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What is a PhD?

What kinds of doctorate are there, and what does doctoral study involve?

A doctoral degree is a symbol of your mastery of a specific area of study, gained from a high level of research. It is a programme that takes an immense amount of self-discipline for three or four years with minimal guidance. Although there may be some supplemental courses you take to develop your research skills, it is expected that you will work individually and produce work to a self-prescribed timeline. In the end, you are assessed on the originality and quality of the argument you submit.

It is not a curriculum-based programme with a set of end goals and objectives. There is no one making sure you’re analysing every article or keeping you accountable on a daily or weekly basis.

“Some students believe that doing a PhD involves ‘joining a research team’ in which I as supervisor set their research. I have often had students selling themselves based on their own flexibility when it comes to research topics, without realising that this might actually put their enquiry into doubt.” Doctoral supervisor

Routes to a PhD

A Master’s degree is often a stepping stone to a PhD, but you don’t necessarily need one. There are alternative routes to entering a PhD programme, from a 1+3 route (i.e., a one-year Master’s leading straight into a three-year PhD), a taught Masters, or possessing relevant professional skills and experience which have prepared you to undertake the PhD experience.

Some people move straight onto a PhD after their undergraduate studies, some do a Master’s or alternative postgraduate qualification first and some are returning to study after a period of work or just being away from study.

Full Time study

Traditionally, full-time PhD study occurs over three years. Be prepared for a rapid succession of events. Although the outline below may not apply everywhere, this is a typical timeline in Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences and some STEM projects.

PhD Years graphic

The first year is meant for further refinement of your proposal and agreement on action plans. You should ideally complete or be close to completing your literature review draft and begin thinking about your methodology and ethics applications (where applicable).

The second year is where you collect and analyse your data. This is where you can begin to really network and present your findings at conferences. Additionally, you can gain experience in teaching as a graduate assistant, collaborate on research projects, or submit for publication in journals.

The third year is where you will finish writing up your thesis and, with your supervisor’s approval, you will present and defend your findings to a panel.

In reality, many people take slightly longer to complete their PhD with some fully-funded PhD programmes including an extra period of funding. In this case, the final fourth year is often known as the thesis pending year and may involve the submission of the thesis and subsequent time to write amendments requested by the assessing panel.

Part-time study will obviously take considerably longer, but might work better for prospective students with family, work and other commitments.

PhDs are not the only doctorates…

In this course, we sometimes use ‘PhD’ as a shortcut term, but it’s important to know that there are many types of doctorates which may fit your needs better than the traditional PhD. As touched on in the video, alternatives include the Higher Doctorate, Integrated/New Route PhD, PhD by publication, and professional Doctorates. In the UK, the DEd or EdD (Doctor of Education) and DClinPsy (Doctor of Clinical Psychology) are common professional Doctorates. All of these routes require slightly different journeys to obtain the degree. They might involve more publication, vocational training, or taught elements, such as the incorporation of Master’s level teaching into the PhD.

Discussion points:

  • What field of study are you considering?
  • What kind of doctorate interests you?
  • What route are you taking into doctoral study?

Be sure to read and reply to other learners’ posts and comments. You might find some similar situations.

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Is a PhD Right for Me?

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