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7 Doctoral Traps to Avoid: Tips for Incoming and Current Students

7 Doctoral Traps to Avoid: Tips for Incoming and Current Students
Published on
13 September 2018

The doctoral journey has many learning dimensions; yet, some of them are traps one learns to avoid over time. Falling into one or more of these traps is normal, and the deception point comes only after a certain place down the road.

Most of these traps are variants of what can be labelled the “perfectionist approach.” In general, perfection is a noble target, but it is never something to stick with because it is never achieved in any true sense. Even after four-and-a-half years on my doctoral journey and multiple reviews of my thesis by me and others, I always found room for improvement. I am sharing some of my experiences here for the benefit of potential doctors to sidestep some of the following traps that I’ve identified.

1. The Documentation Trap

Some scholars (like I did) try to somehow document  everything they come across in the context. This is humanly not possible. And even if one were able to do this, it loses its utility. When you have overdocumented, you cannot find what you are looking for when you really need it. Still, people do this because it gives them the immediate satisfaction of possessiveness.

Trust your intellect and trust in the reading and the journey itself. Even if you do not document something new you have read, you will never be the same after reading it. This means you always get something out of your readings, even if you do not consciously remember it. To satisfy your inner urge to overdocument (which sometimes sounds like “write it, so that I do not forget it”), just say to yourself that you are okay even if you forget it (counter the deception by another deception J).

2. The Organization Trap

A related trap is when you start systematically organizing (usually electronically) all the texts and information that you come across in your literature review. Systematic organization is necessary, and there is software that can help you in this; however, emphasizing perfectness here eats up a lot of time with little or no benefit. I tried making mind maps of all the literature that I read (and I had to leave this), and I tried to name all the downloaded files systematically so that file names would become meaningful as a topic, relevant item, publisher, author, and a lot more (and you may imagine how complex it becomes). Trust in simple methods, and even if you start something out of enthusiasm and optimism, forgive yourself for making that learning mistake, and do not insist on carrying the load with you forever on the journey.

3. The Completeness/Closure Trap

This is relevant in writing. I thought when I wrote about something, I must give a fuller picture (all dimensions, positives, negatives, ups and downs), but sometimes that results in taking the discussion out of the focal point. Sometimes, we feel we need to reference every article that we have read and have spent a good amount of time on in our thesis. This is not required in academic writing; instead, you need to focus on the relevance, which does not mean you should hide something to make your point stronger (the writer’s trap); it means things should be mentioned in their pertinent place.

4. The Download Trap

Especially at the starting stage of a literature review, a possessive urge sometimes overcomes us, and we start downloading and downloading and downloading, and saving and saving and saving. If you do this and start reading, you will find you have only increased your workload and may become demotivated. Do not cook all the food for the entire month on Day One. Better to download a few papers and read them before going ahead. This not only will keep you motivated but also will give you direction and save a lot of your time by not reading irrelevant texts.

5. The Reading Trap

I fell in this trap as well. I used to read the full text, or I would not read it at all. Being a perfectionist, I was not satisfied until I read every word. This is not a good idea. Mastering this is a learning that takes time, and at the start, it is a good idea to read a good amount of content in relevant papers; but, reading everything just because you have to read is something that has to be overcome.

6. The Writer’s Trap

This is the other side of the completeness trap. This is a sort of writer’s bias that happens when one thinks the reader will think the same way the writer thinks. With this assumption, the writer leaves out a lot of important content and thinks readers either already know this or the content is not to be mentioned for the sake of continuing the writer’s argument. A good scholar should realize this well before starting formal writing.

7. The Scholar Trap

By scholar trap, I mean pretending to be a scholar by using complex and difficult words, sentences, or arguments. Just the opposite should be the case. If we read writings of highly scholarly authors, we see conceptually strong yet linguistically simple arguments. Try to be as straightforward as possible and use language for constructs that the relevant research community uses. For this to happen, formal writing should only start after a lot of reading (though informal notes may be taken from the very first day).

In closing, remember, as an immediate consequence, overcoming all these (and other) traps may be dissatisfying and make you feel incomplete at the start, but later, you will be rewarded with good results (and satisfaction) down the road.

The key point is view all means as a liberty, not as an obligation. Just because I started making a mind map last month and am half way to it doesn’t mean I have to carry it out if it doesn’t happen to be very useful. Just because I started a filing convention and have used it for a few dozen files doesn’t mean that I should continue it if it doesn’t seem worthwhile. In my opinion, plenty of incomplete Excel files, mind maps, and other drafts on your hard drive (or the cloud) do not need to necessarily grow as your thesis progresses. You are working on something new, and new things are never perfectly organized or documented. Finally, this advice is for those who face challenges because they are perfectionists: decide what compromises work for you; however, a total compromise on planning, reading, organizing, and documenting is not meant here.

Mr Muhammad Asif (DBA graduate 2018)

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