What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students

How long does it take to get a doctorate degree? How do you get into grad school? Are you qualified to do a PhD? Answers to these questions and more
November 29 2016

Steps to PhD success

PhD, doctorate

Why should you do a PhD?

For many people, acquiring a doctorate degree is the absolute pinnacle of academic achievement; the culmination of years of commitment to higher education, giving them the right to call themselves "doctor". These are perfectly good reasons to do a PhD.

However, the act of pursuing a PhD can be a complex, frustrating, expensive and time-consuming exercise. But with the right PhD preparation, some sound advice, and a thorough understanding of the task at hand, your years as a doctoral student can be some of the most rewarding of your life. 

Resources: why you should study for a doctorate

Using your PhD to get a well-paid job
How valuable will your PhD really be?
How to choose the right PhD
Before you start your PhD, read this about 'failure'
The four types of doctoral scientist: which one are you?
Ethical dilemmas in PhD study

There are many reasons why people choose to work towards a doctorate. Many academic positions, such as university lecturers or researchers, are reserved for people with a PhD. What’s more, many people obtain a PhD as part of a partnership with an employer, particularly in scientific fields such as engineering, where their research can prove useful for some companies.

In some cases, however, PhDs are simply an expression of an individual’s commitment to and love of a subject, and their desire to leave their own mark on the academic world.

What is a PhD, exactly?

The term "PhD" is often used as a synonym for any doctoral-level qualification. In actual fact, doctorate degrees can often be split into two sections: MPhil and PhD.

Resources: choosing the right PhD

Choosing a PhD subject
Essential PhD advice: 10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you
Warning! 10 steps to PhD failure
The first 100 days of your PhD: what you'll need
Developing a PhD research question

An MPhil takes about two to three years to complete in most countries. Like a PhD, it consists of a research element (which is usually shorter and less in-depth than a PhD thesis, and often more akin to a dissertation undertaken at undergraduate or master’s level). MPhil students focus more on interpreting existing knowledge and theory, and critically evaluating other people’s work, rather than producing their own research. The precise nature and definition of MPhils can vary greatly between different institutions and countries, however. In the UK, a candidate doing a PhD might expect to be enrolled on an MPhil course initially, and then upgrade to a full PhD as they develop. 

A PhD, meanwhile, follows a more widely known and traditional route. Taking about three years (sometimes more) when pursued full-time (and about twice that time if studied part-time), a PhD is significant in that it requires students, often referred to as “candidates”, to produce their own work and research on a new area or topic to a high academic standard.

PhD requirements vary significantly between countries and institutions. The PhD once completed grants the successful candidate the title of "doctor of philosophy", also called PhD or DPhil.

What is a PhD thesis? And what is a PhD viva?

A PhD thesis will be produced in close cooperation with an academic supervisor, usually one with expertise in that particular field of study. This dissertation is the backbone of a PhD, and is the candidate's opportunity to communicate their research to others in their field (and a wider audience). 

Resources: doctoral thesis advice

Warning! This is how NOT to write a PhD thesis
How to write a PhD thesis: 10 top tips
Advice on submitting a PhD thesis
Umberto Eco on how to write a PhD thesis
PhD trends: is the doctoral thesis obsolete?
PhD advice: submitting your doctoral thesis on time
Doctoral tip: write clearly, don't waffle

PhD students also have to explain and defend their thesis in front of a panel of academics. It’s this part of the process that PhD students often find the most challenging, since writing a thesis is often a major part of any undergraduate or master’s degree, but having to defend it from criticism in real-time is arguably more daunting. This is especially pertinent when considering the amount of time it can take to get that far in the process.

This questioning is known as a “viva”, and examiners will pay particular attention to a PhD’s weaknesses either in terms of methodology or findings. Candidates will be expected to be able to have a strong understanding of their subject area, and be able to quickly and succinctly justify specific elements of their research.

Resources: the PhD viva

Essential advice: how to pass a PhD viva 
Is the PhD viva fit for purpose?
PhD interview practice: more than a 'mock' viva
The weirdest questions ever asked about PhDs?

Many candidates say that they knew immediately whether or not the examiners were going to recommend they be awarded their PhD. In some rare cases, students going for a PhD may instead be awarded an MPhil if the academic standard of their work is not considered fully up to par but still strong enough to be deserving of a qualification.

PhD eligibility

Students who want to study for a PhD will usually be required to have obtained a master’s degree in a related field of study (some universities may accept a strong undergraduate degree), often with a strong research element. This may be an MPhil, or a research master's (commonly called an MRes).

This video, part of our series of videos answering your PhD questions, might help you decide if you are ready to embark on a doctorate.

Doing a PhD part-time

Many PhD and MPhil candidates choose to pursue their qualification part-time, in order to allow time to work and earn while studying. This is especially true of older students, returning to academia having already embarked upon a career.

Resources: part-time PhDs, and working while studying

Doing a part-time PhD
The truth about doing a part-time PhD
How to combine a PhD with a career
10 more tips on working while doing a PhD

Working while pursuing a doctorate degree can also help a great deal in funding the qualification, and numerous grants and scholarships may also be applied for by prospective candidates. 

Your PhD supervisor

Choosing the right PhD supervisor for you is essential if you want to get the most out of your PhD. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of stories about what can happen when the relationship between doctoral student and supervisor does not go as planned. 

However, these resources should help to ensure that you get the absolute most out of this relationship. Remember, to complete your PhD you will need to have a strong support network in place, and a supervisor with whom you can work effectively is a key part of this network.

Resources: your PhD supervisor

This is why getting the right PhD supervisor is so important
Supervisors: do more to support your PhD students
The student / supervisor relationship: when things go wrong
Should supervisors and PhD students be friends?
Academics must stop exploiting PhD students

How to successfully complete your PhD

There is, alas, no sure-fire way to ensure doctoral success. It won't take you long to realise that as a PhD candidate, long hours and sleepless nights become part of the norm.

However, it is important to remember that you are not alone (see below on coping with PhD stress), and that there are plenty of people who can help you to stay on track. Also, you can take a look at these resources.

Resources: advice on how to complete your doctorate 

How to complete a PhD: 10 steps to get over the line
A diary showing how to complete your PhD
Eight habits that helped this scholar through her doctorate
Be realistic to stay on your PhD path
PhD question: should you publish while you study?
Writing book reviews as you study for a PhD

Coping with PhD stress

If you do decide to embark on a doctorate, you are sure to encounter stress. The work involved is often carried out alone, the hours can be long and many students can suffer from the pressure that they feel is on their shoulders.

We have pulled together a number of resources here that we hope will help you to better cope with the challenges of completing a doctorate.

Resources: coping with PhD stress

Coping with PhD stress: keeping your research on track
Looking after your mental health as a PhD student
Knowing if it is time to quit your doctorate
PhD support: tackling isolation
Doing a PhD as a new parent

Post-doctorate: what happens after you finish your PhD?

Life after doctorate. What does it hold? The short answer is "who knows?" Many new doctors want to pursue a career in academia, many move into industry. Some might take some time out, if they can afford to, to recover from the efforts of PhD study.

The following articles should help you to get a thorough understanding of the many and varied options open to you once you emerge from your PhD studies.

Resources: life after your PhD 

What do PhD students do after their doctorate?
PhD challenges post-graduation
Six early career researchers reflect on their PhD experiences
Five cities in seven years: life post-PhD
Mistakes to avoid as an early career researcher
How to build your academic reputation
Your PhD is your ticket to working abroad

Further reading:

Alternative view: my life as a PhD examiner
Twitter's impact on the PhD
Why is substandard PhD work submitted?

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