Roadmap to a successful PhD in Business & management and the social sciences

The definitive guide for postgraduate researchers

by Glauco De Vita (Author) Jason Begley (Author) David Bowen (Author)
Monographs XX, 332 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of figures, tables and appendices
  • Preface
  • List of abbreviations
  • 1 The nature of doctoral research and becoming a postgraduate researcher (Glauco De Vita)
  • 2 How to write a PhD application and academic proposal (Jason Begley)
  • 3 Completing a literature review (David Bowen)
  • 4 The key attributes of an excellent PhD thesis (Jason Begley and Glauco De Vita)
  • 5 Managing up, managing your time and managing your wellbeing (Glauco De Vita)
  • 6 Making the most of training and development opportunities (Jason Begley)
  • 7 Strategies to deal with difficulties and major crises (Jason Begley)
  • 8 Annual progress reviews (David Bowen)
  • 9 Talking about, presenting and publicising your research (David Bowen)
  • 10 Final checks of the thesis, preparing the viva and dealing with amendments (Glauco De Vita)
  • 11 All you wanted to know about publishing from your PhD but never dared ask! (Glauco De Vita)
  • 12 Preparing for life after the PhD and career options (Glauco De Vita)
  • About the authors
  • Index


The motivation for this book came from Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs) themselves. Time and time again in my daily interactions with them, they ask for advice ranging from how to structure the thesis and publish from their research to last-minute tips on how to prepare for their annual progress review or viva voce. In my conversations with the Postgraduate Research Lead in the Faculty of Business and Law at Coventry University (UK) – Dr Jason Begley, second-named author of this book – we often discuss recurrent issues that prospective and existing PGRs also raise with him. These issues usually revolve around how to go about preparing the best possible PhD proposal and better cope with the stresses of academic life, including how PGRs could better manage their time, their relationship with supervisors and, more generally, their wellbeing. Of course, we regularly run many workshops and training sessions to cater for PGRs’ thirst for knowledge. In such seminars we unpack many such issues to help them develop the right mindset and expectations of what it means to become a PGR, understand the inherent challenges and fulfil the tasks necessary to successfully complete the PhD. However, as one cohort of PGRs runs its course, new candidates embark on their doctoral journey. This raises, once again, the need for us to explain and clarify to them the skills and processes necessary to facilitate the successful completion of their doctorate.

Having worked closely in my capacity as Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange at a previous university with another PhD programme director – Dr David Bowen, third-named author of this book – I was already well aware that such issues, needs and demands for doctoral training are widespread across universities. Hence the idea for this book, to provide a useful and comprehensive contemporary guide to current and future PGRs on how to start and complete a PhD successfully and, for supervisors, how to fulfil their responsibility to guide their PGRs in this endeavour.←ix | x→

There are obviously already several books that offer guides to the secrets of a successful PhD completion. However, their quality varies, and some are rather dated. To better appreciate the distinctiveness of our contribution, it is perhaps worth looking first at the existing provision in this area.

Some of the existing texts take a supervisor-focused rather than a PGR-centred approach to the subject of completing a doctorate (see, e.g., Green, 2005, Supervising Postgraduate Research: Contexts and Processes, Theories and Practices, or Lee, 2020, Successful Research Supervision: Advising Students Doing Research). Although these books contain helpful advice, they are explicitly aimed at early career academic supervisors rather than PGRs as their target audience. As a result, they build on a teacher- or instructor-led paradigm (rather than a ‘learner-led’ educational model) that appears to run antithetical to the view that a PhD is, ultimately, an endeavour that starts and ends with the doctoral researcher. Placing emphasis on the supervisor’s role in the PGR-supervisor relationship also brings with it a set of assumptions and expectations about educational and motivational responsibilities that are not naturally conducive to offering useful guidance to PGRs operating in academic environments where less than ideal supervision is carried out (a point I elaborate on in this book when discussing how PGRs should go about ‘managing up’). On this note, it is worth highlighting that we refrain in this volume from referring to PGRs as ‘students’. We do so to draw an important distinction between their status and that of undergraduate- or postgraduate-taught students, and to raise attention to how they are to be viewed by staff and Higher Education (HE) institutions (HEIs). Some PGRs are mature learners, and some work part-time or even full-time alongside their study. Many of them are fully involved in the academic life of the school, department or research centre in which they do research. Alongside working on their PhD, they teach, mark assignments and exams, help organise conferences, contribute to their university’s research output and, most importantly, to the vibrancy and richness of the scholarly culture characterising the learning environment. The ‘student’ nomenclature, with its supposed connotations of dependence and immaturity, also downplays the level and quality of thought and analysis that is required to achieve the PhD award. After all, doctoral research is not judged as ‘student’ work, and it is often of publishable standard. Apart ←x | xi→from mandatory methods training and supervisory guidance, the award is the fruit of a long journey where the PGR has been required to self-regulate and work autonomously to produce original independent research that makes a significant contribution to knowledge as judged by senior peers.

