The Layman's Guide to a Ph.D. (or D.Phil.)

(including "The Ph.D. Game V2.0")

   ●   What is a Ph.D.?

●   My Ph.D. - what's it all about?

●   My Ph.D. Viva Voce (Exam) ●   Journal and Conference Papers ●   Ph.D. Game

Having gone through four and a half years to get this qualification (which was meant to be three), I can safely say I've been through it in more ways than one.     One of the things I've encountered a lot is a misunderstanding of what a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy - alternatively referred to as a D.Phil.) is - it does not mean I treat people's illnesses, nor is it just another degree like a B.Sc.   or B.A.     Also, I found that a lot of people asked me about doing a Ph.D. once I finished it.     So to avoid having to retype or say the same thing over and over again, and to give people a more straightforward guide (without the crap), I put together this web page to help explain what a Ph.D. is.

Whilst this guide was only originally intended for people at the university where I did my Ph.D., I've had some responses from people elsewhere saying this guide has been a help to them.   I've thus decided to leave this guide online (I originally intended to delete it once I moved on) in the hope that it is also a help to others who wish to know more.

This page is written with the following in mind:

The following is divided into a number of sections.   I'd advise sticking to basics and starting with "What is a Ph.D.?" first and not worrying about the rest until after that.

1. What is a Ph.D.?
  This is a series of typical questions that might be asked by people wanting to know what a Ph.D. is.
2. My Ph.D. - what's it all about?
  Also meant to assist in helping people understand what a Ph.D., my thesis is used as an example.   For the record, it's called (deep breath) "Compacted Oxide Layer Formation under Conditions of Limited Debris Retention at the Wear Interface during High Temperature Sliding Wear of Superalloys."   Yes, I know it sounds boring - and when I look at it now, it is (I jest)!!!
3. My Ph.D. Viva Voce (Exam).
  The 'viva voce' (live voice) is the oral exam candidates face at the very end after submitting their thesis.
4. Journal and Conference Papers.
  Ph.D. Candidates are normally expected to submit at least two journal or conference papers during their Ph.D.   This page explains how they are structured and the submission process for them.

For a more fun way of looking at the stresses and frustrations faced by a Ph.D. candidate, there's always:

 ●   'The Ph.D. Game'

Don't take it too seriously and don't let it put you off - it doesn't get quite that bad.     Note that certain entries are tongue in cheek and not based on real events (ahem)!!!

You can download 'The Ph.D. Game' as either a PDF or PNG graphics file.

   ●   What is a Ph.D.?

●   My Ph.D. - what's it all about?

●   My Ph.D. Viva Voce (Exam) ●   Journal and Conference Papers ●   Ph.D. Game

What is a Ph.D.?

The best way to answer this is in the form of "most commonly asked questions", as asked by either non-academics or people interested in doing a Ph.D. - click on the appropriate link (clicking [BACK] will bring you back here)...


So what is a Ph.D. or D.Phil.?   Can you explain in simple terms?


Look, I'm not an academic - I thought it was another degree where you went to lectures and sat written exams like all other University qualifications?


You get a Ph.D. and call yourself a doctor.     To me a doctor is some who treats patients - either you're a doctor or not a doctor - why do you call yourself a doctor if you can't treat patients?   Surely this is misleading and dangerous.


So what's involved in a Ph.D.?   Why do they take so long - I hear of some people taking years to do one?


At the end, you get your Ph.D. or you don't.     At least that's straight forward, isn't it?


So what qualifications do you need to be able to do a Ph.D.?


What funding can I obtain to do a Ph.D. and where can I get this?


So you've done a Ph.D.?   Would you recommend it?


Right, you've thrown in this 'M.Phil.' term and I can just about understand what a B.Sc.   / B.Eng.   / B.A.   (three year thing with lectures and exams) and a M.Sc.   / M.   Eng.   / M.A.   / M.B.A.   are (a one year thing with lectures, exams and also a project that some people do after a degree).     So what is this M.Phil. thing?


What is a 'teaching company scheme'?   I've heard it's a way of getting an M.Phil. or Ph.D. whilst working (and getting paid a decent wage).


What difficulties can a person face whilst attempting to do a Ph.D.?   For example, I've heard of problems with lack of information, supervisors, communication, facilities, conflicting aims of candidate, supervisor and possible industrial sponsor, university support, etc.?   (Note that the answer to this question is not simple or straight forward!!!)


