What makes a PhD different from taught degrees
If you are thinking of doing a PhD or just about to start one, you may be wondering how different doctoral study will be from your previous degrees and how to prepare for it.
Most PhD students take their first year, sometimes longer, to transition from taught programmes (or other life/work experience, if they’ve taken some time out of academia) and to fully settle into the expectations and working structure of a PhD. This is perfectly normal and fine – you won’t be expected to know how to do everything from the beginning and the first year is for you to find your feet.
To help you get a step ahead, we’ll outline some of the key differences between a PhD and postgraduate taught programmes. Bear in mind that the specific procedures and structures of a PhD can still vary significantly between countries, institutions, and disciplines, so it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the practical details of your specific programme as early on as possible.
You are no longer a student
One of the most significant differences is that, as a PhD researcher, you will not work or ‘study’ in the same way as you have done in previous degrees. You will not be attending classes, be taught by a teacher or tutor, or submitting regular assignments for assessment, which is common in most taught programmes.
PhD work is largely characterised by the independent work you will undertake. It is entirely up to you to design your research project, conduct your research (including any relevant fieldwork or labwork), analyse your data, and write the thesis. Of course, you will receive guidance and support from a supervisor (more on this below), but the work itself is solely directed and executed by you.
Note: Some PhD candidates may work in a research team with other researchers and there may be some collaboration with colleagues, but you will be responsible for the bulk of your research and you will still oversee the entirety of your own thesis yourself.
It may be helpful to shift from thinking of yourself as a student, to thinking of yourself as a researcher – in fact, in some institutions, doctoral researchers are considered part of the research faculty or staff rather than as students.
You are not studying, you are researching
You are not likely to be ‘studying’ in the same way as in your previous degrees. Where students of taught programmes usually follow a set curriculum, acquire knowledge from established texts/sources, and complete assignments to demonstrate an understanding of the key issues in a given field, a PhD candidate plays a more active role in creating and contributing original knowledge through their research.
You must learn the background to your chosen research topic for yourself, consider and select the right methodological approaches and methods for conducting your research, and determine the right texts and theory to engage with. You will then write a substantial, long piece of work (the thesis/dissertation) that will not only explain and justify your research decisions, but also demonstrate how you are creating and contributing original knowledge to your field.
Where students take a slightly more passive approach in learning what other researchers, academics, and educators have done before them, you are now, as a PhD researcher, working to situate yourself among the research community and to expand the existing canon of work with your own contributions.
In this sense, therefore, it might also be useful to position and think of yourself as a project manager, with the project being your unique research, or as an entrepreneur creating an innovative business model or product.
You are doing more than just the PhD
While taught students’ obligations revolve predominantly around attending classes, completing assignments, and achieving the required grades to pass their degrees, PhD researchers are more often encouraged to participate in activity that extends beyond their specific research project or scope of study.
While a lot of the work itself will be done independently by you, remember that you are also now a part of a wider research community. You are investigating new ideas or theories, expanding the thoughts and debates within your discipline, and creating new knowledge. However, a piece of research is only as valuable and as good as its reach and whether you are able to effectively share the significance and impact of your work with other researchers and society at large.
As such, in many cases, undertaking doctoral study will also require some participation in or contribution to the academic community, be it through small-scale departmental or faculty forums and workshops, larger national or international conferences, publishing or other public engagement activity, or teaching and mentoring other students.
The shift from student to researcher does not have to be a scary, overwhelming transition. The way you work will differ slightly, but remember that you should still be well supported by your supervisor, department, institution, and research community to accomplish what is expected for a PhD. While it might take a little time to adjust, many PhD researchers report a sense of fulfilment at being able to work independently and create such a substantial piece of work almost entirely alone. This is a wonderful opportunity to be your own boss and to develop a project that can be considered wholly your own.
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