What is a PhD?

Whether you’re finishing up from an undergraduate degree, on a masters course or even just looking to get back into education, you’ll have seen people talking about getting a PhD .

Now, most people know vaguely what a PhD is – it’s a university course that means you can call yourself ‘Doctor’ without having to do medicine, right? Whilst that is surprisingly close to the truth, we’re here to answer the oft-asked question of ‘what is a PhD?’

Read on to get the lowdown.

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A PhD is focussed research

To start with, describing a PhD as a university course can be a bit misleading. Whilst it is a course offered by a university, it’s incredibly different to most courses. Unlike the undergraduate level, you won’t be covering your subject broadly you’ll be focused on one very particular area. Whilst a masters degree, especially a research one, may be focused, it won’t be nearly as focused as a PhD.

That said – don’t expect this focused level of research to necessarily be groundbreaking! Though part of doing a PhD is the intent to produce original research, it’s also primarily there to train your research skills and to prove yourself as a capable researcher.

A PhD means attending ‘optional’ lectures and conferences

Now of course, the university doesn’t just accept you, your project and tell you to have fun. You’ll work with a supervisor, and there will be conferences, lectures, and other such things that you can attend. Unlike lower level courses, however, although you won’t necessarily be examined on these things that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! Conferences are a great way to meet people, get your name out and network . For any career, but especially one in academia, networking is well worth it.

A PhD is a high standard qualification

But what does having a PhD show, other than the fact you spent three to four years working on research and can now call yourself Dr [Your surname here]? A PhD is pretty much globally recognised as a high standard qualification, meaning if you choose to move elsewhere you should be fine. In addition, a whole world of new jobs opens up to you! Including academic roles such as postdoctoral research posts, or even possibly fellowships.

But now you know what a PhD is, just how do you go about getting one?

How to get a PhD

Getting a PhD is not easy by any means. But, if it’s something you truly want to do, it’s well worth it. So let’s take a look at just how to get a PhD!

Choose your research area

To start with, you want to make sure you know what area you’d like to do it in. Don’t just pick something on a whim – this is something you’re going to be studying for the next four years of your life, and something that, once you finished your PhD, you’ll have your name attached to. So, for arts and humanities students, find an area of your subject that fascinates you enough that you’ll want to spend the next few years writing about it. For scientists, find an area you’d be happy to be working on in a team, and wouldn’t mind moving into as a career!

Find a good supervisor

Once you’ve done this, it’s time to start looking for a supervisor . Depending on what you’re currently doing, asking tutors for contacts or recommendations can be well worthwhile, but if you can’t do this, check out what research your potential supervisor has done. In addition, try and arrange an in-person meeting – or at least, a phone conversation. Email can make communication difficult and given this is the person you’ll be working under for the foreseeable future, you want to ensure you get on.

Then, assuming you’re accepted and have appropriate funding, you’ll be considered a probationary PhD student. At the end of your first year, you’ll be expected to prove you’re capable of the full course, so you’ll be tested in the form of writing a report. Once you pass this, you’re good to go!

Your next few years will be spent attending conferences, working on the research and your thesis. Your thesis will talk about what you’ve spent your time doing, how you dealt with any difficulties that arose, and generally show what your contribution to your subject is! Once that’s out the way, you get the fun job of having a viva – that is, talking about your thesis to a bunch of academics.

Pass the viva? Then you’ve succeeded.

So that’s how to get a PhD!

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