Our latest addition to the Hub is ‘For PhDs’ – here we will discuss a range of issues regarding the doctoral process. We will be sharing from our personal experiences as well as reflective pieces from current PhD students and graduates. The aim is to provide a realistic picture of the process for prospective students and also to equip current students with tools to enhance their academic experience. In this article, we will be discussing some common misconceptions about the PhD process.
What is a PhD?
Before dealing with the myths about PhDs, we would like to briefly discuss what a PhD actually is. PhD is an abbreviation for Doctor of Philosophy (also shortened to DPhil at some institutions) and is the highest level degree that can be achieved by a student. It is a postgraduate research degree and is awarded for an original and significant contribution to knowledge in a chosen field after an extensive research study. Majority of PhD entrants (UK) possess a postgraduate degree (MA, MSc, MRes) but it is possible to register for a PhD after completing an undergraduate degree with a first class or second class upper. Typically (In the UK), the PhD lasts for three or four years full time and between four to six years part time.
In recent years in our roles as academic advisors and lecturers, we have come across many students who have enquired about applying for PhD opportunities for a variety of reasons. Some people view the PhD as an opportunity to stay back at University and continue studying until they decide what or where they would like to be in their future careers. Others seem to be fulfilling other people’s (e.g. family) ambitions, others see it a required step to get to the next level in their careers. Whatever your reasons are, it is important that you are aware of what you are getting yourself into when you decide to do a PhD.
Let’s discuss some common misconceptions about studying for a PhD…
You should be very knowledgeable about everything – The whole point of a PhD is to discover or learn something new. You will become an expert in your research area but definitely not at everything! It is actually more likely that the more you know about your topic, the less you know about other things, so do not count on us during a pub quiz! If you do not know everything about your topic when you start, welcome to the club! One thing we found humbling was the realisation of how much we did not know at the beginning of our PhDs compared to having spent three years investigating our respective topics. We sincerely believe that successfully completing a PhD is not as much about intelligence as it is tenacity and perseverance.
It is just another course – To answer this we’ll say NO it is not! During your undergrad and master’s degrees you would have experienced a range of teaching and learning activities including lectures, tutorials, seminars, independent learning and group work. Some people are surprised and often unprepared for the structure of a PhD. Your PhD should be seen as an independent project where you are the Project manager reporting to your superiors (supervisors) about how you manage resources (time, money) to achieve pre-defined objectives (research aims) to a given deadline (thesis submission). Regardless of discipline, studying for a PhD can often be a solitary process. To make an original contribution to your field, you will be carrying out research that has not been done before. While supervisors can support, the day to day management of your project is your responsibility. Approach your PhD like a job as well as studying for a degree.
It is like a 9 – 5 job – Having said to view your PhD like a job, it is much more than your regular 9-5. PhD students often joke about how much I (Emmanuel) call the PhD ‘a life choice’. At a certain point, your PhD will consume your life because not too long after you start your PhD you realise how little time you have for friends, family and personal enjoyment. I (Amara) remember conducting experiments overnight in the lab…asking myself over and over again why I ever thought a PhD was a good thing! Non-laboratory based PhDs are not left out, conducting research and writing it up takes time, especially when you do it well. To this end we say if you are looking for a PhD which is akin to a 9-5 job, whilst it is not impossible, it is very unlikely.
It will automatically lead to a job (or a better job) – Sometimes we have seen many PhDs surprised at what they consider the lack of jobs available to them after graduation. Getting a job after the PhD is not a given and is definitely not automatic. Becoming employed still requires you shine throughout the whole application process – including a strong CV and personal statement etc. Depending on what you want to do next, having a PhD may even be viewed as at best having no benefit and at worst a hindrance! If you are looking at staying in academia, more often than not, everyone else will have a PhD too. If you would like to go into industry or another discipline, it may be even more challenging. Please look out for future articles on this theme of PhD employment as we discuss these issues in more detail.
PhDs are for nerds and loners – The renowned Liverpool football club theme “You’ll never walk alone” comes to mind at this point. Several PhD candidates have either failed to complete their PhD because they assume doing a PhD does not require other interpersonal skills such as the ability to communicate and interact with others, be it supervisors or other researchers in their field of study. Yes, a PhD can have solitary moments but see yourself as an ‘independent, team player.’ Many UK institutions have structured processes which allow for regular interaction with supervisors and other academics and co researchers such as recorded supervisor meetings, researcher’s conferences and other graduate school events. You can have fun during your PhD, just probably in small doses. Ensure you network effectively, even if just within your research group, sometimes an encouraging word can go a long way when things are not going well.
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Excellent article. The purpose of a PhD program is to rain a young researcher how to further refine their abilities to think critically, read and digest previously published work, design and execute research and, from the data generated by that research, synthesize new knowledge. This is true for PhD candidates across disciplines ranging from accounting to zoology. Many who earn PhD’s proceed to work in field far astray from the one they embraced during their graduate studies. However, the mental skills and discipline cultivated in their pursuit for a doctorate are quite transferable, and generally serves PhD holders quite well. I believe that too often, both candidates and their advisers behave as though their PhD thesis should be the zenith of their research careers. In reality is it more similar to receiving a 1st degree black belt. Through your thesis, a candidate demonstrates their ability to continue to learn and – hopefully – to mentor others.
Excellent comment. Thank you for sharing. A PhD is a training process for greater challenges and achievements to come.
Thanks for your comment. Mistake corrected.
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A lovely article. Yes a PhD is a ‘life choice’ but it is also ‘life changing’ or at least it should be. I think the thing to ask yourself is if the PhD / technology / experience is going to move you on to better things. I spent 3 years using an out dated science technique that did me no favours in getting my first job. So don’t jump into the first one that comes along and ask is it the right thing in the long run. 🙂 Awesome, and lots of luck to everyone.
Thanks Viv for your comment. Excellent points.
Good article and I’m looking forward to the subsequent ones. I would also like to have PHD soon. I like to research as well and even stay in academia. I also know some researchers travel as far as another continent to get first hand data for their project, rub minds with fellow researchers etc. I look forward to that time. Kudos to you!
Thank you for the feedback Dare. We wish you all the best with your applications. We will be writing more articles to hepefully help with that.
Any legit university in North America grant PHDs for those with documented expertise in a field after a whole career in that area? Sort of PHD in exchange for all that expertise, without undergoing a lot of the stuff which people just starting in grad school have to go through. Just asking..
Hi Kathy, thanks for your comment. I would have to to find that out. In the UK we have professional doctorates. The structure depends on discipline and institution but I would think there would be something similar in the US.
Check out http://www.findaprofessionaldoctorate.com
Thank you. We appreciate the feedback
Great Article – invaluable advice and very informative