I supervise five MPhil/PhD students, some full-time, others part-time. For each project, tailored, specific advice is required at every stage of their project to make suggestions appropriate to the successful completion of that project. PhD projects should evolve, but to restrict them too closely stiffles innovation and originality. Too loose a structure, and the PhD meanders off into nothingness and might never be completed.

I use lots of analogies and metaphors to try to encourage students to think about the PhD process as focused, structured yet to integrate versatility and innovation into its structure. Here is the latest one that came out of discussions with a student working on a topic where she feels that the data needs to ‘speak’ and questions will follow. Here, we disagree, but as a compromise, I tried to build on an analogy used by the student herself.

She said: ‘the data is still sloshing about and I am not sure I can see the key questions yet’.

‘Fine’, I replied, ‘it is okay to slosh, because sloshing is good. Spillage is alway okay, because things come out of the PhD that don’t stay in it, but that are valid studies in themselves. You can come back to the spillage later on and mop it up or collect it for use. However, what you need to avoid is a PhD project that splurges and splurts. The same goes for seepage’.

I’m not sure this analogy works properly. Still, it is worth thinking about. The point is: PhDs change, shift and take new forms as they develop. There is latitude for this and indeed, to my mind this is what research is all about. But they can’t ooze and trickle. There has to be some kind of secure vessel within which they can be stirred, sloshed or simply starred at…