Can I Do PhD Without a Supervisor?

PhD Without Supervisor

In the realm of academic pursuits, the journey to attain a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree is often regarded as a structured and rigorous endeavour. Central to this pursuit is the role of the PhD supervisor or guide, a seasoned mentor who provides invaluable direction, support, and oversight throughout the research journey. However, the landscape of higher education is evolving, and alternative pathways to earning a PhD have begun to emerge. These unconventional paths challenge the traditional model of close supervision, offering individuals the opportunity to chart their own course of research and discovery.

In this exploration, we delve into the intriguing realm of pursuing a PhD without the confines of a traditional supervisor. We uncover the various avenues that brave researchers may tread, and we navigate the advantages and challenges inherent in such unconventional approaches. From self-directed endeavours to interdisciplinary collaborations, from practice-based creative research to online learning, these paths offer a glimpse into a more autonomous and unique PhD experience.

While these unconventional approaches hold promise, they also present novel considerations that demand careful contemplation. This journey requires introspection and thorough evaluation of one’s own research expertise, the compatibility of the chosen approach with the research topic, and the standards of the field. Moreover, the credibility and recognition of the chosen program should be at the forefront of every decision.

Embarking on an unconventional PhD path demands meticulous planning and a strong commitment to self-discipline. While the conventional supervisor may be absent, the need for guidance and feedback remains. Therefore, building a network of collaborators, mentors, and advisors becomes imperative for success.

As we embark on this exploration of doctoral pursuits without traditional supervision, it is vital to remember that each academic journey is unique. While the traditional model offers structure and support, these emerging pathways embrace the spirit of innovation and autonomy. Join us as we unravel the intricacies, advantages, and potential pitfalls of pursuing a PhD through unconventional avenues, guiding you through the uncharted waters of doctoral research.


PhD Supervisors and Their Role

A PhD supervisor, also referred to as a doctoral advisor or guide, plays a pivotal role in the pursuit of a PhD degree. This individual is an experienced researcher and scholar who provides comprehensive guidance, mentorship, and oversight to the doctoral candidate throughout the research journey. The supervisor’s role extends beyond mere academic instruction; they offer valuable insights into research methodology, assist in formulating research questions, guide literature reviews, help design experiments, offer constructive feedback on drafts, and aid in navigating the intricacies of the academic landscape. Essentially, a PhD supervisor acts as a compass, steering the candidate towards the successful completion of their research goals.

Example: Dr Emily Hughes, a renowned physicist at Prestige University, exemplifies the role of a PhD supervisor. She mentors her students not only in the theoretical aspects of their research but also encourages them to attend international conferences and collaborate with experts from other institutions. Her guidance not only shapes the student’s academic progress but also nurtures their growth as well-rounded researchers.

Brief Overview of the Traditional PhD Process

The traditional PhD process is characterized by a structured and hierarchical model of supervision. Typically, a doctoral candidate identifies a research area of interest and seeks out a suitable supervisor within their chosen field. Once the supervisor agrees to oversee the candidate’s research, they collaboratively refine the research proposal and outline a plan for the research journey. The candidate then carries out the research, frequently meeting with the supervisor for discussions and updates. The supervisor’s expertise guides the candidate through challenges, validates research methods, and ensures that the work aligns with academic standards. Finally, the candidate submits their thesis or dissertation for evaluation, with the supervisor often playing a key role in assessing and providing feedback on the document.

Example: At Quantum Dynamics Institute, the traditional PhD process involves close collaboration between candidates and their supervisors. Dr Martin Chen, a professor of quantum physics, oversees the research of several candidates exploring the behaviour of subatomic particles. Through regular meetings and discussions, Dr Chen guides the candidates in selecting appropriate research methodologies, analyzing complex data, and refining their hypotheses. This structured process ensures that candidates receive expert guidance while making significant contributions to the field.

In the following sections, we will explore unconventional paths that challenge the traditional PhD model, offering candidates the potential for greater autonomy and exploration in their research endeavours.

