There are many ways to answer the question “What is a doctoral degree?” Ask someone who holds a PhD and you might get one of two answers. The first would be that a PhD is a reward for years of dedicated research which culminated in the production of an original piece of work on a fascinating topic and paved the way for a satisfying career in academia in which one pushes back the boundaries of knowledge and imparts wisdom to a host of students eager to learn. The second answer would be that a PhD is compensation for years of dedicated research which culminated in the production of an original piece of work on a no-longer-fascinating topic (not to mention a few more gray hairs and an ulcer) and possibly paved the way for a career in academia in which one continues to explore the same less-fascinating-by-the-day topic in between trying to teach students who’d rather be out drinking.
Of course, these are the two extremes and don’t really help us understand what the doctoral degree is. PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy and it’s an advanced, or higher, degree awarded which allows the holder to refer to themselves as “Doctor” and then spend much of the rest of their civilian (i.e. non-academic) life being mistaken for someone with medical knowledge.
The requirements for a PhD vary from country to country. In the UK, it’s not necessary to complete a Master’s Degree before embarking on the doctorate though in many institutions the first year of doctoral studies now take the form of a Master’s Degree in Research. This has the advantage of allowing the student to develop their research skills before they begin their doctoral research, but of course it also adds one year to the time it will take to finish your thesis. Once this is over, the real work begins. PhD candidates will be guided by a team of two or three senior academics called supervisors in the UK (advisers in the US) who have specialist knowledge in the field. It’s important to stress that they offer guidance but the development of a research proposal, the design of the fieldwork, the analysis of results and the writing-up of findings are the responsibility of the student alone. Being awarded a PhD means you have demonstrated that you are an independent thinker, capable of conducting a program of research and producing an original contribution to knowledge in your chosen field.
If you are undertaking your PhD in a UK university, it’s generally agreed that this should take three years (not including your Masters year). However, this has been generally agreed by assorted university committees and budget-makers and not by doctoral students. It is, of course, entirely possible to complete your research within three years and this will be made easier if you have no life. If, however, you have loved ones you want to spend time with now and again (family, friends, pets, favorite bar…..) then three years might not be quite enough. Even if you don’t have loved ones, you will probably undertake some teaching in your department which will let you earn some extra money and gain valuable experience that will improve your job prospects. It will also leave you with less time for your research. But the upside of taking a little extra time (an extra year is fine; an extra five years is probably not) is that a) the teaching income will have prevented you from starving and b) at least you might still have some loved ones left to dedicate your thesis too.
Ah yes, the thesis. This is the written body of work which will show off your research findings and your analytical genius. The length of this work will vary from around 40,000 words in a science discipline to 100,000 words in arts and humanities. The production of the thesis does not mean you will be awarded your doctorate – you must now be examined in a process known as the “viva voce” (from the Latin “by live voice”). In much of Europe, this takes place in public but is largely ceremonial, as a candidate would not go forward if the work was unacceptable. In the UK, the examination takes place in private, since there is still a very real possibility of failure.
The doctoral candidate must identify experts in their field who can act as examiners – in the UK, there will usually only be two or three examiners. It’s best to avoid choosing an examiner whose work you’ve criticized in your thesis – not everyone welcomes constructive criticism and you don’t want to annoy them before you’ve even met. The oral defense of the thesis will usually take place after the examiners have had a few weeks to read your thesis and figure out what you’ve done wrong. During the “viva voce” they will grill you on your methods, your findings, your analytical skills and the conclusions you’ve drawn. At the end of this, you are sent away while they decide what to do with you. Happily, in most cases this just means deciding what corrections/alterations need to be made to the thesis. It is fairly unusual for a thesis to pass without correction, just as it is fairly unusual to fail outright. Sometimes a candidate will require another oral defense when major corrections are needed.
Once your corrections are done, it’s time to submit the thesis. At this stage, proofreading is very important, because once your life’s work has been bound and is sitting on a library shelf, there’s nothing you can do about that missing apostrophe or the fact you’ve misspelled your own name. Just when you think your years of hard work and poverty are over, you will have the herculean task of carrying several copies of the thesis to a bookbinder and handing over a pile of money so that your magnum opus can have a nice hardback cover. The ever-benevolent university will require you to pay for a copy to put in their library, even though no one will ever take it out and read it. But hey, you don’t care anymore- you’re a Doctor now and you can now spend a few days having your name changed on all your credit cards and utility bills and generally basking in your new title. Now all that remains is to land yourself an academic job where you can spend the next 30-odd years rehashing the results of your PhD whilst being paid. Enjoy!