The Jedi PhD
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The Jedi PhD

My Journey to PhD at Henley Business School (Dagobah)

Disclaimers:

  1. I have done my masters and doing my PhD in the UK Education System. So the suggestions are based on the experiences in the UK Education System or education systems similar to it. In simple words, I don’t have any clue about US and Indian PhD systems.
  2. This article is my personal journey towards my PhD studentship. I will write about the proposal process, scholarship process and other things in later blog posts.

I am 36. Almost 99% of my friends from school and college (UG) have a house or paying a mortgage in the US, at least 1 Kid (and I hope only one wife/husband) and probably taking a family vacation this December. I come from a culture where you are expected to “settle” at 30, have kids, worry about their education and invest in land/gold to safeguard your future. While this is the norm, I decided to be a rebel and change my path (as my grandmother would put it, “like a bird flying in the wrong direction”).

This story started in 2014. In May 2014, after a successful stint, I quit Maarga Systems, an SME IT firm in Chennai. I loved working in that company, and I had a wonderful boss in Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy. In fact, I had exponential improvement in my business quizzing fortunes because of my partner Anantha. We had super fun quizzing together. But, I felt I was lacking something in my career, and I quit.

I wasn’t actively applying to any of the companies, but I did attend a couple of interviews after I left Maarga. But the companies were hesitant in picking me up for a strategic role because of my MBA degree. I should give you a background about my education. I finished my BE (IT) from Bharathidasan University and immediately did my MBA from Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Chennai. When I joined IIPM, it was a decent B-School, and I had some excellent professors, but the school got into controversy because of its Head (Arindam Chaudhury). Like many other B-Schools in India, IIPM isn’t a recognised or accredited institution, and the controversy surrounding the school didn’t help much. Having said that, most of my classmates are either in good positions or having their own business. But I am pretty sure they would have encountered these issues at some point in time.

So I was trying to wade through this maze and my nephew, Kalven was staying with me. He had finished his BE and was working with a small company in Chennai. He wanted to do his Masters and was exploring International studies. I think it was a humid Saturday when we entered Edwise, an agency that specialises in overseas education. I still remember my meeting with Asiya, one of the senior counsellors and how she explained Kalven about foreign education. I was listening to this entire conversation, and it gave me a spark.

I went back, took my time, researched about Digital marketing and marketing courses around the world. I chose 5 universities (3 in the UK, 1 In Ireland and 1 in France), developed a statement of purpose (helped by my friend Madhubanti), made copies of my certificates and went back to Edwise. Asiya was surprised to see that I was ready within a week. I dropped the French university and applied for the rest of the Universities.

I met Saf Jeevanjee (Senior International Officer at the University of Southampton) at the Education Fair, and he was impressed with my proactiveness too. I was so prepared that the only thing I didn’t have was my IELTS certificate. He offered a 5000 GBP fee waiver scholarship if I have to choose Southampton.

I had a brief time to choose. For the uninitiated, the course in most UK and European universities start in September. I was doing my process in June, and it was literally crazy. Although I received unconditional offers from all universities, I shortlisted University of Southampton, UK and University College of Dublin, Ireland. I almost went to Ireland as it gave me an extra one year in Ireland to find a job. I even had pros and cons sheet (come on guys, I am a rational decision maker). But finally, the pre-departure meeting at Edwise was the clincher (yes I chose the university while everyone else was getting ready to fly) as I met fellow students who were going to UCD. There were 8 students (including me) who were going to the same course, and 4 of them were from Chennai. I wanted an international experience and to meet people from various countries. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get it from UCD, and I chose Southampton. Arguably, the wisest decision ever made in my life.

This was the first Facebook update I made after my first lecture with Mike Molesworth (my supervisor now).

Now you know how brilliant my stint in Southampton was. I made some wonderful friends, enjoyed every bit of university life, attended society meetings, quizzed with the university quiz club, got drunk, made merry and above all got a distinction (also got the best performance award in the course).

Why would I go on about my master’s experience in order on a post about my PhD? Two reasons.

Why would I go on about my master’s experience in order on a post about my PhD?

Two reasons.

  1. Dr Lisa Harris was my programme leader, and she was also the Director of Web Science Institute. She also ran a group called “Digichamps”, a digital marketing group for students who impart digital literacy to various other departments in the university. As I had industry experience, I used to take workshops and cover events on social media for WSI. For every distinguished lecture, the PhD students from WSI present posters and I was surprised at the range of topics they researched, and first seed for my PhD dream was planted by those posters.
  2. Your masters will shape your PhD. My PhD topic (which is going through multiple variations as of now) emerged from a blog post that I did during my masters’ course. It became my masters’ dissertation. Mike read my blog post, and the next day in class he said I am on to something. That was the start of this long journey. Also, if you want to secure a scholarship for your PhD, you have to get a distinction in your masters, and I also received an award in my masters for best performance which helped me in securing the scholarship along with strong recommendations from Mike and Lisa (who supported me through this journey)

How to go about finding a PhD?