Can I Do PhD Independently?: Unconventional PhD Paths

A. Unconventional Approaches

  1. Self-directed PhDs: In this approach, candidates take on a significant degree of autonomy, acting as their own guide throughout the research journey. While there might be advisory committees or mentors, the candidate largely drives the research process, from topic selection to methodology and analysis. Example: Dr. Maria Thompson embarked on a self-directed PhD in environmental policy. With her extensive background in sustainable development, she independently designed a research project to analyze the impact of renewable energy policies in developing countries. She navigated the research landscape, identified relevant data sources, and formulated her findings, showcasing the potential of self-directed research.
  2. Interdisciplinary Committee: Instead of a single supervisor, candidates work with a committee of advisors from different disciplines. This allows candidates to benefit from diverse perspectives and expertise, particularly when their research topic spans multiple fields. Example: At the Institute for Innovation Studies, candidates pursuing research at the intersection of technology and sociology have an interdisciplinary committee comprising experts from both fields. This unique approach ensures a well-rounded evaluation of the research, enriching its depth and breadth.
  3. External Collaborations: Candidates collaborate closely with professionals from external organizations, such as industry or research institutes. These collaborations can provide candidates with real-world insights and resources beyond what a traditional academic supervisor might offer. Example: The Partnership for Space Exploration sponsors candidates in their PhD programs, with research topics related to space technology. The candidates work closely with engineers, scientists, and researchers from space agencies, ensuring the practical relevance of their research.
  4. Online/Distance Programs: Some PhD programs are conducted entirely online, allowing candidates to work remotely while pursuing their research. These programs often incorporate virtual discussions and online platforms to facilitate interaction with peers and mentors. Example: The Global Health Research Institute offers an online PhD program in public health. Candidates from different corners of the world collaborate on projects and engage with professors through virtual seminars, illustrating the potential of technology to bridge geographical distances.
  5. Practice-based Research: In creative fields like arts, design, and music, candidates may engage in practice-based research. This approach emphasizes the creation of artistic works or designs as part of the research process, with academic analysis and reflection supporting the creative endeavour. Example: At the School of Visual Arts, candidates pursuing practice-based PhDs in photography explore innovative techniques while critically evaluating their impact on storytelling. Their research contributions include both artistic portfolios and scholarly theses.

B. Examples of Institutions/Programs Offering Unconventional Paths

  1. European Graduate School (EGS): EGS is renowned for its unconventional educational approach, encouraging self-directed and interdisciplinary research. Candidates at EGS often work closely with a personalized advisory committee rather than a traditional supervisor.
  2. Open University of Catalonia (UOC): UOC offers online and distance education programs, providing candidates with the flexibility to engage in research while balancing other commitments. The virtual nature of the program encourages candidates to collaborate with professionals in their respective fields.
  3. Practice-based PhDs in Creative Fields: Institutions such as the Royal College of Art and the Berklee College of Music offer practice-based PhD programs, allowing candidates to engage in creative projects while integrating academic research.

These examples illustrate how diverse institutions are embracing unconventional approaches to PhD research, challenging traditional norms and fostering innovation in doctoral education.

Advantages and Challenges

A. Advantages of Pursuing a PhD Without a Traditional Supervisor

  1. Increased Autonomy: Unconventional PhD paths offer candidates a greater degree of autonomy over their research journey. Candidates are responsible for setting research goals, making decisions about methodologies, and managing their time effectively. Example: Jane Davis pursued a self-directed PhD in cultural anthropology, allowing her to shape her research trajectory. She was able to explore subtopics and methods of her interest, adapting her approach based on real-time discoveries during her fieldwork.
  2. Unique Research Opportunities: Unconventional paths can lead to novel research opportunities that might not align with traditional academic trajectories. Candidates can pursue topics that are on the cutting edge or explore emerging interdisciplinary areas. Example: John Martinez engaged in external collaboration with a pharmaceutical company, examining the environmental impact of a new drug manufacturing process. This partnership provided him access to industry data and resources, enhancing the real-world relevance of his research.
  3. Flexibility in Research Direction: Without a strict supervisor guiding the research, candidates can pivot their research directions based on emerging trends, unexpected findings, or personal interests, allowing for a more dynamic research process.Example: Sarah Patel started her practice-based PhD in music composition. As she experimented with new digital instruments, her research direction evolved to focus on the intersection of artificial intelligence and music, a direction she could pursue due to the flexibility of her program.

