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Why do a PhD?

Why do a PhD?
Photo of students reading in library
© University of Leicester

Studying for a doctoral level qualification, usually in the form of Doctor of Philosophy, more normally abbreviated as PhD (or as DPhil), can be an extremely challenging, but highly rewarding endeavour. This is the highest degree awarded by universities. The normal requirement is three years of full-time study (sometimes with an additional year spent ‘writing up’ the PhD thesis) or six years of study via part-time or distance learning modes (with a maximum of seven years registration period).

The core end product of this study is an 80,000 word thesis that makes a contribution to knowledge in the particular research area chosen by you as the doctoral student. The thesis is examined by an oral presentation and discussion (the ‘viva voce’) with experts in your research field.

So why would you want to take on this challenge? Here are some good reasons:

  • to contribute to academic and social scientific discovery and knowledge;
  • as a first major step towards a career as an academic or a researcher;
  • to build substantially on knowledge already gained from previous study and experience
  • to develop and enhance your independent (and sometimes team-based) research skills;
  • to make an impact upon social or economic policy and practice;
  • to provide a launchpad for entering a related profession;
  • to lead innovation in a particular sector of industry.

These may be good, ‘academic’ reasons for undertaking PhD research but the (perhaps surprising) reality is that only a minority of PhD students embark on an academic career after completing their thesis; that to make an impact may well require significant additional activities on top of writing a thesis; and that PhD theses are rarely specific enough to be applicable in the real world because they have to meet academic rather than practical requirements. So, whilst there are many good reasons for doing a PhD, the aims cited above are not always straightforward to realise in practice. A PhD is a commitment and challenge, one that you will relish and enjoy, but occasionally battle with too!


Think about the reasons you are considering undertaking a PhD. What will you personally gain from doing a research project for such an extended period of time? Are there other reasons different to the ones above? Share your thoughts in the Discussion area.

Reflective journal

Throughout this course we would also recommend keeping a reflective diary or journal, so that you can reflect on your reasons as you go through the course to see if your thinking changes.

Journaling can be a helpful aid throughout the whole PhD process, and can be a powerful way to both reflect on problems and resolve them. You may like to note your thoughts in a personal notebook, via an online journal, such as Evernote, or make them public via a blog. There are several free blogging tools available, and FutureLearn have a list of those they recommend.

© University of Leicester
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