Book Review: A Woman's Guide to Doctoral Studies

So, it's not just me. What a relief!

This book has shown me that all of my insecurities as a PhD scholar have been experienced by other people and are, it seems, common among female PhD students. A Woman's Guide to Doctoral Studies 1 by Diana Leonard aims to help women undertake and enjoy serious scholarly work whilst recognising the 'rules' of the academic game. In common with other books on this subject, such as Phillips and Pugh 2, the chapters in the book guide you through the whole PhD process, from deciding to do a PhD, choosing a supervisor, keeping going, and staying the course, to the viva and life after a PhD. What is different about this book is that it is not only aimed specifically at female doctoral students, it also contains a wide range of useful information.

The first chapter is all about 'Understanding the Rules of the Game' of research in higher education. It explains what the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) are and how they affect you if you are carrying out research for a PhD. The difference between studying for a PhD in the UK and other countries, such as the U.S., is also explained.

Chapter two concerns the decision to do a doctorate. Along with all the usual reasons--such as wanting to follow up on a particular piece of research--the book lists 'problematic' reasons, such as 'because everybody expects you to do a doctorate' and 'so as not to continue being Miss, Mrs or Ms' (which I actually find to be one of the bonuses of having a PhD). The differences among PhDs in different subject areas are discussed and, as with the rest of the book, there are snippets of interesting information interspersed through the text, such as: 'The first woman to be awarded a PhD in the UK was in 1918 by Oxford University'. This chapter also emphasises the fact that your PhD will need to be your first or second priority for at least 3 years, and it gives advice on how to cope with that fact, especially if you are on a low income and/or have other responsibilities--such as children to look after.

Chapter three focuses on finding the right supervisor at the right university, with specific advice for women, but also lots of good pointers for all PhD students. Chapter four looks at 'Finding the Time, Space and Money,' and the theme for chapter five is 'Getting Off to a Good Start.' This latter section points out the isolating nature of PhD research and highlights the importance of building support networks by finding sympathetic, like-minded researchers in the same position as you. It is also a good idea to have several people that you can talk to about your research, as the more you talk about it the clearer your research ideas become.

Chapter six is the only chapter that deals specifically with research into gender and feminism per se. Chapters seven and eight concern 'Keeping Going and Staying the Course' and 'Completion, the Viva, and Life after the Doctorate'. Again, there is a lot of useful advice, such as thinking hard before doing any part-time lecturing. (Of course many of us have no choice due to financial constraints.)

Overall this book is not only informative and well written, it makes for almost compulsive reading and helpfully contains many useful references at the end of each chapter. Before reading it I wasn't totally convinced that a book specifically for female students was necessary. I'm now convinced that it is. In fact, this book offers a lot of new information that will benefit male PhD students as well. Overall I would highly recommend it to anyone involved with doctoral research, whether they're hoping to gain a PhD or are supervising one. What a shame that I didn't have this book when I started my PhD--I think that it would have made a fundamental difference.

1. D. Leonard, A Woman's Guide to Doctoral Research, Open University Press Paperback, ISBN 0 335 20252 7, £16.99 (2001).

2. E. M. Phillips and D. Pugh, How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors, 3rd Edn., Buckingham: Open University Press, ISBN 0 335 20550 X, £15.99 (2000).

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