group that meets at least every month where people present their ideas, get critiques, support and set out concrete tasks (and are held accountable). I was lucky in my process as we established different support groups at all aspects of the process including preparing for comprehensive exams, writing a proposal, & doing writing/analysis of the final product. I am confident without this group I likely wouldn't have finished.
  6. Seek Funding in advance - Strong  PhD programs may be provide support for 3-5 years of classes and research. But often additional funding may be needed to do field research if that is part of one's research. One usually needs to apply to fellowships 10-12 months prior to potential field research and for me this was critical in securing financial support to enable me to spend 14 months in Bosnia-Herzegovina completing my field research.
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