What is a PhD?

“Is a PhD one year?” “So you will be a doctor?” “But not a medicine doctor?” “A P h What?”

These are all questions I have been asked since I applied for a PhD at the end of last year. I do not blame people for not knowing what a PhD is, to be truthful I knew very little about it until I started one myself, and I definitely did not know anything about a PhD before I started my undergraduate course.

Firstly what does a PhD stand for?
Doctor of Philosophy (not Doctor of Psychology like most of us psych students thought- we sometimes think the world revolves around us). So anybody who is completing a PhD is studying a Doctorate of Philosophy, however depending on their research field will specialise in a specific area. Such as, I am completing a PhD in conservation psychology.

What is the degree?
Basically, a PhD is a postgraduate course which takes at least three years to complete. PhD students conduct their own research (under the supervision of expert academics) which is original and contributes knowledge. This will generally involve producing a thesis (around 80,000 words) which includes writing introductory chapters, collecting data (eg. surveying people, analysing specimen in laboratories or testing new technology), writing up the results and then discussing what the results mean (this is a very basic description!). People completing a PhD in fields such as literacy or art may have a very different experience and I definitely do not have the expertise to guess the specific details of their PhD. A PhD is the highest level of education and after successful completion, students will receive the title of Dr. and no, this is not a medical doctor, after studying marine animal conservation for four years I will not be authorised to prescribe medicine (funny that!).

What do you do every day?
The answer to this question again depends on the field you are completing a PhD in and the type of research you are conducting. However for me, currently most of my days consist of reading journal articles, writing proposals/chapters, editing and designing surveys. I know this really isn’t selling a PhD is it? As I progress through my PhD my days will become more ‘interesting’ such as I will be collecting data out in the field, conducting statistics on the data I collect, presenting my research at conferences or lectures, writing publications and attending meetings, just to name a few things. Many people who complete a PhD are also given the opportunity to teach undergraduate students.

So… why exactly do you do this?
Is it just for the Dr. title? Trust me if you were completing a PhD just for the title you would not make it (although it is a nice bonus!). In a practical sense, people hoping to pursue careers in academia (became university researchers or lecturers) need to complete a PhD. Academia is not the only option though, having a PhD opens up a huge potential for working in various fields such as in scientific institutes, in professional companies or as allied health practitioners. Aside from opening up many job opportunities, I think the reason why people choose to complete a PhD, well at least for me anyway, is the love for learning and knowledge, the passion for my research topic and to feel like I am contributing to the world I live in.

This is only a basic description of my current experience of a PhD (I am only in first year) but I hope it has provided an overview for people who are not sure about what a PhD is or for those who are completing a PhD I hope I explained it in a way that is true to your experience.

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