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).
PhD Entry requirements
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 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.
Reasons why not and why
As with any decision, there are positive and negative reasons for our choices, so let’s get the negative reasons out of the way first. If you are considering undertaking a PhD because you:
‘can’t think of anything else to do; want to stay in the same place as your friends or a partner; think it’s an easy option; have been told by others you ought to’
Then these reasons are not going to sustain you through the most challenging times of your research degree and will probably mean that you do not investigate what a PhD really involves. In the case of the final reason, it can be very flattering if one of your tutors suggests that you should do a PhD and you should certainly seriously consider it but make sure that you investigate it in the same was as if it was your own idea. You still need to check out whether it is the right option for you. Some of you may be influenced by the expectations of family and friends, perhaps they want you to do a PhD because they didn’t get the chance or maybe they are trying to give you the confidence to achieve something that you are capable of. Whatever the situation the message is the same, stop, research what is involved and whether it is what you really want to do?
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.