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Key Elements of a Successful PhD Research Project

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What makes a good PhD research project? The typical answer often revolves around finding a gap in the literature or making a significant contribution to the body of knowledge. While these points are valid, they are somewhat incomplete and a bit vague. Of course, the exact requirements will differ depending on your field, and various aspects of research design will vary based on the project aims and the techniques you’re using. However, there are some universal principles we can follow. Here, I will share what I believe are four crucial factors that need to come together to make a good PhD project, and why missing any of these can cause significant problems.

When we talk about a “good” PhD project, many people think about it in terms of developing a well-defined thesis or creating impactful research. While these are important, they are not the only factors to consider. Let’s delve into the essential elements that contribute to a successful PhD research project.

One of the most critical factors is having clear and well-defined research objectives. Without clear objectives, your project can lack direction and purpose.

  • Specific Goals: Define what you aim to achieve.
  • Measurable Outcomes: Ensure that your goals can be measured and evaluated.

Your research should offer an original contribution to your field. This means addressing gaps in the existing literature or providing a new perspective on a well-studied topic.

  • Innovative Ideas: Bring something new to the table.
  • Literature Review: Conduct a thorough review to identify gaps.

A good PhD project must be feasible in terms of time, resources, and scope. Overly ambitious projects can lead to incomplete research or burnout.

  • Resource Availability: Ensure you have the necessary tools and resources.
  • Time Management: Plan your project timeline realistically.

Finally, ethical considerations are paramount. Your research must adhere to ethical guidelines to maintain integrity and credibility.

  • Informed Consent: Ensure that all participants are fully informed.
  • Data Privacy: Protect the privacy and confidentiality of your data.

By focusing on these four crucial factors—clear research objectives, original contribution, feasibility, and ethical considerations—you can set a solid foundation for a successful PhD research project. Missing any of these elements can lead to significant challenges, so it’s essential to give each one the attention it deserves.

Embarking on a PhD journey is about much more than just crafting a project proposal that gets accepted or completing a project to earn a degree. A PhD project should be viewed as an opportunity to develop useful and valuable skills that will serve you well beyond the academic world.

The True Purpose of a PhD Project

A PhD isn’t solely about meeting the degree requirements. It’s about what you gain from the entire process. Ideally, your PhD project should be a vehicle for honing your skills and expertise. However, it’s possible to pass a PhD and then find that there’s no demand for the expertise you’ve developed. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider the skills you want to develop and how the project will benefit you in the long term.

Identifying Valuable Skills

When planning your PhD project, think about the specific skills you wish to acquire. These skills should not only help you complete your degree but also be valuable in your future career. Consider the following:

  • Technical skills relevant to your field
  • Research methodologies and analytical techniques
  • Communication and presentation abilities
  • Project management and organizational skills

Aligning the Project with Your Interests

It’s also essential to reflect on the type of work that suits you best. A project that may be suitable for one person might be entirely unsuitable for another. For instance, if you dislike doing statistics but love interacting with people, it makes much more sense to choose a project that aligns with your strengths and interests.

By carefully considering the skills you want to develop and choosing a project that aligns with your interests, you’ll not only succeed in earning your PhD but also be better prepared for the future. Your PhD journey will become a transformative experience that equips you with the expertise and confidence needed to thrive in your chosen career path.

When embarking on a new research project, it’s crucial to determine whether it aligns with your interests and is practically achievable. Here’s a guide to help you make that decision.

Aligning with Your Interests

The first factor to consider is how well the project aligns with your interests in two crucial aspects:

  • Subject Matter: Make sure the topic genuinely excites you. If you’re passionate about the subject, your enthusiasm will drive you through the challenges.
  • Long-Term Benefit: Consider how the project fits into your long-term goals. Will it benefit your career or academic pursuits?

Practicality of the Project

The second key factor is practicality. A project that’s perfect for one person might be unsuitable for another due to resource availability. Here are some practical considerations:

  • Access to Equipment: Do you have the necessary tools and technology?
  • Data Sources: Are the data sources you need readily accessible?
  • Participants: Can you easily find and recruit participants if your project requires them?
  • Other Resources: Consider any other resources you might need and whether they are obtainable.

Avoid Over-Ambition

Many projects fail because they are too ambitious or overly complicated. It’s a common temptation to make the project as grand as possible, especially when guidelines are unclear. However, it’s essential to set realistic goals to ensure your project is both manageable and successful.

In summary, ensure your project aligns with your interests and is practically achievable. By doing so, you’ll increase your chances of success and find the research process more rewarding.

When it comes to academic projects, sometimes the simpler, more focused ones are the best. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy, but it does mean the project is achievable. The key to a good, simple project lies in its potential interest to the field.

Why Simplicity Matters

Novelty alone—finding a gap in the literature—isn’t enough. You could have a completely original, well-designed, and well-executed study. However, if the topic doesn’t resonate with anyone, getting published will be extremely difficult. Moreover, your PhD might hold little value to potential employers unless you’ve developed other valuable skills along the way.

Choosing the Right Research Area

It’s often best to identify a research area or problem that others are already working on. Then, find something original to explore within that area. This approach ensures that your work remains relevant and interesting.

