How to design and defend a PhD thesis

by Ricardo Morais

In 1996, I was an Erasmus student at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, coming from the University of Porto in Portugal. In 1997, I moved to Sao Paulo in Brazil to establish a subsidiary for a Finnish multinational. In 1999, I returned to the University of Jyväskylä to make a PhD on eleven Finnish multinationals in Portugal. In 2004, I defended my PhD thesis and the jury from the University of Uppsala in Sweden praised the methodological chapter as their favourite. In the same year, I started teaching methodology at the University of Vaasa in Finland and in national courses of Kataja, the Finnish doctoral program of business studies.

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In 2005, I returned to Portugal as a senior researcher of INESC Porto, a centre of excellence in information technologies. Although my primary duty was research, I also received several invitations from universities to teach methodology as a guest lecturer. Some classes combined students from different postgraduate programmes giving me the opportunity to teach students of Social Sciences, Mathematics, Engineering, Design, and Architecture, among others. Such interdisciplinary context inspired me to develop a new approach to research design which could be applied to any field of knowledge. The result was an analytical framework of 21 decisions which integrates theory, method, data, rhetoric, and authorship.

In 2008, I created an online platform in order to disseminate this new approach to research design globally. I also created the seminar ‘How to design and defend your PhD’ which has had 146 editions in 10 countries, and is annually offered by the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management in Brussels.

In 2009, I created the Idea Puzzle® software, an online ebook that helps PhD candidates create a research design with 21 decisions. The software is recommended by Sage Publications and licensed to several universities in The Times Higher Education Top 400. The ebook is updated regularly based on feedback from users in 86 countries.

Meanwhile, recent studies in Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, and United States confirmed a rumour that I used to hear in my seminars abroad: about 50% of doctoral students are unable to complete their PhD. Such low PhD completion rates constitute a global paradox because international institutions such as OECD recommend countries to maximize the number of ‘new doctorate graduates’.

The main factor associated with such low PhD completion rates is lack of time. I believe, however, that lack of time tends to be a consequence of lack of focus in research design. Such lack of focus reflects, in turn, three types of ambiguity to which PhD candidates are exposed: research ambiguity, philosophical ambiguity, and methodological ambiguity.

Research ambiguity results from the dominant view in methodology books that research is a sequence of tasks such as literature review, data collection, and data analysis. I followed such a process view of research in my own PhD and the consequences were disastrous. After one year of exclusive work on my literature review, I was forced to change my topic due to the lack of data. I suggest, therefore, that the process view of research focused on tasks be complemented with a systemic view of research focused on decisions. The task literature review, for instance, can be complemented with explicit decisions on which keywords, streams of thought, research gap, and research question focus on. These decisions, in turn, are part of a larger system of theoretical, methodological, empirical, rhetoric, and authorial decisions which define the research design. In other words, decisions help PhD candidates focus their research design on a sample of theory, method, data, rhetoric, and authorship, whereas the dominant view of research as a process does not emphasise content and focus at all.

In addition to research ambiguity, PhD candidates have to cope with philosophical ambiguity. The proliferation of “isms” such as positivism, postpositivism, realism, constructivism, and constructionism, dissuades PhD candidates from explicitly positioning their research design in the light of Philosophy of Science. In order to reduce such philosophical ambiguity, I have developed a synthesis of four philosophical stances based on two dimensions: discovery or justification, of facts or values. The resulting stances – objective discovery, subjective discovery, objective justification, and subjective justification – introduce PhD candidates to the importance of designing research which is consistent in terms of ontology, epistemology, methodology, and axiology.

Finally, PhD candidates need to overcome methodological ambiguity, that is, the endless debate about qualitative versus quantitative research. In this respect, I agree with authors who claim that no research strategy is perfect in the sense that it cannot maximize simultaneously deep description and broad measurement of phenomena. I therefore suggest a list of fifteen alternative research strategies, qualitative and quantitative, which alert PhD candidates to the importance of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each research strategy before choosing the one that better fits their research design.

In sum, designing and defending a PhD thesis requires a new approach to research design which is available at and applies to any field of knowledge. This new approach helps PhD candidates overcome research, philosophical, and methodological ambiguity with 21 decisions. The result is a focused research design that reduces the uncertainty of a PhD and the risk of not completing it.

About the author

Ricardo Morais is Professor of Management and Strategy at Catholic University of Portugal and methodological lecturer at the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management. He holds a PhD in Strategic Management from the University of Jyväskylä (first Portuguese PhD in Finland in Social Sciences), having graduated in Management from the University of Porto. He specialises in strategic management of research and internationalisation. Since 2002, he has lectured these topics in 10 countries and published about scientific method (Sage Publications), critical realism (Edward Elgar), doctoral paradox (Emerald) and multinational management (Elsevier).

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