There are multiple ways you can find a PhD course.

  • Route 1: Find a topic you love and passionate about. And then find a university or a professor who would mentor you. It’s not that easy, for instance, my topic is on Quantified Self, and I was proposing Actor-network theory as an enabling theory and research methodology. There were only a few academicians who were ready to give the idea a shot. Some of the universities rejected my application because they couldn’t find a professor who would be willing to mentor me.
  • Route 2: Find a university or professor you are willing to work with. Universities and professors get grants to work on specific projects, and you can work with them. The problem with this approach is that you might not like the project. I even tried to apply for a couple of universities, but I couldn’t give up on my favourite topic.
  • Route 3: Find a company or organisation that is willing to fund your project. The advantage of this project is that you can choose universities of your choice if the funding works out in your favour. But the disadvantage is that you will be most probably doing a market-related study, and it’s difficult to convince organisations to pick up your research.
  • Route 4: Some of the universities receive open applications and circulate your project among their faculty. If anyone of the faculties likes to take you up as their student, they contact you, take an interview, give recommendations, and the process continues. I almost got through in one of the universities through this method, but the scholarship didn’t go through at the last moment.

I used websites like findaphd to identify projects that I can work on. But the best way is to choose universities and mine their site for information about their PhD programs, professors, their grants and projects.

Websites to track PhD projects

Things to remember

  1. The process is awfully long

If you have a topic in mind, make a proposal now. Show it to someone who can give critical feedback and shape it up. You need to work on the proposal every time you send it out. It’s an iterative, painful and never-ending process. A university might take anywhere between 1- 2 months for a place decision and 2–3 months for a scholarship decision. Some scholarships are decided 6–8 months before the actual commencement of the course. Be mindful of your dates.

2. Be ready to get rejected

Getting a PhD seat and scholarship is very much like landing on a good Tinder date. The only problem is you would know that you are getting rejected. If you are going to be dejected because of rejections, you will never be able to secure a seat or scholarship. After starting the course, you have to encounter more rejections, critical feedback and a lot of moments that will make you question your existence. So be ready.

3. There is merit, and There is politics

Securing a PhD seat might be purely through merit but securing a scholarship has its own background politics. Mostly the awards are decided by committees, and there will be bias in the department. Can you mitigate it? No, you can’t. If you are rejected for a scholarship, it’s not entirely because of merit.

4. Keep in touch with your professors

One thing you shouldn’t forget is to keep in touch with your professors from Masters and Undergraduate studies. I am working with Mike, my professor from Masters and it was pure accidental when I ended up messaging him on LinkedIn. If it were not for that message, I wouldn’t be doing my PhD at the Henley Business School. My other professor, Dr Lisa Harris, was patient and grateful enough to provide me with a glowing reference every time I asked her.

5. Be patient

As I said, the process is excruciatingly long and with a lot of rejections. My PhD dream started in 2015, and I got my seat in 2018. I almost gave up my dream and decided that this will be my last year of trials. But Henley happened. If you have a dream, never ever give up.

What will you see in this blog (Specifically)?

  1. My topic is about quantified self, and I am thinking whether to quantify my PhD process (although I have started working on it).
  2. Research topics and articles on my subject and other related topics of interest
  3. PhD Rants (I need a place a rant too)
  4. PhD news, conference news and a showcase of interesting papers.

A roll of thanks

  1. Dr Mike Molesworth and Dr Georgiana Grigore – My supervisors and providing me with an opportunity to work with them. Without them, Henley wouldn’t have happened.
  2. Dr Lisa Harris – For her recommendation, supporting me through the process and providing me opportunities during my masters.
  3. Dr Shailaja – For checking my final proposal and providing support during the most crucial time in the application process
  4. Ashwati – who kept on saying that I will definitely get it
  5. Dr Madhubanti Bhattacharyya – For checking my original dissertation and proposal
  6. My family – they were more supportive than the last time
  7. Stephanie, Lam and Rakshita (soon to be a Doctor) - My friends from Southampton, they believed more in me than I believed in myself.
  8. And Kalven – for taking me to Edwise ;)

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Sylvian Patrick

Sylvian Patrick

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Lecturer by profession, a blogger by choice, a writer by chance, a traveller by compulsion, a non-conformist by gene and a rebel by birth