Getting a PhD.

Doing research can be rewarding for both the individual and community,  or just a waste of time and resources.  If you are thinking of pursuing research think hard about what you want to achieve and develop a serious plan.  I enjoy research and I hope you will too.

First steps: the PhD. Getting a PhD or Maters degree is the best way to start research.  This will get you in contact with experienced researchers,  you will learn how to do research,  and how to play the research “game”.
Before starting ask yourself some key questions-

  • Will I enjoy doing a PhD?  Is it something I really want to do?
  • Will my career benefit from gaining a PhD?  Where will I work when I have my PhD?
  • Can I cope financially with the PhD period (fees,  loss of employment income …).
  • Do I have the time to pursue a PhD given other commitments?

What makes a PhD? The heart of most technology doctorates is an algorithm or structure that is novel,  can be compared to existing work,  implemented and tested.  Clever or financially successful product development will not gain you a PhD!  The usual test is that you have made “an original contribution to the field of knowledge”.  This does not have to be world shaking,  for example if you can show how an existing algorithm is inadequate,  then develop an improvement,  then that may rate as a PhD topic.

What makes a Masters? Most universities require that the candidate at least uses existing knowledge in a new setting.  For example if you applied a new sorting algorithm used only in financial databases to a networking application then this would rate as a Masters topic.
Many universities will start you off in a Masters thesis until you can demonstrate that you have developed a novel algorithm or structure.  Only then will you be moved from Masters candidate to PhD candidate.

Steps to getting a PhD vary but are usually along the following lines.

  • Think about your preferred topic area.
  • Try to identify good supervisors at your preferred institution.  Try talking to their existing research students to get a  feel for how good the supervisor really is.  Its best to have a helpful supervisor who will actually see and guide you rather that world leader who never see you.
  • Start a lot of serious reading before enrolling.  If possible read the academic journals,  for example the IEEE and ACM journals.  In some cases you can get access to University libraries and even better their E-journal access rights to key journals. (I can usually arrange this for serious applicants at RMIT University).
  • Google and Google scholar are wonderful tools,  make sure you can use these and  any tools a University provides.
  • Try to find an area where you can think of a new/improved algorithm or structure.  Carefully check what other people have done to ensure you have something novel.  This is usually a difficult process as someone has done it already and you must modify and change topics.
  • Once a topic has been found try to publish a “stakeout paper” as soon as possible so you are in print as being the first with this novel idea.
  • Try to publish as many papers you can on the topic or the methods developed around the topic.
  • Your thesis becomes a write-up of your papers but usually within the structure of;  literature search and commentary,  presentation of your idea,  implementation,  then testing.

Money and Scholarships. For overseas and local students there are usually fees to complete a higher degree,  these are not trivial, in the order of $20,000 per year.  Most institutions also have scholarships which will reduce or even eliminate fees,  there may also be tutoring opportunities that can get you some useful income.
Make inquiries to the university and the department/school as to what is available,  what are the selection criteria,  and any advice about how likely you are to get fee relief.  Pay a lot of attention to the selection criteria and make sure you address them in any application.  In general good results in other courses are helpful,  and any previous publications or patents.

Finding a Supervisor.  To be honest there is a huge difference in supervisors.  Some will put you on a fast track, some will use you as cheap labour and you wont get your thesis work done.  Some will see you a lot,  some will not see you for weeks.  Once you find a supervisor via the web try to contact past or present research students to see what the supervisor is really like.
Good supervisors wont accept anyone.  Your research area needs to match theirs,  and you need to be good.  You must have evidence you are good such as publications and/or good marks.  Try to get a supervisor willing to accept you before you formally apply for a position.

RMIT University is an excellent place to do research,  here are some key points-

  • See the “Future Students” web page for courses and fees, go to www.rmit.edu.au and click on the top left item “Future Students”.
  • International:  go to the International Student Information page ( www.rmit.edu.au, click “Future Students” at top left,  then “International” at top left), or go to http://www.rmit.edu.au/browse;ID=dju9a4683knw1
    Note especially fees and living expenses.
  • The School of Electrical and Computer Engineering where I teach and do research also has scholarships,  go to http://www.rmit.edu.au/eleceng and click on scholarships.
  • Try to organize your supervisor before you enroll,  but there is a good system of finding you the right supervisor.

Interested still? If you are still interested then why not start to do something about it?  If the following areas interest you then feel free to email me on pjr@rmit.edu.au.  Please have worked some way through the steps above before contacting anyone, this will save everyone time in the long run.

My favourite areas include-

  • Networking, especially networking protocols.
  • Plagiarism at university level.
  • Software engineering.
  • Computer systems including embedded systems.
  • Green energy ideas.

Dr. Pj Radcliffe

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5 Comments

  1. Samaneh said,

    October 11, 2009 at 2:57 am

    Thank you so much for providing such valuable words. I really enjoyed reading it. 🙂

    PjR: thanks for your comments.

  2. Siva Kumar said,

    March 16, 2010 at 12:50 am

    Great information Professor! I will make use of the information in your web site.

  3. Bob Harper said,

    March 25, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Great explanation, I have often wanted to go further but wasn’t sure what was involved. I understood the idea of research, but you have given me a greater incentive to go further. Thank you.

  4. Sujatha said,

    July 26, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Thank you for given me a nice information about Research.I really loved to read.

  5. Adam said,

    September 21, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Fantastic discussion. I finished a BEng in Electronics Engineering last year and have gone straight into industry, although i have often thought about undertaking a masters or PHD i have never fully understood what was involved. Having it explained in such clear terms has now given me the motivation to further my personal research in a more formal way. Regards


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