Books, Phd

PhD advice book review, Part 2 – “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg (2010)

One of the PhD advice books that I bought to help me write a research proposal was “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research”, 2nd edition, by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg, 2010. Here’s a spoiler: I adore this book. As I will go through below, this book provides useful and very specific advice in all areas of postdoctoral research, both the sciences and the humanities.

The book has a wide scope, covering topics such as: what a PhD is; the different types of PhD; the supervisor-student relationship; academic networking; research design; writing structure and style; writing articles; speaking at conferences; the dreaded viva voce exam; and finally life after academia.

The book uses the analogy of the PhD as a cabinet-maker’s ‘masterpiece’ throughout. The point is repeatedly stressed that, as with cabinet-making, you need to be able to physically demonstrate that you have the high level research skills needed to be awarded the PhD. Otherwise it “doesn’t matter how brilliant or well-informed you are – if the brilliance and erudition isn’t visible in the dissertation, then you’re going to fail.”

To be awarded a PhD, you must be able to prove that your thesis makes an “original and significant contribution to the relevant field.” I personally found their breakdown of what this ‘original and significant contribution’ entails particularly useful and easy to read. There is also an interesting in-depth section covering gaining the critical skills needed to be an independent researcher. No matter where you might be in the PhD process, I think this section will benefit you.

As I am just beginning my PhD journey there are many sections that I cannot yet put into practice, such as presenting at conferences and writing academic papers for publication. As such, I cannot test out the advice just now. However their advice seems perceptive and logical. If anyone has experience of these parts of academic life and wants to give their advice on these matters, please do below!

The tone of the book is informal and honest throughout. It is often funny too, whilst still taking the topic seriously. The section on the viva, in particular, is brutally honest, the message being that if you prepare properly you have a very good chance of success; however a failure to prepare will lead to ‘sharks in the water’, a metaphor for the rush of criticism from qualified academics when spotting a foolish mistake. This analogy is also discussed in reference to presenting at conferences, as they describe academics who look to ‘draw blood’ purely for the sake of it. So I will definitely make sure I know what I’m taking about before I ever give a paper at a conference!

The message overall in the book is similar to that of the other PhD advice books I have read: skills are not acquired overnight and hard work is the only way to success. I would highly recommend that any prospective or current PhD students read this book, as I think that the advice would be helpful to anyone. Two thumbs up!

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