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Studying for a PhD: the basics

PhD study gives you extensive knowledge and expertise in a specialised field that interests you, and provides you with a solid foundation for career progression. 

If you are considering postgraduate study, you may be wondering what it’s like to study for a PhD. Here you will find some of the most commonly asked questions about PhD study to help you decide whether a PhD is right for you. Find out everything you need to know before becoming a PhD student, how to get a PhD, and more.

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What is studying a PhD like?

Whilst extremely rewarding, studying for a PhD can be hard work and time consuming. You’ll need to be good at managing your workload and balancing your schedule. You’ll need time for research and data analysis, attending lab and lecture sessions as well as collaborating on research with other students. While this might seem intensive, good time management and planning should make it easier to handle. 

How long do you study for a PhD?

PhD study will typically take three to four years full time. Studying part time can take up to six years. Most students complete their thesis in the third year, although some intuitions allow you to extend your thesis deadline by up to four years if you need to. 

Read our article on how long is a PhD? for more information.

Is it hard to study for a PhD?

Studying for a PhD can be hard and also very stressful, but very much worth the effort. A PhD is a significant personal and financial investment that requires you to be motivated and organised over a number of years. Taking on a PhD is no easy task, but it can also be highly rewarding and open doors to career advancement.  

As a PhD graduate, you’ll be able to demonstrate advanced knowledge in your field, as well as a huge range of valuable skills, including time management, independence, drive and research skills. 

How do you study for a PhD?

PhD study involves original research into your chosen field. It is important to research your chosen field before making your PhD application.

With a full-time PhD the first year is spent researching your topic and planning how you will conduct your research. The second year is spent conducting research and analysing data until you are ready to present your findings in a written thesis. 

Find out more about what's involved in our related article: What is a PhD? 

Things to consider before embarking on a PhD

Before embarking on a PhD program it’s important that you think carefully about the reasons why you want to study a PhD. Although it will be a fulfilling academic experience, it is also likely to be a big financial commitment and require a lot of your time. 

Here are five essential points to consider before you start a PhD program.

1. Why do you want to study a PhD program?

The first thing you need to do is consider why you want to study a doctoral program. If your motivation is dissatisfaction with your current career this may not be ideal for giving you the focus you will need to succeed in your doctorate. If, however, you are motivated towards doctorate study because you really want to improve your future career prospects and gaining this qualification will fit in with the bigger picture of your life plan - then great! This should help give you the focus and motivation to achieve a successful end result.

2. Do you know which PhD subject you want to study?

In order to enjoy and be successful in your PhD program you should have a clear idea of what it is you want to specialise in. Although it is not essential to know your topic exactly, you do want to be clear enough in where your interest lies and feel confident that the topic will hold your attention for the duration of the doctorate program. Also, bear in mind that the clearer you are about your field of interest in your application - the more chance you have in successfully gaining a place on the program.

Explore subjects here at Postgrad.

3. Can you fund a PhD?

Undertaking PhD study can be quite a big financial commitment. Despite numerous bursaries and scholarships, financial aid and the availability of student loans with favourable rates - the PhD tuition fees can be high and the chances are you will finish your doctoral program in some debt, or at the very least less financially comfortable then you were before embarking on it. However, if you’ve done your calculations and worked out that it is a financially viable option for you, think of it as an investment in your future. Once you are established in your new profession you should be more than able to pay back any loans you have had to take out. 

Find out more about PhD loans.

4. How will PhD study improve your career prospects long term?

Obviously the answer to this question very much depends on your chosen subject matter. Once you’ve worked out what doctoral program you want to follow - you need to work out how this will help your career long term. For some PhD courses (ie Law) it is obvious that doctorate study can only enhance your career. However non-vocational fields of doctorate study  (ie 18th century poetry) may be less likely to alter your career path or financially improve your future earning capacity.

However, intellectually of course, the reward will be just as good. And in either case, studying a PhD demonstrates your commitment to your subject and your willingness to apply this knowledge in your future career.

5. Are you prepared for the application process?

Once you are sure you want to do a PhD program, you need to consider the application process. You need to take your time choosing the right doctoral program and institution, and bear in mind that it will take time to gather together the information you need - professional references, personal statements - to help ensure your application is successful.  Check the individual institution’s website for application deadlines and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to prepare.

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