Tuesday 30 April 2013

What's it really like to do a PhD?

I'm currently in that peculiar limbo of having handed in my PhD thesis and waiting for my Viva (oral exam which decides whether or not I'm doctor material). This has given me some headspace to reflect on the whole PhD process, so I thought I would write a piece dispelling some myths, and possibly shedding some light in the whole PhD process. As one quick caveat, this only applies to a science PhD, since I've no experience of any other kind. 

The first thing to address is why you might choose to undertake 3 years of research into one tiny subject. The most obvious motivation is that of wanting to pursue an academic career, for which a PhD is pretty much essential. By extension, any career in a science- or knowledge-based subject would be substantially enhanced by having a doctorate. As well as the qualification itself, the skills learnt during this period are greatly marketable in these fields, namely (but not exclusively) evaluating evidence, critical thinking, experimental design, independent research, and effective communication of this research. On top of these are the personal motivations: the desire to test yourself academically, to see if you are up to the challenge. Also, let's face it, everyone likes the idea of getting a posh title. 

To effectively explain what a PhD studentship is, it's important to dispel a few preconceptions as to what it isn't. It is not the same as being an undergraduate. There are seldom lecture courses to attend, and there are no long university holidays. You are essentially a paid researcher, expected to turn up every day and do your job. While there may be flexibility regarding your hours, there are still deliverables to be met and supervisors (both academic and corporate) to be satisfied. In my case, I was expected to both produce academic papers (I've published 3 out of the 4 so far) for my department, and also produce and present to sponsors (www. protexin.com) research which they could use in both formulation of and publicity for their products. This tends to fly in the face of people's preconceptions of a PhD student as being just another university-based layabout, but my experience suggests that such a studentship is more akin to a low-paid job than 3 years on the booze. 

While on the subject of preconceptions, it is worth mentioning those that the student himself might bring to the table. It is certainly not an easy alternative to hitting the job market, not least since you will have to do that afterwards anyway. In the meantime there are long hours in a lab (in my case a lab which was regularly filled with the smell of fermenting faecal samples) to be put in. Nor is it a continuation of the undergraduate process, either in terms of doing very few hours per week, or in terms of regular feedback. This latter can be a real issue. Without constant quantitative feedback in the form of marks for assignment, it is possible to spend much of your time wondering whether what you are doing is any good or of any use. Publications help this situation somewhat, but these are relatively scarce occurrences, and tend to happen at the end of the process. A good relationship with your supervisor can also help with this uncertainty (and I couldn't have had a better supervisor), but even now waiting for the final verdict, I can't help wondering sometimes if my thesis passes muster. In this I can only assume that if it weren't my supervisor would not have let me submit. The other preconception is that you will spend your time changing the face of your field forever. My experience of research suggests that you spend plenty of time doing work that produces no results (frustrating at the time, but certainly a legitimate part of the learning experience), and that there is barely ever a definite answer to a hypothesis. At best, you are likely to produce an answer of "err, well, maybe, if I've interpreted my data correctly." Oh, and you will at the end likely be working for free. A PhD takes 3-4 years, they almost all run over the 3 year mark, and typically you are only paid a salary for the 3 years, so any overrun leaves you somewhat financially stranded. Worth bearing in mind when thinking about undertaking this process. 

So what of the process itself, this arcane mechanism by which ordinary graduates become "Doctors?" Typically your first year is spent doing quite a bit of floundering, and feeling like everyone else is confidently getting on with their research. In the midst of this, there is the need to write a literature review. This is where you read, analyse and criticise all the research in your field (narrowing this down to what is actually relevant is a big challenge in itself), with a view to finding the gaps in knowledge, and hopefully how to investigate these gaps to produce something new. One of the main criteria of PhD-quality work is whether it adds something new to existing knowledge, which speaks to the importance of this literature review. Once this is done, hopefully you have a good idea of what and how to research. At this point it is worth pointing out the variety in PhD projects. Some, such as those funded by large research bodies such as the BBSRC, are very regimented, giving a timetable as to what needs to be done and when. Others, such as mine, are more along the lines of "go and research this subject area." The relative merits of each are a subject for very lengthy debate, but my opinion is that the latter type give the researcher more scope for proper independent research, although they can leave them feeling somewhat lost if they arrive at a dead end.

At the end of the first year, you have to undertake the Transfer process, where you provide a report on your work so far, and a plan on how you will proceed. You are then interviewed by 2 academics from your department to ensure that your work is of the right standard for you to proceed. Despite the fact that failure at this point is relatively scarce, this is still a nerve-wracking procedure, although ultimately the chance to write up and review your work is very useful in informing how you will proceed. 

Then real research begins, typically involving long hours in the afore-mentioned smelly lab, collecting numbers in a lab book. Eventually, you get to the point where you need to do something with those numbers, and then realise that although you loathe statistics, you have to use the ones you did as an undergraduate and forgot about as soon as you left the exam hall. Statistics done, you need to then ponder the significance of your results to your field and possibly wider. At this point, hopefully you have enough data to write a paper. That's one down. You need at least 3 of these, plus your literature review and supplementary chapters to form your thesis. At 35,000 words, mine is regarded as comparatively short (although I prefer the terms concise or efficient!). Towards the end of the whole process, if you're unlucky or disorganised you need to write up the whole lot, necessitating you casting your mind back to work you did 3 years ago to try and remember why/what/how you did this. My department at Reading has a policy that you write up and publish as you go. This makes far more sense than writing it all up at the end; the publications mean more prestige for the department, and let the researcher know that their work is of the right standard. It also avoids the memory-strain mentioned above, and makes the final few months less stressful, since you only need to write one paper and a brief concluding chapter, bringing the whole body of research together. 

Assuming your thesis is up-to-standard, it is then submitted to the university and your Viva is arranged. At this point you need to "defend your thesis" - nice, hostile term - in an interview with an expert academic from another university, as well as one from your department whose role it is to make sure the external examiner does their job correctly. After this 2-hour grilling, several outcomes are possible:

- outright pass (i.e. your thesis is perfect as it is - you can imagine how rarely this happens);
- pass with minor corrections (you have 3 months to make changes to your thesis agreed upon at the Viva);
- pass with major corrections (12 months to make major changes, potentially including more experimental work);
- recommend that you are awarded MPhil instead;
- Fail (let's not go there).

So that, in 1,500-odd words is what it's like to do a PhD. Would i recommend it? I'm honestly not sure. For certain careers, you just have to get one, so it's a rite of passage. My own experience has been one of real ups and downs, a reality TV clich├ęd "journey." I have gained the skills mentioned above as well as others, and certainly learnt a lot about myself. But I have also experienced feelings of isolation and hopelessness in the process, and according to my wife have been hell to live with. I don't necessarily feel like I have scaled any intellectual heights, but then a friend of mine, doing a PhD in business management, said to me that doing a PhD is not for the smart, but for the stubborn. He has this spot on - at times you do feel like you are hitting your head repeatedly against a brick wall, and making no indentation. Having said all this, reading my thesis in preparation for my viva, I do feel some pride in having done a decent piece of research and communicated it effectively. I also feel some pride in having produced a thesis at all, given the number of times I wanted to give the whole thing up (I don't believe any PhD student who says they have never thought about quitting).

Besides, won't it all be worth it when I have to change all my cards and documents so they say "Dr. C Chapman?"

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