We often talk on here about people in the lab doing a PhD. You may also have heard at other times of people having PhDs, but you might not know what this really means. Many of us didn’t really know that before we started working here either so we thought it might be useful to explain. PhD stands for “Doctor of Philosophy”, but we don’t mean philosophy in the way the word is normally used – philosophy is actually a Greek word that means ‘love of wisdom’. Still, knowing that still doesn’t help much in understanding what a PhD is.
In our field, doing a PhD usually involves working on a number of separate, but related, research projects over at least three years. You have one main supervisor, who is a very experienced researcher and an expert in the area you’re working in, and with whom you meet very regularly to discuss your progress. You also have a second supervisor with similar skills but whom you don’t work quite so closely with. Your supervisors give lots of help and advice along the way, but each PhD student is responsible for their own studies and has to do all the work themselves. Although people often say they are “studying for a PhD”, it’s very different to other university degrees as it doesn’t involve going to lectures and doing written exams, but is all about the research projects you do.
At the end of the studies, you have to write a huge thesis, or dissertation, about the background to your research, what studies you did, how you did them, what the findings were, and what this means. Much like with the studies themselves, you write the thesis yourself but with advice and recommendations from your supervisors. The thesis is basically a book – most people write one that is about 60,000 to 80,000 words, and sometimes longer. It takes ages to write the thesis and is very hard work!
Once you’ve finished your thesis, and your supervisors are happy with it, it gets sent to two experts in your research area from outside the university, who read it in detail and then come and discuss it with you during a long exam called a ‘viva’. They will ask lots of questions – partly to make sure you understand what you’ve written (!), but also to discuss your findings in lots of detail to see if there are perhaps other ways you could look at your results or describe your findings. After the viva, the examiners will usually ask you to make some changes to your thesis. Once you’ve made those changes and the examiners are happy, some big boss-type people at the University have a meeting and (hopefully) award you your PhD – and you breathe a huge sigh of relief that it’s all over! A few months after that, you get to graduate (and celebrate!) just like Vicky and Bronwen did recently.
The thing that most people know about having a PhD is that it means you become “Dr”, so that’s why there are lots of us in the lab who are called “Dr” but who are not medical doctors. Having a PhD doesn’t mean you are a super-duper expert researcher, but it means that you have had a good level of training in how to do research, and also that you can write about research to a high standard. Not everyone who does a PhD stays on and works in research, but those who do usually continue to develop their research skills – these people are called postdoctoral researchers, or ‘postdocs’. After a while as a postdoc, people usually aim to get a job as a lecturer, and might eventually work their way up the ladder to become a Professor.
We hope that was helpful to explain the whole PhD mystery!