Where can I find out what Ph.D. research projects are available and at which university?


Are there any books or literature I can read to understand better what's involved?   Any websites?


Also: A final note of warning...  

   ●   What is a Ph.D.?

●   My Ph.D. - what's it all about?

●   My Ph.D. Viva Voce (Exam) ●   Journal and Conference Papers ●   Ph.D. Game

1) So what is a Ph.D. or D.Phil.?   Can you explain in simple terms?

'Ph.D.' (sometimes written as 'D.Phil.' instead) means 'Doctor of Philosophy' - there is no easy explanation, but I'll try to be as straight forward as possible.     A Ph.D. is:

If you see 'D.Phil.' instead of 'Ph.D.', they are generally the same thing these days, with 'D.Phil.' being the Anglicised form of the Latin 'Ph.D.'



2) Look, I'm not an academic - I thought it was another degree where you went to lectures and sat written exams like all other University qualifications.

3) You get a Ph.D. and call yourself a doctor.     To me a doctor is some who treats patients - either you're a doctor or not a doctor - why do you call yourself a doctor if you can't treat patients?   Surely this is misleading and dangerous.

Trying to explain what a Ph.D. or Doctor of Philosophy is to a non-academic can be difficult.     These are the two most common misconceptions:



4) So what's involved in a Ph.D.?   Why do they take so long - I hear of some people taking years to do one?

There are number of main components to a Ph.D. and none of it is easy:

  1. The rational - as I've already said, a Ph.D. has to be an original piece of work.     Thus before it can start, it must be shown that the research is likely to come up with something new.     This is decided normally between yourself, your primary supervisor (an academic expert in the field) and one or more secondary supervisors (some may be academics, some may even work in the real world).     A good rational may determine whether or not you get funding.

  2. The literature review - this involves trawling through what can amount to several hundred academic papers (though in practice most areas are so specific, that the number of relevant papers produced by researchers may amount to no more than 100 to 150 papers) to:

    1. bring your background knowledge up to a level adequate to understand fully what you are doing,

    2. ensure you don't repeat work already done before and to direct your own research so that it continues to be original,

    3. keep up to date with what else is going on in your field of research.

    This is regarded as the most boring part of a Ph.D. and is extremely tedious to do, no matter how into a subject you are.     The literature review is also meant to be a critical appraisal of other research (i.e.   identifying strengths and weaknesses).

  3. The research - this can be laboratory work (experimental), field work (anything from going down caves, watching animals, working in factories or any number of things - even sitting in pubs to study the effects of drinking on people!!!), surveys or anything that allows data collection.     The mid-point exam assesses whether or not it is worthwhile continuing the research (normally a brief report plus oral exam), more often than not a formality.

  4. The thesis - all the data is processed and this plus your findings are put into a document known as a thesis (also referred to as a 'dissertation' in North America).     This is composed of the following:

    1. an abstract, which summarises your thesis in no more than (ideally) one page,

    2. an introduction to the purpose of the thesis,

    3. a written literature review that assesses and (constructively) criticises other researchers' work, which as already said identifies strengths and weaknesses in such work,

    4. a brief introduction to the work you specifically are doing,

    5. your methodology (how you did things),

    6. your key data or results NOT including discussion - in this section, only the results are reported without significant interpretation,

    7. your interpretation of these results - the discussion,

    8. a summary or conclusion, briefly outlining the key points of your work,

    9. what further work you recommend for continued original study,

    10. a list of references for all the papers you referred to in the thesis, particularly during the literature review,

    11. there may also be appendices for other data or results you have collected, and

    12. some people also include any academic papers they've had published during the Ph.D. at the very end of the thesis document (I've included some information on the process to be followed to publish an academic journal or conference paper - click here).

    What seems a relatively straight forward exercise normally turns into the most time consuming part of the Ph.D. and the thesis can take anything from a few months to a few years to write.     Supervisors will normally ask for several changes and may continue to do so until they think the document is competent enough (good enough) to pass with at most minor corrections.     This can be infuriating and for me meant a period of two years where more often than not I was working for twelve to sixteen hours each day (a serious amount of work had to be put in to get it right).