With respect to content and style, at one end of the spectrum of existing texts on completing a PhD are those that employ a purely pragmatic, marketing-like approach. These books tend to offer interminable lists of easy solutions and quick fixes often without providing any reasons, underlying justifications or theory-based evidence as to why suggested behaviours should be expected to be beneficial. Some of these texts are illustrated pocket guides aimed at demystifying the PhD process, which often adopt a vignette-like, light-hearted stance to the subject (see, e.g., Williams et al., 2010, Planning Your PhD – Pocket Study Skills). The problem with this approach is that in attempting to provide a highly digestible and very basic understanding to ensure comprehension by all, it can end up trivialising, obscuring even, the inherent complexities and challenges of the doctoral journey. The value of a sense of humour notwithstanding (an essential life skill), I remain sceptical of the actual worth of the sort of ‘Complete Idiot’s Guide’ to completing a doctorate. Hyperbole aside, doing a PhD is probably an ambition still best reserved for those who do not fall into the clinical classification of ‘idiot’ or who share traits with the layperson’s interpretation of the term.

At the other end of the spectrum are those books that, in spite of their valuable insights, tend to offer a narrative skewed towards the bureaucratic infrastructure of doctoral level institutional offerings. These texts are often replete with information about formal procedures and associated rules and responsibilities that universities and departments have for providing an adequate level of service, content of limited usefulness and marginal relevance to the immediate needs of PGRs. How to Get a PhD – A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors by Phillips and Pugh (2015) is a case in point.

This is not to say that along with the rich doctoral education literature from academic journals, we do not take note of, draw on even, some of the useful advice that is offered in many previously published PhD handbooks. On the contrary, we cite and pay homage to many of them throughout our book. One such text stands above all others: Umberto Eco’s (2015) wise ←xi | xii→and witty guide How to Write a Thesis, a real gem! Who better to help with thesis writing than a venerable public intellectual and novelist, a distinguished academic and a widely celebrated author of influential works on semiotics, right? That said, although its first English (translated) edition only became available in 2015, the book was written (in Italian) in the mid-1970s, almost half a century ago. Moreover, Eco’s ‘Come si fa una tesi di laurea - le materie umanistiche’ (a literal translation would be ‘How to write a dissertation in the humanities’) was intended for the original research that was required of students pursuing the Italian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree (the first, post-secondary, degree called ‘Laurea’) – not quite the same as the contemporary requirements of a PhD thesis. In addition, Eco wrote his ‘dissertation-writing’ manual, which was never revised or updated, before the advent of widespread word processing, the World Wide Web, digital libraries, online portals of archival and cataloguing systems, and electronic databases of peer-reviewed literature. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that alongside the inspiring and timeless wisdom imparted by Eco, his book also devotes entire chapters to archaic ‘technologies’ such as handwritten note and index cards. The book also contains long sections on matters such as formatting requirements (which are nowadays highly standardised, just like the codified citation styles in common use) and how to overcome the limitations of local libraries, with tips that, as a result of the passage of time, are rather anachronistic and of little use to contemporary PGRs. Finally, as per Eco’s acknowledgement in his own ‘Introduction’ to the original 1977 edition, his book deals mainly with ‘dissertations’ in the humanities. Since his experience relates to studies in literature and philosophy, his examples are naturally confined to such topics – examples that may not always be illuminating for PGRs in business and management–related disciplines.

I have similar yet inverse-related subject qualms about other admirable and well-written ‘how-to’ PhD guides, which, despite recognising that disciplines vary, try to speak to PGRs across all academic fields, nonetheless. The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Rugg and Petre, 2010; and Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation by Dunleavy, 2015, are eminent examples. The problem is that across disciplinary fields there are significant differences in PhD practices ←xii | xiii→as well as assumptions and expectations of what a PhD thesis should look like and how to go about research.

As indicated by its title, the aim of our book is to provide the most comprehensive if not ‘definitive’ roadmap to a successful PhD completion in business and management and the social sciences. Our ambitious attempt adds to what has gone before by dealing explicitly with the deficiencies and lacunae of existing provision as highlighted above. First, although much of the content will be of considerable benefit to any PGR in any discipline, this book is written for and specifically aimed at PGRs studying in business schools and social sciences departments in disciplines such as, inter alia, international business, marketing, management, organisation studies, tourism and hospitality, accounting, finance, law and economics. Moreover, while the book makes frequent reference to the British system, most of the advice applies across countries and the book, therefore, can be used and widely implemented globally.

