Timing is everything: judging when to start your PhD

07 Oct 2020 | 4 MINS

Sometimes the trick to a PhD isn’t having a good idea for your research; it’s knowing when to act on it.

For lawyer, teacher and PhD candidate Jessica Kerr, the topic for her thesis first occurred to her more than ten years ago. Back then, however, the time wasn’t right to pursue it.

After graduating for the first time, Jessica spent a couple of years in legal practice before moving on to a master’s degree in the United States. But while she already knew what she would like to research for her PhD, she decided to continue with her legal career instead of pursuing a higher qualification.

“I got halfway through the application stage, but am so glad I trusted my instincts and went back to practice,” she says. “In the intervening decade, I had some amazingly varied early career opportunities and learned much more about myself as a professional. When I finally committed to the PhD, I felt like I had something original to say and was ready to say it.”

The change in perspective Jessica gained from devoting time to her career both as a lawyer and as a magistrate now informs her research on how judges are trained – and how they are perceived by the public.

“Our system assumes you can find ‘ready-made’ judges among senior lawyers and just put them straight onto the bench. But judging and lawyering are not the same job – so why do we not prepare people specifically to be judges? And why should we expect the modern public to put their trust in judges who were just lawyers a week or a month ago?

“The topic has been in the back of my mind for over a decade, and although my exact focus has shifted over time, the fact that my interest has never wavered is a powerful source of reassurance.”

Taking on a higher degree by research doesn’t only rely on your own sense of readiness, however; other factors also need to align. For Jessica, a move to Perth helped to make the decision for her.

“We came here with our newborn daughter so that my husband could take up an academic position at UWA,” she says. “To be honest, I hadn’t previously considered starting a research degree here, but it was the right time in my life, and my initial interactions with the UWA Law School were so welcoming and impressive that I quickly realised this was an ideal opportunity.”

“My day is structured around daycare drop-offs so I have to be disciplined about trying to concentrate and being productive during normal working hours. That’s made easier by my professional background, but much harder by the nature of thesis writing, which is so creative and intense.”

Which is, of course, is why candidates need another important element when deciding to begin their PhD: a solid and encouraging network of friends, family and teachers.

“I am enormously lucky to be supported by a spouse who has a PhD in the same discipline, and by a wonderful team of supervisors that includes two female academics who have also juggled work, study and family commitments. They lead by example every day, and their trust in me is what keeps me going.”

In the end, however, Jessica believes only one person knows for sure if the time is right to begin your research journey. “In addition to a real sense of ownership of your chosen topic, I’d say the most important attributes are the ability to take responsibility for your own progress, and a very clear understanding of why you are going down this path. Of all the decisions you make in your professional life, this is one that has to be yours alone.”

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