What Is a PhD?
Updated 11 October 2020
‘PhD’ is an abbreviated acronym for the Latin term, ‘philosophiae doctor’ (which translates to Doctor of Philosophy). At some educational institutions, it is referred to as a DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy).
A PhD or DPhil is a research-based degree qualification that will provide you with the training and skills needed to become an independent researcher. It is globally recognised and the highest level of degree that can be attained.
To pass, you will need to complete a significant research project – this will usually be between 60,000 to 100,000 words in length.
There are many different reasons why people decide to study for a PhD:
- Academic job roles such as university researchers or lecturers will usually require a PhD.
- Some people gain a PhD with support from an employer – this is especially common in scientific career fields.
- For some people, studying for a PhD is a way to express their interest in a particular topic and make an impact through their research.
Whatever your reasons for applying to study at this level, achieving a PhD qualification will demonstrate that you have carried out a research project that offers new and meaningful findings within your chosen field.
As with any course of study, everybody’s experience will be different, but here is a broad outline of what you can expect during a three-year PhD:
- Year 1 – You will attend a meeting with your supervisor to talk over your research proposal, put together an action plan and agree on deadlines. After this, you will be expected to write your literature review. This piece of work will involve evaluating existing research and literature to provide you with direction for your research project.
- Year 2 – You will begin to gather results and work on your thesis. Some students will also begin to write their thesis during the second year. To enhance your employability and professional development, you may wish to spend some time this year presenting your research results and ideas at conferences, lectures or presentations – or even submit these for publication in a book or academic journal.
- Year 3 – Some of your primary research may still be ongoing but you will need to dedicate the majority of the third year to writing your thesis. Once this has been completed, you will present it to your supervisor for their approval, before submitting it for examination. After that, you will be asked to complete the viva voce (see below).
Below are some key points that will be relevant for most prospective PhD students.
Studying for a PhD Is a Lengthy Process
For full-time PhD students, funding is usually available for three years, although for the ‘New Route PhD’ funding is available for four years.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to complete all of your research within a three or four-year timeframe, but if you do need additional time, you will be responsible for funding this.
If you are planning to study for a PhD as a self-funding, part-time student, it could take you up to seven years to achieve the qualification.
You should aim to submit your thesis for examination within twelve months of the end of the PhD programme – although it is preferable to submit this within the course timeframe if you can.
PhD Students Are Expected to Lead and Manage Their Own Learning Journey
Studying for a PhD is likely to be quite different from your experiences of studying for an undergraduate or master’s degree.
During your undergraduate studies, much of your education will have been organised for you: there was a specified syllabus or curriculum, you were given a reading list of relevant material and your lecturers were there to guide you in the right direction where necessary.
When studying for a higher-level qualification such as a PhD, there are not many research degrees offering taught modules. That doesn’t mean you won’t have any support – you will have access to a supervisor, alongside the expertise of other academics and students working within your department.
But you will have the ultimate responsibility for planning and carrying out your research. This will include things like deciding on which discussions you will need to initiate and speaking up when you need additional help or resources.
PhD Studies Draw an International Crowd
Since a UK PhD qualification is highly regarded around the world, many people from other countries choose to come here to study.
This means that student groups tend to be multicultural, providing an excellent opportunity to learn about the background and values of other nations during your studies.
Choosing a PhD is different from applying for an undergraduate or master’s degree. Instead of simply applying for a specific course at a particular university, you will be committing yourself to a period of extended research. The outcome of this research will not only be your PhD qualification, but it will also be a major and original contribution to research and knowledge within your chosen field, so you must choose the right PhD for you.
Generally speaking, doctorates or PhDs are available in three formats:
- Advertised projects are popular within the STEM sector. Usually, they are offered by research groups, laboratories or specialised academic networks.
- Self-proposed projects are common for humanities, arts and social science. If you choose to pursue this route, you will select your research topic and propose it to a prospective supervisor at your chosen university.
- Professional doctorates are available for vocational topics including management and business. These tend to be geared towards experienced candidates who are looking to research within their area of work.
One of the most important things to consider is exactly why you are thinking about applying for a PhD. If you enjoyed university and want to spend another three years living the student lifestyle, a PhD is unlikely to be the right choice for you. Achieving a PhD requires passion, dedication and commitment to a unique research topic. There is much less time for the social aspect of university when you are studying for a PhD.
Finally, choosing an educational establishment for a PhD will be a different experience than choosing a university for an undergraduate degree. You will need to consider how well equipped the university’s laboratory or library is, what facilities they offer to postgraduate students, and whether there are other students already working in your chosen research field.
To ensure you can make an informed decision, attend postgraduate open days and follow-up with informal visits to the universities you are most interested in applying to. Making an additional visit will allow you to arrange a one-to-one discussion with prospective supervisors and see the facilities that are on offer.
Most institutions require PhD candidates to have an undergraduate bachelor’s degree (minimum grade of 2:1) and a master’s degree. Some universities are willing to consider prospective students with only an undergraduate degree.
Some universities might also be willing to consider candidates with lower undergraduate grades if they have chosen to self-fund their PhD.