Second, unlike any other PhD handbook, we provide detailed advice to both aspiring and current PGRs on aspects pertaining to the entire doctoral journey. Following our introductory chapter on the nature of doctoral study, our thorough coverage takes the reader through a storyline that starts from how to write a first-class academic proposal as part of the PhD application process, a topic hardly ever dealt with in similar books, through to how to prepare for life after the PhD, another aspect far too often ignored by comparable PhD manuals. In so doing, we fill other important gaps in currently available texts.

Third, our writing style unapologetically alternates a formal, literature-based, academic writing narrative (where PGRs are referred to in the third person), with a more intimate, more direct and conversational personal style, where we refer to our audience of aspiring and existing PGRs as ‘you’. The former text provides a scholarly account of the education landscape and doctoral study context–dependent knowledge, with frequent reference to relevant literature, theory and educational psychology. The latter passages centre around specific practical guidance that is informed, at strategic points throughout the text, by stories of the lived experience of past PGRs (duly anonymised, of course) as well as our personal professional anecdotes and real life examples of ‘how to’ and ‘how not to’. These many ←xiii | xiv→suggestions include how to and how not to write a PhD application, how to deal with crises such as that posed by the Covid-19 pandemic (particularly in terms of alternative strategies for data collection), how to make the most of Annual Progress Reviews (APRs), how best to prepare for the viva and adjustments to be made for an online (remotely hosted) PhD oral examination, how to maximise the probability of publishing from the PhD material, how to choose the best academic journal to target, how to address PhD examiners and journal reviewers’ requests for amendments, how to engage with and publicise the research through social media, and considerations related to career opportunities outside as well as within academia. In-depth discussion of such aspects, which have received hardly if any coverage by other volumes in this area, also make our book up to date in dealing with the contemporary challenges PGRs face.

Finally, our compendium of useful information and tools draws from decades of experience in teaching at all levels of educational provision (from undergraduate programmes through to the Doctorate of Business Administration), publishing in academic journals of high repute, successful PhD supervision and examining, and in our role as strategic and academic directors of doctoral programmes in different universities. Supervisors too should benefit greatly from reading this book, even simply as recipients of much of the implicit or tacit knowledge which surrounds the realm of ‘best practice’ supervision, rarely shared by academics. We have made every effort to articulate such tacit knowledge explicitly in order to make visible our expertise with many examples drawn from our own lived experiences of PGR selection and PhD supervision and examining, and associated lessons learned.


I am happy to acknowledge the superb environment for teaching, learning and research within the Centre for Business in Society (CBiS) at Coventry University (UK), and the support of Professor Lyndon Simkin, Executive Director of CBiS, Professor Nigel Berkley, Institute Director (Responsible Business, Economies and Society), and many colleagues.

My heartfelt gratitude goes to Jason Begley and David Bowen, for embracing my vision for this book and for their excellent contributions ←xiv | xv→to it. They have been ideal co-authors. Additionally, I thank Tony Mason, Senior Commissioning Editor, and the team at Peter Lang, for allowing us the editorial freedom to shape this work in the way we envisaged.

Our collective appreciation extends to the friends, colleagues and former PGRs who gave their time to read early drafts of the chapters in this book and helped improve it in innumerable ways. Peter Case, Adrian Parker, Tom Donnelly, Laura Spira, David Cushman, Donato Vozza, Emmanouil Trachanas, Sailesh Tanna, Paul Noon, Daniel Ganly, Fabio Carbone, Yun Luo, Eliana Lauretta, Oluwatosin Lagoke and Runda Gao in particular provided us with insightful points for reflection and critical feedback, and we can only hope that the final version is worthy of their wisdom.

This book is dedicated to our families, friends and all our past, current and future PGRs.

– Professor Glauco De Vita

Biographical notes

Glauco De Vita (Author) Jason Begley (Author) David Bowen (Author)

Glauco De Vita is Professor of International Business Economics and Strategic Director of the PhD Programme in the Centre for Business in Society (CBiS) at Coventry University. Jason Begley is an Associate Professor and Academic Director for Postgraduate Researchers in the Centre for Business in Society (CBiS) at Coventry University. David Bowen is a Reader and Head of Doctoral Programmes in the Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford Brookes University.


Title: Roadmap to a successful PhD in Business  & management and the social sciences