The path of a PhD
I wanted to do a quick post about what it means to be a PhD, what you have to do and how you become a doctor. Not a useful doctor mind but heck you've earned that Dr. in front of your name you tell the world!
I know I should have done this in the beginning but hindsight people!
What is a PhD?
You can get a PhD (or Doctorate in Philosophy for those nerds out there) in pretty much anything. If you have the will, the money and a supervisor you get that PhD in the history of snakes in Ireland. The majority of PhDs you'll hear about however will be in science subjects. Maybe some arts subjects (literature etc.) but the effort required to get a doctorate vs the usefulness to your future career means it's typically science-y types doing them. I am very happy to be told about any PhD's readers have done in any subject.
How Long is a PhD?
A PhD usually takes between 3-4 years however that changes wildly from country to country. For example in Scandinavian countries you are required to publish in a peer reviewed journals to be eligible to sit your viva (more on that later). In the UK and Ireland you are not required to publish. In the USA and Canada PhDs can take 5+ years and again some Universities will require you to publish before you get your doctorate. Again I don't know the rules for every country. My PhD is from Imperial College London and they have a max 4 year policy (unless there is some MAJOR need to delay your studies e.g. pregnancy). I am not required to publish. So my PhD is 4 years.
Who pays you?
There are a few ways of paying for your PhD. The usual way is by external funding. This can be from a charity or research council. Applying for funding requires a lot of jumping through hoops and a solid research proposal. The funding process is HIGHLY competitive and a lot of great ideas get left to the wayside. But there's a finite amount of money available and funding bodies need some sort of guarantee that the information generated will be useful for the future. If you feel this is unfair donate to your charity of choice if you know they fund PhDs. This is not an ad but CRUK runs a PhD sponsorship scheme. Another way of doing a PhD is self-funded! Oh yeah. You find the funding yourself or you pay yourself through. I have also heard of supervisors getting funding and they hire PhD students and pay them. It's slightly different from external funding because in external funding, it's awarded to the PhD not the supervisor. Your funding also decides how long your PhD will take. If you have 3.5 years funding you realistically should be finished in that time.
What is the funding used for?
There are three areas your funding goes into:
What does a PhD student do?
I have to say this (and it always gets me) while we may be considered students we ARE NOT students. It's like a job except not 9-5 and definitely not paid well enough. I never had to go to lectures and I never did exams. I could choose to attend lectures (for example I went to some MSc in Epidemiology lectures to learn about a subject I didn't know about). My department also ran seminar series and guest lectures for the whole department but again not mandatory. What I did was work 70+ hours a week in the lab and doing bioinformatics until I got some results I could write into a cohesive story. However I will note I except we are students when it comes to student discounts! You gotta use what you can!
How do you get your "PhD"?
You need to complete a set period of work (3-4 years) which you write into a thesis (in Imperial you do a max of 100,000 words). You then submit this thesis for evaluation and do a viva. A viva is a defence of your work. In my case, I will submit my written thesis to two examiners (an internal and external examiner) who are familiar in my field. They read the thesis and then we come together to discuss the results. I am asked questions and I have to defend my choices. It can take between 2-5 hours to do a viva defence. In other countries your defence is in front of a panel and is open to the public. So you could be standing up in a room full of people (grannys, children, your neighbour) and have to defend your thesis. Usually this happens in countries where you are required to publish. You are already peer reviewed so the defence is more general. One you complete your defence you are given corrections. These can be minor, for example asked to fix typos or a section of your written work, or (god forbid) major corrections, which usually require you to return to your lab/office/hell to re-do work or do more work.
How do I get a PhD?
The best advice I can give you is be open. There are a few ways to go about getting a PhD.
(1) You can pick subject(s) you want to study (I chose epigenetics and cancer) and research all the main people in this field. Contact these people and explain that you would love to do a PhD with them and would they have the ability to come up with a research hypothesis and apply for funding.
(2) Doing an internship/research assistant role in a lab you want to do a PhD in. You will have the ability to show your skills and know when the PI (principle investigator) is applying for funding etc.
(3) Go on www.findaphd.com/ NO JOKE! This is how I did it, I went on Find a PhD and searched my keywords. I found a PhD I liked the look of, got an interview and hey presto I got a PhD. Most labs will try to fill the position internally first (see point 2) but if they can't find a suitable candidate they will advertise publicly.
Is a PhD hard?
Yes. Next question. I joke. A PhD is hard as hell. It's meant to be. But it's also meant to be rewarding and you learn a lot, not just about your subject but about working in that environment and with other people.
What else do I get from a PhD besides a doctorate?
That is completely up to you. You make your PhD what you want. Some people will just do their own work and finish. I however did not do that and I encourage anyone thinking of doing a PhD or doing one to use your time. Teach, whether you do GTA work with undergraduate students or mentoring masters students. Teaching will give you so much in return (not just extra cash - always useful) but also new ways to communicating with others, new ideas and most importantly HELP! I have had three masters students throughout my PhD and if I didn't I wouldn't have the results I have. If you give time and experience to them, they will reward you. Trust me. I also did A LOT of research engagement, probably the most out of any of my peers. I literally said yes to every opportunity that came my way. Why? Because chatting to people about science is AWESOME! I mean come on I'm doing a science blog. It is just so rewarding. I also advise doing courses if you can, I participated in a MSc in epidemiology and did a number of Professional Skills Development Courses (like how to write a literature review, how to make a poster etc.) which really helped my writing and communication skills. As a PhD you are a part of a University or Institution. Use those connections to make the most out of your PhD.
Should I do a PhD?
Honestly I don't know. That is for your to answer. From my experience, if I had been honest with myself I would've probably not done a PhD. I was not and still am not mentally sound (in my opinion) to do a PhD. You require strength and determination. You will be knocked down a lot but getting back up and ploughing on will stand to you. Having said this I don't think anyone would've gotten the results I did or adapt their work the way I did. What you produce is unique and that's worth it. If you want to do a PhD and you really like your subject, do a PhD. Also we need more scientists in the world so if you're a science student wondering if you need to do a PhD PLEASE DO ONE! WE NEED YOU! Did that sound desperate?
What does your PhD mean to you?
I am not sure how to answer that question really. Stupid since I'm the one who asked it. I have a had a lot of struggles throughout my PhD. Struggles which as sadly not unique. I went back on anti-depressants, I had to deal with an eating disorder and I may or may not have tried on numerous occasions to hurt/kill myself. It sounds dramatic but mental health issues in PhDs are not uncommon. You are under a huge amount of stress and have to cope with doing things mostly on your own. This information shouldn't deter you from doing a PhD. I had mental health issues before I started. I may have struggled and I did have to stop my lab work early because I couldn't cope but I also would go back and do it again. I would do it better (obviously) but I would do it again. Doing a PhD has shown me (1) how smart I actually am, (2) what I am passionate about and (3) how strong I am. Plus who doesn't want to say "I'm a doctor" when asked on a plane if there is a doctor on board. Fair enough you do have to add that you in no way are you a medical doctor but god dammit you earned the right to say it!
So that's it! Again if you have any questions please don't hesitate to contact me.
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My name is Caitriona and I am a PhD student at Imperial College London, UK.