A PhD is one of the most distinguished academic awards in the world, but what does it actually take to be able to call yourself a Doctor of Arts or Science? How much work is really involved? Are PhD degrees as tough as everyone says? And, most importantly, how long does it take to get one and will it all be worth it in the end? With all those questions in mind, here's everything you need to know about doing a PhD.
Why should I do a PhD?
People are inspired to complete a doctorate for many different reasons. For some, it is the biggest step towards a long and successful career in academia. For others, a PhD is an excellent way to deepen their research into a specific field, which may lead to some very innovative and lucrative commercial solutions. In fact, some of the most revolutionary technologies and companies began life as a post-doctoral research project. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin met while studying PhDs at Stanford University, while work by physicists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at The University of Manchester led to the discovery of graphene -- an atom-thin material that is incredibly strong and extremely conductive. Geim and Novoselov were both established professors when they joined the Manchester faculty, but a team of dedicated PhD students supported their work, which went on to win the Noble Prize in Physics in 2004.
A number of students simply enjoy the scholarly life and enroll for the sheer pleasure of learning. These naturally curious people might not have any specific career goals in mind, but a PhD is the best way to satisfy their thirst for knowledge.
What are the benefits of doing a PhD?
First of all, you get to call yourself a ‘doctor’, which is pretty cool (although it might be worth keeping it quiet if you run into some kind of medical emergency). Having this title means you can change your title at that bank, with the credit card company, and on your passport. And if anyone asks why you can call yourself a ‘Dr’ without knowing one end of a scalpel from the other, tell them that doctor comes from the Latin word which means 'distinguished teacher.' It became a common medical term after physicians were required to complete a doctorate before becoming licenced medical practitioners.
But aside from the prestige and a few opportunities to show off, being an academic ‘Dr.’ has several practical benefits. To start with, it is a prerequisite for anyone who wants to build an academic career. And even if you decide against a career in the academy, having a PhD on your CV will impress nearly all potential employers.
Finally, a PhD is lots of fun! Obviously it involves years of hard work, but you will also be spending time with people who share your interests and passions. Also, there are plenty of travel opportunities for many PhD students. You could find yourself at a prestigious conference surrounded by the leading experts in your subject, or working on a research project in some of the world's most exotic locations.
How long does it take to complete a PhD?
This depends on where or what you study, as The Guardian explains, but you'll need to dedicate at least three to four years towards earning a doctorate. Most PhD students in the UK take three to four years to complete a PhD, while in the US the median amount of time it takes students to complete their doctorate is 5.8 years. It will also depend on which university awards the doctorate. The timescales also vary quite dramatically from country to country, so international students should always do plenty of research before applying for a PhD abroad.
Highly technical subjects such as physics often require years of research, meaning some PhD students study for up to eight years before earning ‘Dr’ status. The same goes for subjects such as psychology, where students have to complete long residences in a medical setting. And if you're interested in a PhD in architecture, you are going to be in it for the long haul. A doctorate in architecture takes around ten years! The biological sciences tend to require the least amount of time.
Is there any way I can qualify sooner?
A select group of students complete their PhDs in two years, while a tiny number of elite students can get it done in 12 months. It's hard to overstate how rare and impressive this is, but it is always a possibility. The key to a fast-track PhD is building up a strong academic CV before you even start. Getting your work published in journals as a master's student is one of the best ways of alerting professors to your academic qualities.
And if you do manage to become a Dr in two years or less, you will find yourself in some very illustrious company. Professor Stephen Wolfram graduated with a degree in particle physics from the California Institute of Technology after spending less than a year on campus. He was only 20 at the time and had previously dropped out of Oxford aged just 17 because the lectures weren't challenging enough! And his subsequent achievements prove this wasn't just down to youthful arrogance. He went onto to create a whole new computing programming language, as well as revolutionary theories in algebra and artificial intelligence.
Can I study part-time?
Given the huge commitment involved in doing a PhD, many students opt for part-time study. The majority of part-time PhDs are in education, medicine, social studies and veterinary sciences. They usually take around six-to-eight years to finish, but there are plenty of benefits to taking the long road to your doctorate.
Part-time students dedicate between 20-30 hours a week to their studies, which leaves plenty of time for work or raising a young family. It is also the best option if you are studying pleasure rather than with a specific career goal in mind. A full-time PhD can be a stressful experience -- tight deadlines and demanding supervisors might suck away some of the fun for those of you who enjoy a more relaxed approach to learning.
As an international student, what happens when I finish my PhD?
Many universities have extension schemes in place designed to help international students remain in the country after their final thesis has been approved. These extensions help recent graduates find work or continue their academic careers. They usually last for up to 12 months, after which you will need to make additional arrangements if you would like to stay in your host country. Universities typically sponsor these extension schemes, and you will need to match very specific criteria requirements before you can apply. Again, this varies depending on where you study, so speak to whoever administers the program for more information.
I'm not sure I want to do a PhD, should I just do one anyway?
Every major decision we make requires careful consideration. This approach will naturally give rise to certain doubts, fears, and insecurities. We can usually overcome them with a little bit of forward-thinking or at least reassure ourselves that we are ready for whatever challenges may come our way. A PhD is a serious commitment that requires dedication, commitment, a lot of brainpower, and, most of all, as the London School of Economics explains, passion. Studying for a doctorate is a real labour of love and should never be approached half-heartedly. And if none of that scares you off, then you are probably the perfect PhD candidate!
PhDs take time, effort, and an enormous amount of hard work. But they are also one of the most rewarding things you can do, especially if you're interested in the world of academia. So get ready for more than a few tough moments -- but remember that you will come out of the other side as a highly qualified specialist (indeed, a ‘doctor’!) in the specific subject you are most passionate about!