B. Challenges Associated with Unconventional Paths

  1. Lack of Structured Guidance: One of the primary challenges of pursuing a PhD without a traditional supervisor is the potential lack of structured guidance. Candidates might struggle to set clear milestones, develop effective methodologies, and receive regular feedback on their progress. Example: Michael Johnson, pursuing a PhD in experimental psychology through an online program, found himself struggling to maintain a consistent research focus without regular in-person meetings with an advisor.
  2. Academic Rigor and Credibility Concerns: The absence of a traditional supervisor might raise concerns about the rigour and credibility of the research. A strong academic foundation and adherence to disciplinary standards become crucial to ensure the research maintains its integrity. Example: Julia Carter faced scepticism during her self-directed PhD in economics. To address credibility concerns, she conducted extensive literature reviews, attended conferences to present her findings, and sought feedback from experts in her field.
  3. Limited Networking Opportunities: Traditional supervisors often provide candidates with networking opportunities, introducing them to other researchers, collaborators, and potential employers. Pursuing an unconventional path might result in fewer networking avenues. Example: David Lee, enrolled in an interdisciplinary committee-based PhD program, found that he had to be proactive in seeking networking opportunities with experts from different fields, as he didn’t have a single supervisor connecting him to the academic community.

These advantages and challenges highlight the multifaceted nature of pursuing a PhD without a traditional supervisor. While autonomy and uniqueness can be invigorating, candidates must also address the potential hurdles that arise due to the lack of structured guidance and networking opportunities.

Considerations Before Choosing an Unconventional Path

A. Self-assessment of Research Expertise and Autonomy

Before embarking on an unconventional PhD path, candidates must evaluate their own research expertise and autonomy. An in-depth understanding of the research process, methodologies, and scholarly writing is essential for successful self-directed or collaborative research.

Example: Melissa Rogers, an experienced archaeologist, chose an unconventional PhD path that involved external collaborations with indigenous communities. Her robust background in fieldwork and cultural sensitivity enabled her to navigate complex community dynamics and effectively contribute to the research.

B. Research Topic Alignment with Chosen Approach

The chosen unconventional approach should align with the research topic and goals. Candidates should critically assess whether their research lends itself well to the selected path, such as interdisciplinary committees or practice-based exploration.

Example: Ethan Mitchell’s research on climate change and urban planning led him to pursue an interdisciplinary committee-based PhD. By collaborating with experts in environmental science, urban design, and policy, Ethan could address the multifaceted nature of his research topic.

C. Research Field and Standards

Candidates must consider the norms and standards of their research field when opting for an unconventional path. They should ensure that the chosen approach doesn’t compromise the academic rigour and integrity expected in their discipline.

Example: Rebecca Thompson’s pursuit of an unconventional practice-based PhD in dance required her to intertwine artistic expression with rigorous scholarly analysis. By adhering to the standards of both the dance and academic communities, she successfully navigated this hybrid path.

D. Program Recognition and Accreditation

Thoroughly researching the recognition and accreditation of the chosen institution or program is paramount. Candidates should verify that the program holds credible academic standing and that their degree will be widely recognized in their field.

Example: Eric Peterson’s online PhD program in artificial intelligence was accredited by a reputable accrediting body, ensuring that his degree would be respected by employers and academic institutions alike.

E. Interaction with Advisory Committees or Mentors

For paths involving committees or mentors, candidates should assess the quality and accessibility of interaction with these advisors. Adequate communication channels are crucial to receiving feedback, addressing challenges, and maintaining a sense of guidance.

Example: Maria Sanchez engaged in a practice-based PhD in visual arts with a committee of experts. Regular virtual meetings allowed her to receive feedback on her creative work and theoretical analyses, ensuring a comprehensive research experience.

By thoroughly considering these factors, candidates can make informed decisions about pursuing unconventional PhD paths that align with their strengths, goals, and research aspirations. Each consideration contributes to the foundation of a successful and meaningful doctoral journey.