  • Identify a popular research area.
  • Find a unique angle or gap within that area.
  • Ensure your topic is of interest to the field.

By focusing on these steps, you can create a successful and impactful research project that not only gets published but also adds value to your career.

When embarking on a new project, it’s crucial to find a way to relate your work to an existing problem that others are already investigating. This approach ensures that you’re developing skills that will be valuable to others in the future.

Identify In-Demand Skills Early

One effective method to gauge the relevance of your skills is to simply look at the job market and see which skills and knowledge are currently in demand. It’s advisable to do this early in your academic or professional journey rather than waiting until your final year, only to discover that there are no job opportunities available.

Three Key Factors for a Successful Project

Let’s consider three essential factors for a successful project:

  1. Practicality: Your project should have real-world applications.
  2. Personal Interest: It should align with your own interests.
  3. Field Relevance: It should be of potential interest to your field.

The Importance of Support

The fourth and final factor is the support you receive from your supervisor and department. I often emphasize that who you work with is just as important as what you do. The support and guidance from your supervisor and department can significantly impact the success of your project.

In summary, to maximize the value and impact of your project, ensure it is practical, aligns with your interests, is relevant to your field, and is supported by knowledgeable mentors. These factors will help you develop valuable skills and increase your potential for future job opportunities.

Embarking on a PhD journey is a significant commitment that can be greatly influenced by the quality of your supervisor. If you have a supervisor whose interests align with yours and who genuinely acts in your best interest, this can be a game-changer. They can guide you through the practical aspects of your project, shape your research to fit the field’s interests, and teach you how to conduct research and think like an academic. Moreover, they can mentor you in your career, helping you not only to navigate your research but also to find your own path.

The Role of a Supportive Supervisor

A supportive supervisor can:

  • Facilitate your research efforts
  • Provide valuable insights and guidance
  • Allow you the freedom to explore your own ideas
  • Help you think critically and academically
  • Mentor you in your career development

Their job is to be a facilitator, offering you the freedom to find your own path while ensuring you have the necessary support and guidance to succeed.

Challenges with Unsupportive Supervisors

Unfortunately, not all supervisors are supportive. Some can act as barriers, holding you back until you meet their unspecified or ever-changing demands. These supervisors might:

  • Refuse to meet with their students regularly
  • Abandon students partway through their projects if they lose interest
  • Keep students around primarily for teaching or other work, rather than focusing on their research

Such supervisors can significantly hinder your progress and negatively impact your PhD experience.


Choosing the right supervisor is crucial for a successful PhD journey. A supervisor who is genuinely invested in your success can make a tremendous difference, offering guidance, support, and the freedom to explore your own academic interests. Conversely, an unsupportive supervisor can create unnecessary obstacles, making your experience challenging and frustrating. Therefore, it’s essential to carefully consider this relationship as you embark on your doctoral studies.

Choosing the right supervisor is a critical decision for your academic journey. If your interests don’t align with your supervisor’s or if you feel that they don’t have your best interests in mind, it might be better to change your supervisor or even leave rather than suffer for their approval.

Key Signs of a Good Supervisor

A good supervisor will prioritize your academic and professional growth. If their research interests don’t align with yours and they can’t offer the support you need, they should step aside and help you find a more suitable supervisor. If they don’t do this or if you fear reprisals for wanting to change supervisors, consider this a massive red flag.

Four Essential Factors for a Successful Project

To ensure your project is successful, four factors need to come together:

  • It needs to align with your interests.
  • It needs to be practically achievable.
  • It needs to be of potential interest to the field.
  • It needs the support of an interested supervisor.

If you have anything to add to this list or if you have any thoughts or questions, please feel free to share your insights.

About the author:

Picture of Dr. Friederike Jurth
Dr. Friederike Jurth

Possibly you already heard of me through different media channels. My name is Dr. Friederike Jurth, and I hold a certificate from Harvard in Higher Education Teaching. Since 2010, I have given lectures on Methodology, Empirical Research, Anthropology, and Transcultural (Music) Studies in collaboration with universities in the United States, Germany, Spain, and Brazil. In 2010, I began a 7-year-long fieldwork project in Rio de Janeiro and have since presented my research at conferences worldwide, including in Japan, the United States, Australia, Brazil, Thailand, Switzerland, and many other countries. Additionally, I have worked as a lecturer and researcher with Germany’s renowned UNESCO Chair.

After completing my doctoral dissertation with summa cum laude, I aimed to unite, condense, and share the steps, ways, and details of my unique methodological and structural approach that I developed during my Ph.D. and that ultimately helped me achieve this result. By concentrating and putting them together into an elaborate academic conception, MyThesis Academy was born. Motivated by the sole aim and objective to help my students through all steps and stages of their thesis journey, MyThesis Academy enables them to achieve their best possible results in the shortest time, independent of their specific area of research.

In addition to my extensive teaching and research experience, I am part of the authors of the Cambridge Companion to Music in Brazil 2024, published by Cambridge University Press & Assessment, where I contribute as a Cambridge Author. This work is a co-operative project conducted remotely from Cambridge, England, United Kingdom.

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