The initial step for applying for a PhD is to send a research proposal to the department you are interested in. Before sending your proposal, you may wish to explore whether there are any opportunities to discuss your research ideas with an academic who is already working within your chosen field.
Your proposal will include:
- What you plan to investigate
- How your research links to other similar research within your chosen field
- Your research methodology
If you are applying for a PhD studentship, the aims for your research will likely be set out by the department. However, you may have the opportunity to contribute your own ideas too.
Each university will have different requirements for entry onto a PhD, but you will likely need to send your CV and a personal statement or cover letter with your research proposal and provide some suitable references.
If your application is successful, you will be asked to attend a PhD interview. The interview might be with your prospective PhD supervisor or a panel interview with admissions and the head of the department.
Your progress will be monitored and reviewed both formally and informally throughout the programme. This process will be overseen by your supervisor. The monitoring process is different for each educational establishment, so you will be given specific guidance on what to expect.
The observations made during these reviews will contribute to the assessment of your work but the main part of your assessment will be the doctoral examination.
The initial stage of the doctoral examination is the submission of your thesis (and supporting information or artefacts, if relevant) for review.
Following this, you will be required to undergo the viva voce examination. This is an oral assessment where an examiner will probe you on your research, exploring how you conducted this and what conclusions you made from the data collected.
As part of the viva, you will be expected to defend your research, so you should be prepared for some intense and challenging lines of questioning.
Your oral examination will be overseen by at least one external examiner. The purpose of this is to ensure that the examination process is in line with national guidelines and that you have met the necessary standard to be awarded a doctoral degree. Your supervisor will not be involved in the viva examination.
After completing the viva, you could be awarded an outright pass. Alternatively, you might be asked to make some minor or major revisions to your work. Failing the degree is a possibility, but the assessment and monitoring procedure offered by your institution should, in the majority of cases, help to prevent this outcome.
Are you wondering whether studying for a PhD is right for you? Read on to find out the pros and cons of studying for a doctorate:
- A chance to pursue your interests – If you’re motivated by the thought of digging deeper into a specific area of interest and contributing new knowledge to the world, there are few better options than studying for a PhD.
- Improved employability – A PhD qualification is respected by employers and having one will allow you to use the title of ‘Dr’. Depending on the career path you’re planning to follow, having a PhD could make you an attractive candidate for jobs within universities and the research sector. Many employers looking for research staff will cite a PhD as an essential requirement.
- Improved soft skills – Being responsible for your output will help you to improve your time management, problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
- Better salary prospects – Having a PhD will mean that you are eligible for higher-level jobs, which will often translate to a more generous salary.
- Opportunities for international travel – As part of your research, you may have the chance to go overseas to present your research and outcomes to other professionals within your field.
- Networking – Through the process of earning your PhD, you will make many professional contacts including professors, experts and heads of department. You will also work alongside other fellow researchers. These contacts can provide you with references, career advice, working collaboration and job prospects for the future.
- It can be expensive – Tuition fees will vary between institutions but they are usually between £3,000 and £6,000 per year. Overseas students can expect to pay considerably more than this. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that many PhD students are either partly or fully funded. There are many different options, including bursaries, scholarships and Research Council grants. You could also choose to pursue a PhD studentship or assistantship, which will include elements of both research and teaching. Science studentships are often paid more than other industries.
- Can be lonely/isolating – Even though you will be in regular contact with your supervisor, professors and fellow students, working towards a PhD is a solitary experience. You will need to be comfortable with spending a significant amount of time working alone to carry out your research and write up your findings. As a result, your social life is likely to deteriorate, particularly if you are working too.
- Can be frustrating – No matter how interesting your research proposal might have seemed at the beginning, it may not hold your interest for the full three or four years needed to complete the PhD process. Think carefully before finalising your research proposal to ensure it is not something you are going to quickly lose interest in. Additionally, spend time with prospective supervisors to ensure you find someone you will work well with. Some supervisors are more effective than others, and it can be frustrating to work with one who is not helpful or available.
- Your job prospects might be limited – Having a PhD can open up many doors but there are only a finite number of jobs to go around. If your research topic is too niche, you might find yourself in a highly competitive candidate pool. In other cases, you might find that employers consider you to be ‘overqualified’ for certain job roles.
- You are accountable for the success of your research project – This can be stressful, especially when you are spending long hours working on completing it. To tackle this, make sure you plan your time to ensure a positive work-life balance.
If you’ve recently completed your undergraduate or master’s degree, you may feel unsure whether to apply for graduate jobs or further your education with a PhD.
For students who have always loved research, the PhD route can be a great choice. To succeed, you will need to be comfortable with using your initiative and working independently to reach your goals.
Studying for a PhD is likely to be a challenging experience – but it will also be very rewarding. The research that you carry out will make a contribution to knowledge within your area of interest and other researchers will be able to build on it further in years to come.
When you have a PhD on your CV, prospective employers will see much more than the outcome of your research. It will also show that you have the written, analytical and soft skills to make a positive contribution within the workplace.
Remember, if you do decide to pursue a PhD, you will be one of a small number of people who carry out academic work at this high level.