No pain, no gain: the necessary initial struggles to enable doctoral research work

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Purpose – This paper reports on experiences at the start of a software engineering (SE) PhD, where the candidate encountered and overcame multiple challenges in setting up his research environment, which included online learning (and supervision) elements. When preparing a replication study, the candidate faced both hardware and software problems as he lacked the necessary equipment and the experience to run the project. Eventually, the candidate changed his mindset to see challenges as opportunities, reached out to various others to seek advice, and identified solutions for his problems. This paper shares these (necessary) challenging experiences, and the insights gained from them. As an integral part of the development of doctoral study skills, this paper may help other students, advisers, and administrators to be aware of, and prepare for, these challenges.
Design/methodology/approach – The various experiences are reflected on by the PhD candidate, and examined and analysed by him, his academic advisers, and other relevant stakeholders. Comparisons are drawn with similar doctoral candidates, and other related experiences recorded in the literature. The unbounded nature of the problems encountered at the start of the doctorate was a shock to the candidate, and required expanding his perception of the problem- (and solution-) space, and the fast development of new problem-solving skills. Supported by his advisers, the candidate unknowingly followed a self-directed, exploratory learning framework, making use of online learning techniques and resources.
Findings – The candidate reports that he now knows the importance of seeking help when unable to solve a problem. Through identification and communication with a mentor, the student has also seen the value of presenting perceived challenges quickly and accurately. While overcoming challenges, he learned to brainstorm, and control panic, thus strengthening his independent researcher potential. Another potentially culturally-related insight is the professed importance of prompt honest communication with the adviser, who — unlike the undergraduate assessor role — has more responsibility for guidance and giving advice. Although our findings relate to experiences prompted by an SE replication study, they will resonate with many other research situations.
Originality/value/implications – Challenges are common at the start of a PhD, but there is little in the literature explicitly discussing this, or the necessity of overcoming them to enable doctoral study. This paper proposes a framework that can provide guidance for both PhD students and supervisors. It also serves as a reminder to relevant administration staff of the provisions needed to enable, and ensure that the PhD candidate emerges ready, mentally and skill-wise, from the experience.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2021 International Conference on Open and Innovative Education (ICOIE 2021)
EditorsEva Tsang, Kam Cheong Li, Philips Wang
Place of PublicationHong Kong
PublisherThe Open University of Hong Kong
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9789888439683
Publication statusPublished - 2021
EventInternational Conference on Open and Innovative Education - Open University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
Duration: 5 Jul 2021 → …


ConferenceInternational Conference on Open and Innovative Education
Abbreviated titleICOIE
CityHong Kong
Period5/07/21 → …
Internet address


  • doctoral preparation
  • doctoral training
  • mental health
  • student- challenge expectations
  • student support structures


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