What is a PhD?
In the UK, a PhD stands for ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, sometimes referred to as a ‘doctorate’. It is the highest level of degree that a student can achieve. At some institutions, including Oxford University, a Doctor of Philosophy is known as a DPhil. It is distinct from professional doctorates such as an Engineering Doctorate (EngD).
An undergraduate degree is a minimum requirement and many will also require a master’s degree (such as an MA, MSc or MRes). Some scholarships will be on a 1+3 basis, which is one year of a master’s plus three years of PhD funding.
How to apply for a PhD
Prospective students are usually expected to submit a research proposal to the department they wish to undertake their study in. Some departments will encourage students to discuss their ideas with an academic working in that field first. The proposal will outline what they intend their research to investigate, how it relates to other research in their field and what methods they intend to use to carry out their research. Some PhD’s however, particularly in the sciences, are advertised as studentships where the research aims are more prescriptive.
How long is the course?
A PhD usually lasts three years (four for a New Route PhD – see below), or rather, any available funding usually lasts for that time. Students may be able to take extra time in order to complete their thesis but this will usually be at their own expense. For part-time, self-funded students, it can take up to seven years.
A PhD usually culminates in a dissertation of around 80,000-100,000 words, based on research carried out over the course of their study. The research must be original and aim to create new knowledge or theories in their specialist area, or build on existing knowledge or theories. Many departments initially accept students on an MPhil basis and then upgrade them to PhD status after the first year or two, subject to satisfactory progress. Students who are not considered to be doing work appropriate for the level can instead submit a shorter thesis and gain an MPhil.
There is little taught element, students are expected to work independently, supported by their department and a supervisor. There may be seminars to attend and/or lab work to complete, depending on the subject. During their study, students will try and get academic papers published and present their work at conferences, which will allow them to get feedback on their ideas for their dissertation.
New Route PhD
Introduced in 2001, the New Route PhD is a four-year programme that combines taught elements, including professional and transferable skills, with the student’s research. There are now hundreds of doctoral students studying a variety of subjects at a consortium of universities across the UK.
PhD graduates who go on to work in academia usually start off by undertaking postdoctoral research and then a fellowship or lectureship. Other career options will depend on what the PhD was in – commercial research is an option for some, and many are able to use their specialist knowledge and research skills in areas of business and finance.
For a real insight into what it’s like to study at PhD level, see our vlog series, where we have invited students at various stages of their PhD and locations to film themselves over a month and share their videos with you.
Why do a PhD?
If you are considering doing one make sure that you do it with a purpose. Do one because you want to and know why you want to do it and have a clear idea of what it could lead to. How is doing a PhD going to help you achieve what you want to in your future?
Reasons to do a PhD.
- It’ll be good for your career. No one expects you to have your whole career plan mapped out when you start a PhD, but having some ideas of where you want to get to can be useful. Be aware though that you may not get the career benefits of a PhD straight away.
- You want to be an expert in a particular area of your subject. If you complete a PhD you will be. No-one, not your supervisor, not your external examiner at the end of your PhD, no-one, will know more about the subject you researched than you do.
- You want to achieve something. You want to work hard and demonstrate a passion for your subject and show how much time and effort you put in and how motivated you are.
- Showing your ability to motivate yourself is one of many skills you’ll be able to demonstrate to employers after doing a PhD, which is handy for entering a competitive job market.
Reasons not to do a PhD.
- Don’t do it just because your degree research project supervisor asked you if you wanted to do one with them. If you wanted to do one and it’s in an area that interests you then great, go for it. If you hadn’t thought about doing one before they asked, and you’re not sure why you want to do one, make sure you work that out before saying yes to them.
- Don’t do it because you don’t know what else to do. Many people do a PhD because they don’t know what else to do and think it will give them time to work that out. Doing a PhD is a huge commitment, at least 3-4 years of your life, and hard work, so before you take one on, make sure you understand why.
- And do it because YOU want to, not because your family, or others expect it of you, or because your family or friends are doing one, or have done one. Make it your decision, not someone else’s.
Why Should YOU Do A PhD?
It is your decision to commit to a significant period of time and work and it needs to be something you approach positively and with enthusiasm but also with realism about the pros and cons of undertaking original research.
Who does a PhD?
The idea of the “perpetual student”, i.e. someone who stays on after an undergraduate and/or masters degree, to do a PhD, is perhaps a traditional view of PhDs. Some of you reading this will fall into the category of those who work through the tiers of higher education in this sequential fashion (it does not necessarily make you a “perpetual student” though!). The PhD population today is very diverse and not made up entirely of 21 to 25-year-olds who have stayed in educational settings for the majority of their lives. Others may be considering a return to education in order to change your career or as part of your professional development within an existing career. Some of you may be considering coming to study in the UK independently or with support from an organisation in your home country. Whatever your situation it is very important that you take time to recognise and understand why you are making this commitment and what it entails.
Let us move to the positives of why YOU should do a PhD? Broadly, the positive reasons can be classified into:
You WANT to or You NEED to
Some academic colleagues were asked to give reasons why someone should do a PhD and all came back with statements that had the word “passion” in them. This is having a real passion for your subject and an area of it that you want to investigate further. My colleagues also offered some interesting comments on the reality of making a decision to do a PhD even when you have this passion. Some commented on the need to consider doing the right PhD for you and not just any PhD, and I think it is important that you take this seriously as it can be dangerous to compromise too far and embark on research that you are not interested in just because it will lead to a PhD.
Academic colleagues also wanted you to look ahead and consider where your PhD may take you? Do you want to continue in an academic career or apply for jobs in industry or other organisations where a PhD is a requirement or will help you to work at a different level? Interestingly, research on the career intentions of PhD students, undertaken by Vitae revealed that less than one third had firm career ideas even in the latter stages of their PhD. This statistic is concerning as it may mean that PhD students miss opportunities to add to their range of experience. You don’t need to have an exact career plan in place at the start of your PhD, but doing research on where it may take you is valuable. For those already in a career and undertaking a PhD as part of their professional development, or those who are viewing a PhD as part of a career change into academia, they should also look ahead and ensure that plans for the future are realistic and achievable.
A decision to undertake a PhD involves the same steps as any other career decision, you need to find out as much as possible about what a PhD really involves? Alongside considering where your passions lie and where they might lead to you need to research such things as:
- The working environment and how you will adapt to any differences with your current situation
- Working with a supervisor
- What funding is available and what it covers, i.e. fees only or fees and living costs?
- Most importantly what behaviours, skills and experiences YOU have that will make you a successful and productive researcher.
These points and others are covered in more detail in 7 PhD Application Tips.
For further PhD tips see:
- What Can You Do With a PhD?
- Post PhD, Where Do I Go From Here?
- A Practical Guide to Planning an Academic or Research Career
- Become a Researcher – 5 Skills You Need