    The size of a thesis can be highly variable, from as little as 100 pages through a more normal 200 to 300 pages right up to extremes of 900+ pages if there's lots of research data.     That's why some of them take so long to write - mine was 366 pages.     There is a tendency to keep them short and succinct now (saying in them only what needs to be said), but the odd marathon effort does still get submitted.

  5. The oral exam (referred to in Latin as a 'viva' or 'viva voce' meaning 'live voice'), taking place anywhere between a couple of weeks to several months after submission of the Ph.D.   During the viva you are critically examined by two (occasionally three) examiners that have read your thesis, an internal examiner from within your own university or institution and an external examiner from an outside university or institution, and you must defend your work under questioning from them.     In North America, you may face an examination committee.

Be aware here that you can be questioned on anything you should know and it is common to be asked questions on subjects not covered in the thesis (and it is common for candidates not to be able to answer questions under these circumstances - this is not normally held against them).     You make also be asked about the contents of any academic papers that you have your name on (click here for information on publishing papers).     It may be useful to know what technical background the examiners have.

However, the two most critical questions you need to be able to answer are:

(Well okay that's three questions, however, the first two are asking the same thing!!!)



5) At the end, you get you're Ph.D. or you don't - at least that's straight forward?

Wrong, there can be a number of outcomes depending on the examiners decision after the final oral exam.     These may include:

  1. a straight forward pass (the thesis and exam were error free) - this almost never happens;

  2. minor corrections, where the thesis has a few typing mistakes - this is the most common outcome for passing candidates and the candidate is asked to resubmit with errors corrected without any further examination (that's what happened to me) - the request for corrections is a token gesture by the examiners, to show they've had a good look at your work;

  3. major corrections (also known as 'revise and resubmit') - this can involve a significant degree of rewriting with resubmission six months to a year later;

  4. major corrections with a requirement for a second viva (re-examination) probably six months or a year later after resubmission;

  5. downgrade to M.Phil. - the work was not original enough to justify a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. (Master of Philosophy - with possible corrections) is awarded instead - a Master of Philosophy is a lesser research degree not requiring the same degree of original or new work (though people originally doing an M.Phil. can also be upgraded to a Ph.D. if the level of new findings warrants this); or

  6. the candidate fails because they've completely messed up - this is very rare as most supervisors would not allow examination to go ahead without being sure their candidate would pass (as said before, with no more than minor corrections) - also, clearly failing candidates generally either withdraw or downgrade to MPhil.

A candidate can appeal against an unfavourable decision (i.e. they are failed or are offered an M.Phil. rather than a Ph.D.) and under such circumstances, the examiners may allow resubmission making clear what work needs to be done to make the thesis a viable document.     The work required may be substantial and you will be re-examined (possibly by different examiners) should this happen.   The normal route of appeal should the examiners stick to their decision to fail or downgrade to M.Phil., is via the University's Complaints Procedure or failing this, the University Ombudsman.   For an appeal to be launched, the candidate has to show a discrepancy in procedures, inappropriate choice of examiners (i.e. not having the correct qualification set to properly examine the candidate) or other extenuating circumstances such as ill health have affected the outcome.

Note many Universities set a maximum time limit for the thesis to be submitted, with candidates accepting that major corrections would probably result.     In the United Kingdom, a four year maximum tends to be enforced for full-time candidates and six years for part-time candidates unless there are exceptional circumstances (sickness, maternity leave, etc.).    This upper limit used to vary depending upon the University, with some places allowing up to five years full-time, seven years part-time, with sometimes this upper limit not being strictly enforced.    However, a combination of preventing candidates taking years to submit their theses and funding pressures has made the four year upper limit (or six years part time) the more normally encountered and enforced situation.

As regards funding, UK Universities need to show at least 75% of their full-time candidates submit within four years and similarly 75% of their part-time candidates finish within six years to avoid potential funding problems.    By enforcing the above targets as strict deadlines, they ensure such problems are avoided as any non-submissions do not show up in the submitted statistics.

My own University was one that used to lay down a loosely adhered to maximum of five years full-time and seven years part-time.   It now lays down strict deadlines of four years full-time and six years part-time and if you go over that, you automatically fail your Ph.D.

Funding aside, I think such a deadline is good from the candidate's point of view.   The candidate has a target to aim at, the Ph.D. remains a fresh, currently relevant document to the candidate's field of study, plus there is not too long a period after Ph.D. funding runs out where the candidate might struggle financially whilst completing thesis write-up.    Additionally, the deadline also ensures supervisors push the candidate to submit as close to on time as possible without any excessive delays.

