How to Make the Transition from Practical to Theoretical Thinking as a new Ph.D. Student,

Having had a successful career for close to two decades, switching my way of Theoretical thinking from practice (get it done) to research was anything but simple.

For a long time, I just could not make that transition. For starters, I didn’t even know I needed to make a transition. At the onset of my Ph.D. education, I found myself thinking that many of the concepts I was learning were “not practical”.

That was the problem. Theoretical thinking is conceptually different from practical thinking. Theory can eventually be used to explain practical behaviors, but theory and practice are different.

It turns out that this is a known phenomenon. This problem was not peculiar to me. Researchers in Australia, where there’s much research on professionals seeking Ph.D. education, confirm that mature-age professionals have a hard time making this transition in their Ph.D. education. For example, Margaret Kiley captures a comment from a Ph.D. supervisor about professionals who became Ph.D. students;

 “for many of them to make a jump from their very practical applied business way of theoretical thinking about the world to thinking in academic terms, theoretically, conceptually it is quite a leap.”

Kiley notes that this transition becomes more of a problem when the Ph.D. student is researching a topic in which they have experience, know very well, or have developed an identity.

Being a professional is a great accomplishment. However, it doesn’t translate well into a Ph.D. program and could negatively impact your education.

Here are six ways that practical to theoretical thinking in a Ph.D. could hurt you.

  1. It could impede the progress of your study
  2. It could repel potential supervisors from working with you
  3. It could sabotage your ability to learn how to apply the rigor needed in doing research
  4. You never quite begin to think like a researcher; critical investigation of phenomena
  5. It could also affect your ability to do the work required in data analysis
  6. It could lead to confirmation biases rather than also looking to refute ideas

I realized the issue when a respected professor told me I had a practice-to-theory transition problem and gave me some advice.

Here’s that advice and other ways that you can make that transition.

  1. Recognize. The first part of solving a problem is to recognize that the problem exists. If you’re a professional turned Ph.D. student, you probably noticed the tension the first few semesters. For example, you question the practical implication of everything you read; you smirk when you read anything of which you cannot imagine its application in the real world.
  • Remove the practice hat. As a professional turned Ph.D. student, you’re wearing two different hats; a practice hat and a researcher hat. For obvious reasons, both cannot comfortably sit on your head simultaneously. I received advice to take the practice hat off while in research mode. At first, I was resistant. The practice hat had served me well for several years. I gained success in my professional life because of practice. I wasn’t going to take it off just because someone said so. I thought that, of course, I didn’t say it to her. However, she did say that there was a place in research for practice. That place is after the research is completed; the researcher must then articulate the study’s implications for practice. That’s when one can wear the practice hat and write the practical implications of the theory.
  • Trust the process. Yes, give it a chance. Your professors (many of them) are good and have been at this for many years. So, they understand what it takes to succeed. They can help move your research idea from just an idea to a rigorously, theoretically completed study. It may be difficult at first to agree with the suggestions from your supervisor. It was difficult for me. But it does work out. In hindsight, it works out.

Making the transition from professional practice to theoretical research is doable. It starts out challenging, but it gets better when you realize that not making the change could slow your progress and defeats the objectives of the Ph.D. However, if you really don’t like the idea of theoretical research, you might consider doing a professional Ph.D. instead. A Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) does not require a complete focus on theoretical work. See more about the difference between a DBA and a Ph.D.

What’s your story?


Margaret Kiley (2017) Career professionals entering doctoral study: Advantages and challenges, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 54:6, 550-559,DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2017.1377099

How to Make the Transition from Practical to Theoretical Thinking as a new Ph.D. Student

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