Steps to Navigate an Unconventional PhD Path

A. Thoroughly Research and Vet Institutions/Programs

Start by thoroughly researching institutions and programs that offer unconventional PhD paths. Investigate their reputation, faculty expertise, success stories of previous candidates, and accreditation status to ensure the credibility and quality of the program.

Example: Sarah Johnson spent several months researching online PhD programs in educational technology. She compared course offerings, faculty profiles, and student testimonials before selecting a program that aligned with her research goals.

B. Seek Advice from Academic Mentors and Professionals

Before committing to an unconventional path, seek advice from experienced academic mentors and professionals in your field. Their insights can help you assess whether the chosen approach is suitable for your research aspirations and provide valuable guidance.

Example: David Carter consulted his former professors and colleagues when considering an interdisciplinary committee-based PhD. Their feedback helped him weigh the pros and cons of this approach based on his research topic and career aspirations.

C. Create a Clear Research Plan and Timeline

Develop a comprehensive research plan that outlines your research objectives, methodologies, milestones, and expected outcomes. Establishing a clear timeline helps you stay organized and ensures steady progress throughout your PhD journey.

Example: Maria Hernandez devised a detailed research plan for her self-directed PhD in environmental policy. Her plan included data collection phases, analysis milestones, and scheduled breaks to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

D. Establish a Network for Collaboration and Feedback

Build a network of collaborators, mentors, and peers who can provide valuable feedback and support. Engage in regular discussions and knowledge-sharing to enhance the quality of your research and address challenges.

Example: Daniel Lee joined an online PhD program in economics and actively participated in virtual forums and research groups. Through these interactions, he formed connections with fellow candidates and professors who provided diverse perspectives on his research.

E. Regularly Assess Progress and Adjust as Needed

Continuously assess your progress against your research plan and adjust as necessary. Regularly reflect on your accomplishments, challenges, and areas for improvement to ensure that you remain on track toward your research goals.

Example: Nicole Adams conducted quarterly self-assessments of her practice-based PhD in music composition. She reflected on her artistic growth, research insights, and feedback received, allowing her to fine-tune her research direction and methodologies.

By following these steps, candidates can navigate the complexities of unconventional PhD paths with purpose and diligence. A well-structured approach, informed decision-making, and a supportive network contribute to a rewarding and successful doctoral journey.

Before We Close……..

I have written several articles related to PhD. You can visit them Here. These articles will guide you in the smooth completion of your PhD.

An unconventional PhD demands quality publications and presentations. I have written articles related to Research Journals and Research Conferences. Please visit them

You can also apply for research grants as Independent Researcher. Please visit my article on

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Dear fellow researchers,

If you are a PhD research scholar or planning to pursue PhD, I understand the value of time in your PhD journey. That’s why I have organized my blog posts related to PhD meticulously, categorizing more than 100 articles into various stages of PhD (from planning of PhD to careers after PhD).

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Best regards,

Dr Vijay Rajpurohit


In the ever-evolving landscape of academia, the pursuit of a PhD has embarked on new horizons, challenging conventional norms and embracing innovative pathways. As we have journeyed through the realm of pursuing a PhD without a traditional supervisor, we have unearthed a realm of possibilities that empower researchers to chart their own intellectual odyssey. From self-directed exploration to interdisciplinary collaboration, from practice-based creativity to virtual connections, the unconventional paths that beckon offer a unique blend of autonomy, creativity, and real-world relevance.

However, as with any uncharted territory, these pathways come with their own set of considerations and complexities. The advantages of increased autonomy, access to unique research vistas, and the freedom to redefine research directions are coupled with challenges such as the need for self-guidance, maintaining academic rigor, and navigating a potential networking vacuum. It is the harmony of these advantages and challenges that adds depth to the pursuit of knowledge and innovation.

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Dr. Vijay Rajpurohit
Author: Dr. Vijay Rajpurohit
Dr. Vijay Rajpurohit is a researcher in Computer Science. He loves to educate researchers and research scholars on Research Paper Writing, Thesis Writing, Research Grants, Patenting Research Work and the latest Research-related issues. You can reach him @ [email protected]