What is a PhD, anyway?

January 8, 2013

What is a PhD anyway? It seems like a stupidly simple question. If you're smart enough to do one, you should know what it is!

There are many ways to define it, often talking about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. But this is only part of the story.I want to define a PhD in a way that helps you understand what you need to actually do, and what standard you need to achieve.

What is a PhD, anyway?

A PhD is the entrance qualification for the world of professional academia. It is designed to test whether you are capable of conducting academic research at a professional level.

If you define a PhD this way, what then are the logical consequences?

The standard required

If you want to prove that you can conduct research to a professional academic level, then that tells you exactly what standard is required. You need to produce work of a high enough standard to publish in a peer-reviewed journal.

This is why, in most academic systems, your thesis is assessed by an expert in the field from outside your university; it is modelled on the process for publication through peer review.

The standard is set by the field

In an undergraduate degree, your competition comes from your classmates. But in the world of professional academia, you may be competing with researchers all over the world.

So the standard you have to reach is set relative to what others in the field are doing. If your research area is relatively new, the standard will be different to a research area which has been well established for decades. Therefore...

You must know the field

You have to know what others are doing and what they have done in the past. In other words, you must know the field before you can make a significant contribution to it.But a knowledge of the field is still not enough.

Execution of research

If you are to publish professional-level research, the execution of the research needs to be highly competent.

So whatever methodology you use, get really good at it. If you are planning to conduct interviews, then practice and practice and practice some more. If you are doing experiments, get to know the equipment as well as you can. Find people with more experience in relevant techniques and learn from them, because this is crucial to the success of your project.

It is not easy...

None of this is easy, and it takes time to develop this level of knowledge and skill. But it is possible with persistence, patience and the right approach.

See also

How to do a PhD: top 10 tips

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