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What's a PhD?

Updated: May 12, 2021

Some students look forward to graduating and finally get into the “real world”. While others, that genuinely enjoy studying, find that they can continue doing it and getting paid for it, by pursuing a doctorate. Your friends will start having 9 to 5 jobs, getting married, and having kids. Instead, you will get to be a student for 3 more years. You will try to contribute to a better world, whilst attempting to feed your incurable curiosity. Do not take this lightly; a PhD is a huge commitment.

Usually when I tell someone, who is not an academic, that I am a PhD student, they often misinterpret what a PhD student is. They think I am only studying to have one more diploma, and attending classes as if I am doing another undergraduate degree. This is the biggest misconception about doing a PhD - a PhD is nothing like an undergraduate degree. In undergrad, you have the knowledge delivered to you and you have clear ideas of what you need to do to finish it. You can count on the lecturers, to help you if there is something you are having difficulties with. Also, you have colleagues who are going through the same as you and can give you some support. Being a PhD “student” is not just studying - if truth be told, you are not even really a student. Instead, your work is reading published studies while trying to find gaps or connections in them. Once you discover what knowledge is missing you can work to fill that gap, generating new knowledge. Your ultimate goal is to discover something that pushes your field of work forward (even if just a tiny bit) and that enriches the world’s knowledge on that subject. However, in a PhD you are on your own. Your supervisors may help you in the beginning, but, little by little, you will educate yourself in a subject and, at some stage, you will know more than them. It soon becomes up to you to decide what you need to study and the methods you will use to get to the finish line. It is a lonely journey, but that’s why, at the end of it, you will be the expert.

Another misconception about being a PhD student is that you need to be a genius and a straight-A student. Of course, you need to be intelligent, but other things can be equally important. You need to be creative, persistent, critical, disciplined, perseverant and, most importantly, to be passionate about learning and your field of study. Doing a PhD is a tough journey and many times you will lose focus and motivation, thus having a passion for what you do is key to help you keep going.

But what does one actually do during a PhD? A PhD starts with a somewhat defined question or goal. Then, you spend the first few months reading and diving into a subject, while trying to get knowledge, ideas, and methods to approach that key question and achieve that goal. After the first 6 months, the PhD will differ a lot depending on the area and the kind of research. For me, as a molecular biologist, it was starting to get my hands in the lab, implementing techniques and developing the models for my future experiments. However, for a psychologist, for example, who works mostly with people, at this time they are usually writing to submit the project for ethical approval. Ethical approval is needed when a study involves human or animal participants, and this ensures the research is conducted with respect and minimising harm. Only after being approved, can studies be conducted. Then, it is a race against time. Until the last 4 months, you work long hours (and sometimes weekends) to produce data that will provide the answers to your initial question. Finally, all is wrapped into a thesis, containing the last 3 years of your hard work. You then defend it to a panel of people who are experts in your field and who will reassure you that this topic is your expertise. Ultimately, you pass and become a Dr. Your research is shared with the rest of the world, becoming the foundation from which others will create new knowledge.

As a PhD student, you are getting paid to work on your own project and ideas, whilst having flexible work hours, getting to go to conferences (many of them abroad), and meeting lots of interesting people. But it’s not all roses. PhD projects are known to be rollercoasters: sometimes you are up, some other times you are down. While, for me, my PhD sounds much more exciting than any of the “real jobs” my friends have, it is not an easy journey. It can be quite lonely since you are the only one that really understands your work. Some academics will make an effort, but probably your friends and family will not be very interested to know (even if they ask you from time to time). You will fail, time and time again, sometimes for months in a row. However, you’ll find a way to embrace failure and to keep being persistent and pushing forward in order to find the way to success.

It is good to keep in mind that no two PhDs are the same and your experience can be the opposite of mine, but everyone struggles at some point. In the end, doing a PhD is like running a marathon: you do it for the challenge. The first couple of hours are fun and fine. After that, the only thing on your mind is making it to the finish line. You sprint towards it and when you finally pass it, you're both proud and glad it's over. Although not everyone is suited for a PhD, if one has the passion and puts in the work anything can be achieved.

Published: Stag Magazine, 23 September 2018

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