In the UK, the longest a full-time Ph.D. can thus typically go on for around five years and six months.   This includes the four years maximum time limit allowed for initial thesis submission, plus the possibility of one further extra year given for major corrections with a 'revise and resubmit' verdict, plus a further viva and a maximum three months allowed for further minor corrections.   You need to add in delays whilst examiners look at the thesis before the initial viva and potentially the resubmission viva (i.e. verdict 'd.' listed above).  



6) So what qualifications do you need to be able to do a Ph.D.?

This varies from country to country, however, a normal level of qualification required is (assuming a scale where you need 3 points):

  1. A first class or second class (first division) degree (1 or 2(i)) - for example, a B.Sc., B.A. or B.Eng. - this can be viewed as 4 points (for a first class degree) or 3 points (for a second class - first division degree) on the scale.

  2. A second class, second division degree (2(ii)) may be acceptable, but funding may be difficult to obtain - this can be viewed as 2 points on the scale.     A masters (M.Sc., M.A. or M.Eng.) will help by lifting you from 2(ii) to 2(i) equivalent level, moving you up from 2 to 3 points.   A 2(ii) plus masters was my route.

  3. A third class degree (3) is not normally enough (only 1 point) - a masters is definitely needed and a masters is extremely difficult to get onto with a third class degree.

But all is not lost.     Relevant industrial experience can also give you a leg-up, with two years experience giving you 1 extra point and five years experience giving you 2 extra points.     This allows for a rarer route via H.N.D. plus 5 years relevant industrial experience (which you'll need to get onto a Masters without a degree) + Masters (M.Phil. or M.Sc.), giving you 3 points without the need for a B.Sc. (Hons.) or equivalent.



7) You mentioned 'funding' - what do you mean by this?   Where can I get this?

The University or Institution should sort funding out for you (though not always - this issue has to be pushed sometimes).     This is a bursary, part of which covers your University fees and part of which gives you a living allowance.     This can be sourced from:

  1. Research councils;

  2. Businesses and industrial organisations who have a direct interest in the research;

  3. The University or Institution itself;

  4. Other organisations (medical, arts, etc.) or even individuals;

  5. Self-funding - you come up with your own fees and living costs (for which you have to be extremely well off); or

  6. Any combination of the above.

There are likely to be time limits to bursaries or sponsorship, normally 3 years in the UK (beyond this the candidate receives no further financial support up to a typically maximum 4 years in the UK by which time the candidate must have submitted their thesis - see Question 5.)    Also, in rare cases be careful as regards financial liability if sponsors are involved, should the project be terminated prematurely or a candidate fails or does not finish (see Question 11).

Research Council funding is given by the following organisations in the United Kingdom; click on the appropriate link to access the website for a given organisation.

Many other governments have similar bodies, especially in Europe.



8) So you've done a Ph.D.?   Would you recommend it?

There is no easy answer to this - this is a personal decision and you can only decide for yourself.     However, be aware of the following:

  1. What looks at the beginning to be a straight forward three year research project can drag on for five or more years, due to delays for rewriting (the main delay people will face), trying to get examiners to actually look at your work and even having to find new supervisors because for some reason one has to drop out or be replaced - see Question 4) for more information as to what's involved.     I took four and a half years.

  2. If you really want your Ph.D., you'll have to put the hours in.     As I've said elsewhere, I ended up doing twelve to sixteen hour days during the last two years (the writing up phase at the end).

  3. This can have a dramatic effect on friendships and relationships as for a good part of your Ph.D., you simply won't be there for people.     You may find people who you considered close friends drift away and leave you out of things as time goes by;  you can't go out with them, do parties or because the Ph.D. dominates your life, you can talk about nothing else when you're with them and you're regarded as being a bit boring.    

The amount of work and time taken to do a Ph.D. can have quite a dramatic effect on friendships and relationships.   If the strain on these is to be minimised, talking to those around you about what is involved (not to the point of being boring) and not shutting yourself away if the pressure builds is extremely important.

This I discuss in more detail when dealing with the difficulties that may be faced by Ph.D. candidates in answer to Question 11 (part d).

