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What is a PhD? Essential Information
- A PhD is the highest globally recognized postgraduate degree that higher education institutions can award.
- PhDs are awarded to candidates who demonstrate original and extensive research in a particular field of study.
- Full time PhD programmes typically last three to four years, whilst part time PhD programmes typically last six to seven years.
- A PhD could lead to a teaching role in Higher Education or a career in academic research. A PhD can also equip you with skills suitable for a wide range of jobs unrelated to your research topic or academia.
What Is a PhD?
A Doctor of Philosophy (commonly abbreviated to PhD, Ph.D or a DPhil) is a university research degree awarded from across a broad range of academic disciplines; in most countries it is the ‘highest’ academic degree possible. PhD degrees differ from undergraduate and master’s degrees in that PhDs are entirely research based rather than involving taught modules (although doctoral training centres (DTCs) do offer programmes that start with a year of lecture based teaching to help develop your research skills prior to starting your project).
Note: Please keep in mind that this article (and other articles on our site) has been written from the perspective for a PhD candidate studying in the UK.
In most English-speaking countries, those that go on to complete a PhD use the title “Doctor” (typically abbreviated to Dr) in front of their names and are referred to as such within academic and/or research settings. Those that go on to work in fields outside of academia may decide not to use the formal doctor title but instead use post-nominal letters (e.g. John Smith PhD); it’s unusual though for someone to use both the Doctor title and post-nominal letters in their name.
“The aim of a PhD’s to ensure that no one, including your advisor, understands what you’re doing after the first couple of years.”
What Does a PhD Involve?
To be awarded a PhD, research students are required to produce a substantial body of work that is novel and adds new knowledge to their chosen area of research. Most full time PhD programmes take four years, and part time PhD programme can take as long as seven years.
A PhD programme will typically involve four key stages:
Stage 1: Literature Review
The first stage of a PhD involves attending regular meetings with your supervisors and carrying out a search on previously published work in your subject area. This search will be used to produce a literature review which should set the context of the project by explaining the foundation of what is currently known within the field of research, what recent developments have occurred, and where the gaps in knowledge are. The literature review should conclude by outlining the overarching aims and objectives of the research project. This stage of setting achievable goals which are original and contribute to the field of research is an essential first step in a successful PhD.
The supervisor is the main point of contact through the duration of a PhD – but remember: they are there to mentor, not to teach, or do it for you. It will be your responsibility to plan, execute and monitor your own work as well as to identify gaps in your own knowledge and address them.
Stage 2: Research
This stage is effectively what you will work on for the three years of your project – the research! Having identified novel research questions from your review of the literature, this is where you collect your data to help answer these questions. How you do this will of course depend on the nature of your research: for example, you may be designing and running experiments in a lab alongside other PhD students or visiting excavation sites in remote regions of the world. You should be checking in regularly with your supervisors to update them and to bounce ideas off of them too.
Have the structure and chapters of your thesis in mind as you develop and tackle your research questions. Working with a view of publishing your work will be very valuable later on.
Stage 3: Write up of Thesis
The next key stage of a PhD is writing up of a thesis. A thesis is a substantial body of work that describes the work and outcomes of the research over the previous three years. It should tell a detailed story of the PhD project – focusing on:
– The motivations for the research questions identified from the literature review.
– The methodologies used, results obtained, and a comprehensive analysis and discussion of the findings.
– A detailed discussion of the key findings with an emphasis on the original contributions made to your field of research and how this has been impactful.
There is no universal rule for the length of a thesis, but general guidelines set the word count between 70,000 to 100,000 words.
For your thesis to be successful, it needs to adequately defend your argument and provide a unique or increased insight into your field that was not previously available.
Stage 4: Attending the Viva
A viva voce, most commonly referred to as just a ‘viva‘, is an interview style examination where the PhD student is required to engage in critical appraisal of their work and defend their thesis against at least two examiners. The examiners will ask questions to check the PhD student has an in-depth understanding of the ideas and theories proposed in their thesis.
The viva is one the final steps in achieving a PhD, and typically lasts at least two hours but this duration can vary greatly depending on the examiners, the university and the PhD project itself.
Note: A viva is a mandatory process required for all PhDs. The exception to this is where a PhD is being obtained through publication as opposed to through the more traditional route of studying.
Once you have done the viva – you’re on the home stretch. You will typically be asked to make some amendments to your thesis based on the examiners feedback. You are then ready to submit your final thesis for either:
PhD – If you pass the requirements you will be awarded a PhD (this is the most common outcome)
MPhil – If you failed to meet requirements for a PhD you can still be awarded a downgraded degree (MPhil)
Fail – No award given (very uncommon) – typically reserved for cases of plagiarism
IMPORTANT: What is required of a PhD student to earn their degree will vary depending on the country that they’re studying in. For example, in Finland students must have published at least three peer-reviewed journal articles before they can be awarded a PhD, whilst in the UK there is no requirement to publish (although most students do at least submit a paper for review). Regardless of the requirement or not of publishing papers, it is expected that the quality of the novel research in a thesis will be at the level necessary to stand up to peer-review.
