To PhD or not to PhD… what does a PhD involve and why might you do one?

A PhD is a long and arduous process that can take many years to complete. It will often be time consuming, life changing, challenging and a financial sacrifice. And yet, in 2010 the organisation Vitae asked UK PhDs whether…..

  • A PhD had enhanced their social and intellectual capabilities beyond employment?

87% said yes

  • A PhD had enhanced the quality of their life generally?

88% said yes

But what does a PhD involve and why might you do one?

What is it?

A Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD/DPhil) is not just for the study of philosophy! It can be done on almost any subject that you can think of. It is the highest academic level a student can achieve and requires you to make an original contribution of knowledge to the field.

This is done through an independent research project, where you must conduct and collate significant research in a particular field or subject. Depending on the topic, you could be conducting experiments in a laboratory, doing field-work, or perhaps utilising the documents of an archive. You could be working largely on your own, or as one part of a larger project. You will have an academic supervisor to guide you through your research, and in some cases a mentor too.

Although some Doctorates include taught components, accreditation is nearly always based on the quality of your thesis (your research argument). Again, depending on your subject, your final piece of work will be up to 100,000 words or around 250–500 pages, and should be of publishable quality.

How long?

A PhD is normally completed over three to four years full time (each university will differ) or six years part time.

How much does it cost?

A PhD can be expensive, fees ranging from between £3,000 and £6,000 per year. Funding is available in the form of grants and scholarships, but this is often highly competitive. You will also have to consider your living costs on top of the fees, as most full-time PhD courses restrict the number of paid work hours you can do a week.

Why do it?

Most students who undertake a PhD do so to gain the necessary qualification to become an academic. The common way to do so is to continue your work as a postdoctoral researcher within a university. However, the skills gained from PhD study can also be useful in other careers. These include analytical skills, time-management, organisational skills, self-motivation and intellectual rigor. You will also develop expertise that can still be sought after outside of academia in other research, teaching or consultancy roles. So for example you could utilise your PhD to work for a think tank or NGO looking at public policy, or as a financial analyst providing ideas and information to fund managers. If you’d like more information on career options after a PhD, the organisation Vitae has published a series of articles called ‘What do Researchers Do?’ which is very useful:

You should also consider what skills gaps you might have which the PhD will not fill, and find ways of gaining experience outside of your research in order to rectify that. For example, an arts or humanities PhD might not involve much team-work, so taking an opportunity to organise a conference would be one way of plugging that gap.


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