When it comes to life after a degree, some of the most common questions I’m asked revolve around PhDs. Most undergraduate students have no idea what doing a PhD involves, let alone the standard of work required to get one, and yet it seems to be an appealing option for career planning. How do you know you want to do something when you don’t know what it involves?
On one hand I can understand – you’re surrounded by people working towards, or with PhDs during your undergraduate degree, so perhaps you want to be like them. On the other hand I have no idea why someone would want to do something that requires so much hard work without knowing what they are getting themselves into.
I struggle to give advice on PhDs. I can give reasonable advice on where to look for one, good questions to ask potential supervisors and the time of year to be looking. I can give some information on likely entry requirements but will not give my opinion on whether someone is capable of doing a PhD. It is simply not for me to judge someone else’s motivation and answer in a way that cuts down their dreams. And I think motivation is key in doing a PhD. I can explain the mechanics of doing a research degree, the requirements for a thesis and give examples of the struggles that students generally face along the way. I can state clearly that I believe a PhD is an means to an end, to a career or something, rather than an end in itself. But I struggle to really convey what is required.
Fundamentally ‘doing a PhD’ is about creating new knowledge. This is best demonstrated through the learning outcomes for the appropriate level of the UK National Qualifications Framework (http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/EducationAndLearning/QualificationsExplained/DG_10039017)
“Doctorates are awarded to students who have demonstrated:
i the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research, or other advanced scholarship, of a quality to satisfy peer review, extend the forefront of the discipline, and merit publication;
ii a systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge which is at the forefront of an academic discipline or area of professional practice;
iii the general ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project for the generation of new knowledge, applications or understanding at the forefront of the discipline, and to adjust the project design in the light of unforeseen problems;
iv a detailed understanding of applicable techniques for research and advanced academic enquiry”
(emphasis added, Quote taken from Keele’s code of practice for research degrees, page 35, http://www.keele.ac.uk/media/keeleuniversity/graduateschool/PGR%20CoP%20April%202011.pdf)
At first it seems strange to see something as tenuous as research as a series of learning outcomes, but after some thought and consideration of some of the things a lot of doctoral students are told by their supervisors, it makes sense. For example, a lot of students are told that in their PhD viva, they will be the world expert on the (fairly focussed and narrow) topic of their thesis. The literature review chapter of the thesis is the way of demonstrating ii, and the methodology sections demonstrate iii and iv. Are these easy for a final year undergraduate student to grasp? Perhaps not, because it isn’t immediately clear how doing research in a final year project differs from doing research towards a PhD. Superficially they are the same but at some point during the first year of the PhD, the student has to take ownership of the project and move from working for the PhD supervisor to working in collaboration with them, using their advice and knowledge to improve on their own ideas. In many cases that’s a matter of survival for the student – very few supervisors have the time or inclination to be intimately involved with every experiment designed, every set of data generated. But you can bet your life on the fact that they know a well designed study when they see one, and good data when shown it. The student is the one doing the reading, with the time and incentive to carry out a full search of all available literature (and not just those items easily accessible via electronic journals!), and has to take responsibility for the project.
Of course, some projects vary from this model. Industrial projects may be more prescriptive due to the demands of the funding. There may be less room for the student’s creativity to develop the research in new directions and more requirements for them to complete tasks on time and to a satisfactory standard. There’s still room for developing all of the skills because if there isn’t, they are no more than laboratory technicians and cannot fulfil the above criteria.
How do you convey all of that to a wannabe PhD student? It’s like your final year project but much harder and you’ll have a lot of responsibility. Treat it like a job, not like being a student. You’ll have to work harder than you think, and often harder than you want to. You will hate it at times, you will love it at times and a lot of the time what you are doing probably won’t work for a variety of reasons. Your success will be so reliant on your ability to find and process relevant information from the published literature, attain mastery of the various techniques needed and design good, robust scientific experiments that produce publishable results, that most failures will feel intensely personal. And you have to do all of that in three years, probably on a budget of some description (money, access to equipment, hours in the day). There is no time to do rough work with the aim of repeating it properly at some point in the future. Think of the hardest assignment you’ve ever had at university and a PhD studentship will be, and should be much harder. Still interested?