Benefits of a PhD
A PhD is the highest globally recognised postgraduate degree that higher education institutions can award. The degree, which is awarded to candidates who demonstrate original and extensive research in a particular field of study, is not only invaluable in itself, but sets you up with invaluable skills and traits.
Firstly, a PhD prepares you for a career in academia if you wish to continue in this area. This takes form as a career in the Higher Education sector, typically as a lecturer working their way to becoming a professor leading research in the area of subject knowledge that you’ve studied and been trained in.
A PhD also enables the opportunity for landing a job in a research & development role outside of the academic environment. Examples of this include laboratory work for a private or third sector company, a governmental role and research for commercial and industrial applications.
Finally, in possessing a PhD you are able to demonstrate to employers (in any field) that you have vital skills that make you an asset to any company. These are called ‘transferable skills’. Three examples of transferable skills that you acquire through a PhD are effective communication, time management, and report writing.
- Communication – presenting your work in written and oral forms using journal papers and podium presentations, demonstrates your ability to share complex ideas effectively and to those with less background knowledge than you. Communication is key in the professional environment, regardless of the job.
- Time management – The ability to prioritise and organise tasks is a huge asset in the professional industry. A PhD doctorate is able to use their qualification to demonstrate that they are able to manage their time, arrange and follow a plan, and stick to deadlines.
- Report writing – Condensing three years of work into a thesis demonstrates your ability to filter through massive amounts of information, identify the key points, and get these points across to the reader. The ability to ‘cut out the waffle’ or ‘get to the point’ is a huge asset in the professional industry.
Aside from the above, you also get to refer to yourself as a Doctor and add fancy initials after your name!
What Can I Do with a PhD?
One of the most desirable post-doctoral fields is working within independent Research and Development (R&D) labs and new emerging companies. Both industries, especially R&D labs, have dedicated groups of PhD graduates who lead research activities, design new products and take part in crucial strategic meetings. Not only is this a stimulating line of work, but the average salaries in R&D labs and emerging start-ups are incredibly lucrative. In comparison, an undergraduate with five years of experience within their given field will, on average, likely earn less than a new PhD graduate taking on a R&D position.
It’s a common misunderstanding that PhDs only open the door for educational based roles such as university lecturers and training providers. Although obtaining a PhD certainly opens these doors, the opportunities extend far beyond educational roles. In fact, recent data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicates only 23% of PhD graduates take a position in educational roles. This low percentage is primarily because PhD graduates have a wide range of skills that make them suitable for a broad spectrum of roles. This is being seen first hand by the increasing number of PhD graduates who are entering alternative roles such as research, writing, law and investment banking.
What Is It like to Undertake a PhD?
We are often asked what a PhD is actually like. This is not an easy question to answer as every PhD is different.
To help give insight into the life of a PhD student, we have interviewed PhD students at various stages of their programmes and put together a series of PhD Student Interviews. Check out the link to hear what a PhD is like – who better to tell you than the students themselves!
How Do I Find a PhD?
We appreciate that finding a PhD programme to undertake can be a relatively daunting process. According to Higher Education Student Statistics, over 22,000 PhDs were awarded in 2016/17 within the UK alone. Clearly there are a huge number of PhD programmes available. This can sometimes be confusing for prospective doctorates, particularly when different programmes are advertised in different places. Often, it is difficult to know where to look or where to even start. We’ve put together a list of useful sources to find the latest PhD programmes:
– A great place to start is with our comprehensive and up-to-date database of available PhD positions.
– Assuming you are still at university, speak to the existing PhD supervisors within your department.
– Attend as many Postgraduate Events as you can. Whilst there, speak to current PhD students and career advisors to get an awareness of what PhDs are on offer.
– Visit the postgraduate section of university websites and the PhD Research Council section of the GOV.UK website
What Are the Entry Requirements?
To be accepted on to a PhD programme, students usually need to hold at least a high (2:1 and above) undergraduate degree that is related to the field of research that they want to pursue however many will also need to hold a Master’s degree.
Self-funded courses may sometimes be more relaxed in relation to entry requirements. It may be possible to be accepted onto a self-funded PhD programme with lower grades, though these students typically demonstrate their suitability for the role through professional work experience.
Whilst a distance learning project is possible, most candidates will carry out their research over at least three years based at their university, with regular contact with two academic supervisors (primary and secondary). This is particularly the case for lab-based projects however some PhD projects do require spending time on-site away from university (e.g. at a specialist research lab or at a collaborating institution abroad).
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