Demystifying the PhD

Often cited as the pinnacle of academic endeavour, the highlight  and aspiration for many wannabe scholars, PhDs are perceived to be the peak of a career. The reality is spending at least three years trying to find a “theoretical contribution”, or something new or novel within the research discipline of your choice. A doctor of philosophy (PhD) does not have to mean researching philosophy but it originates from the Latin meaning of philosophy which is the love of wisdom.

Essentially a PhD is research project on a topic no body else has focused on and the more obscure the better. To apply for a PhD  you will need to identify something that has not been investigated, explain how you will research it and why any one should care about the outcome.  This can be in any subject you can think of.

There are many reasons to pursue a PhD, to increase your knowledge of a particular subject or topic, to further your academic career and become a lecturer, to research areas you feel are overlooked or to avoid getting a job in “the real world”. They should never be seen as an easy option or a three year doss, they are hard to complete mainly as you have to juggle them with many other lifestyle choices and commitments such as families and relationships.

What will you do in a PhD
The process of applying to doctoral research programme includes either applying for a studentship or writing your own proposal and seeking funding independently. A studentship is a funded place at a university on a particular project. Once you have done this, finding a supervisor is the next step, basically your PhD manager, responsible for guiding you and offering advice. After this you will start a full time (3-4 years) or part time (4-6 years) of study and research. Writing a background to the research (what has been found out on the topic previously, what the controversies are, what you will do, how you will do it, what  you found out and what it means).

After this you will write about  your project, often in 50,000- 80,000 words. This sounds like a lot, however think of all the essays you have written in your undergraduate degree? It’s probably about the same. When this has been completed and handed in you will then have to complete a spoken exam or a viva voce. A Viva Voce is where two examiners read your thesis and ask you many questions about what you have written and why, what are the implications and any clarifications that are needed. At the end of this you find out if you have failed,  passed with corrections (having to amend some of your thesis) or passed with no corrections, i.e it’s perfect. Most people pass with some corrections, after this in the UK you are allowed to be called Dr.

PhD’s require:

  • Stamina (it’s more of a marathon, not a sprint)
  • An excellent team of supervisors- they are the key, they can make or break your motivation
  • Sanity or the ability to surround yourself with people who will keep you sane
  • A very good support network- people who will understand you and be there for you unconditionally
  • A good system of file back ups, I have heard horror stories about people who have lost their whole 80,000 word thesis in a currupted file. Use google docs or dropbox or both
  • No fame seeker behaviour: do not do it for the fame or apparent respect you may receive. Many people don’t know what a doctorate is requires. Not many people will care if you have a doctorate in the bacteria of dung beetle wings…
  • Understanding that you will be emotionally battered and bruised, academics like to remind each other that in fact they know nothing about any thing, that’s what you will discover when you pursue a PhD.

So if you feel like spending 3-7 years banging your head against a brick wall and despairing, go ahead and apply for a PhD.