You might say that, basically, a PhD is a novel, in depth study of a specific field where the results are written up as a report or book in a series of chapters outlining the literature base, methodology, results and conclusions drawn from your work. You will have one primary supervisor and often a secondary one who will guide you through the process. In reality much of work in a PhD is independent and differs markedly from MSc and BSc teaching degrees.
Following submission of your manuscript, there is an oral examination where you will have an opportunity to defend your written thesis to a committee of academics, who are not necessarily experts in the field, but who will be accomplished academics with knowledge, expertise and interest in your field.
But you can look at the PhD phenomenon in a wide variety of ways.
Here are 12 ideas to start your thinking about the essence of your PhD as such.
Obviously, a PhD is a project in various stages, letting you push boundaries. It allows you to develop new knowledge of a specific topic or research problem, but you will also learn new things about yourself. That leads you to conceiving of a PhD as a process. Pushing yourself beyond what you believed possible, you may end up identifying the outcome of your PhD with who you have become during the process. To view this as a change in personal identity is risky, but for sure doing a PhD changes your capabilities.
At the basis of these reflections lies the idea that doing a PhD amounts to some kind of conceptual threshold crossing. Doing a PhD shifts your being because in the process you learn to work conceptually, think critically and creatively, and make your point on the basis of evidence. You can consider this an ontological shift, a change on the level of being. Besides that, doing a PhD entails also an epistemological change: it shifts your way of knowing, as you learn to find your way in unfamiliar territory where established ‘knowledge’ appears insecure, fragmented, and in need for new meaning.
Now, how you cross the threshold is another matter. Gordon Rugg and Marian Petre (“The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” 2004) humorously point out two classic ways of doing a PhD:
“One involves knowing just what you are doing; you will then go through a clearly defined path, suffer occasional fits of gloom and despair, emerge with a PhD, unless you do something remarkably silly or give up, and then proceed smoothly with the next stage of your career.
The other way is the one followed by most PhD students, which involves stumbling in, wandering round in circles for several years, suffering frequent fits of gloom and despair, and probably but not necessarily emerging with a PhD, followed by wondering what to do next in career terms.”
As funny as it might appear, their remark has a serious undertone. I do not claim to have the ultimate answer to the question what is a PhD. I even doubt there is one. But I do know that your answer has big implications for the way in which you cross that PhD threshold.
So do you know what you are doing? Do you know how you see your PhD?
Here you find some more prompts for reflection. You can mix and match, make up a new answer, and you are even allowed to cheat and peek…
A PhD is:
- A qualification which shows that you are a good enough academic to be appointable in a university post.
- A training in how to do a decent chunk of research independently.
- A mark of academic excellence or the summit of academic status, if you will.
- Initiation rite, where you undergo an ordeal and, if you come through the ordeal in a creditable manner, are admitted to membership of the academic clan. The main point is that doing a PhD does change you.
- A master piece in academic cabinet making (demonstrating mastery of skills such as formal academic language, familiarity with the relevant literature in the discipline, knowledge of the main data collection techniques, adherence to the standards of rigor, discipline specific skills, but also tact & diplomacy, networking & asking the right persons (with good track records) for advice.
- A life’s work of inspired, ground breaking research.
- Curiosity driven, free, intellectual activity.
- Freedom and independence.
- A job / education.