  1. As for employment prospects, whether a Ph.D. is a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view.     If you envisage a life in the real world afterwards (i.e.   industry or other posts outside academia), then be aware than some employers actually regard a Ph.D. as a disadvantage; you can become highly specialised due to your focus on a very narrow field for the time you've been doing your Ph.D. and may not have gained many general, practical skills that they look for.     There is also a concern that Ph.D. graduates develop an attitude that is aloof compared to other potential employees.     In simple terms, you end up being labelled an 'academic'.     Only with a few research oriented jobs within some larger companies or in specialist organisations (or you've had a company sponsoring you) is a Ph.D. an advantage and thus a way out of academia.     If you see your future in academic research or lecturing, then yes, a Ph.D. can be a help (though not necessary essential).

  2. My own feelings having done both Masters and Ph.D. (and many academics won't like this), are that a good highly technical one-year Masters degree can for some be better than a Ph.D. and even better is one that offers a work placement; the right Masters may enhance your job prospects far more than any Ph.D. depending on what you plan to do afterwards.     Also, friendships and relationships are more likely to survive a one year fixed length course than an indefinite slog on a Ph.D. lasting 3, 4, 5 or more years.   That said, the 4 year full-time, 6 year part-time rule in many UK Universities should mean a limit in the UK at least as to how long a Ph.D. can go on for.

It's not all negative, however, the pluses don't exactly sell a Ph.D. to the prospective candidate.     You come out of a Ph.D. with a massive sense of personal achievement, though this may not dawn on you straight away.     You learn a lot about yourself and how far you can push yourself.     How great a 'plus' a Ph.D. is can depend very much on how you sell what you've done and you're bound to have picked up some skills that you can sell yourself to a potential employer with.     These can be research skills or even technical skills (in my case, I picked up various scientific skills such as X-Ray Diffraction and Scanning Electron Microscopy, and also a greater understanding of Materials Science).    

However, you should also be aware that such skills, depending on what jobs people do, can also be picked up in the real world.     You also need to make sure (talk to potential supervisors) that you pick (or on rare occasions propose) a Ph.D. subject / programme that is right for you.     As regards these people who say they want to do a Ph.D. to 'find themselves', well, that's entirely up to them and I certainly didn't find myself (whatever that means).



9) Right, you've thrown in this 'M.Phil.' term and I just about understands what a B.Sc.   / B.Eng.   / B.A.   (three year thing with lectures and exams) and a M.Sc.   / M.   Eng.   / M.A.   / M.B.A.   are (a fairly intensive one year thing with lectures and exams and a project that some people do after a degree).     So what is an M.Phil.?

10) What is a 'teaching company scheme'?   I've heard it's a way of getting an M.Phil. or Ph.D. whilst working (and getting paid a decent wage).

'M.Phil.' means 'Master of Philosophy'.     This is effectively a Masters degree by research and normally without a taught component.     The structure is very like that of a Ph.D. except:

  1. An M.Phil. is normally shorter at 2 to 3 years rather than the 3 to 5 (or more) years for a Ph.D.    Note that rules at many UK Universities will mean in the UK at least, an M.Phil. must be submitted in a maximum of 3 years full-time and 4 years part-time.

  2. A M.Phil. normally does not require the same level of originality or new information (but does not get you out of the literature review).   It is usually used to apply current knowledge to an application or a process, and thus it is very common for it to be part of a paid post shared between a University and an industrial company (but not always) as part of a 'Teaching Company' scheme.     Such schemes can be a good way of gaining vital real world works experience whilst getting a research qualification, plus getting a proper wage at the same time.

  3. An M.Phil. dissertation is generally smaller than a thesis, normally 50 to 100 pages.

It's not sometimes referred to as an M.Phil. and you can get it called something like M.Sc. / M.Eng. / M.A. by research instead.     As if that's not confusing enough, someone doing an M.Phil. (or a Masters by any name by research) can be upgraded to a Ph.D. if their research work is innovative enough and providing sufficient new information to a subject area.     This normally happens at the mid-point exam (an M.Phil. normally follows a very similar structure to a Ph.D. and there's still two exams - mid-point and final 'viva') at the discretion of the examiners.     Teaching company candidates can be upgraded to Ph.D. too, however, you might find yourself doing some of the extra work you need to do in your own time if it is not within the scope or aims of the teaching company scheme.     I know of one teaching company lad who got upgraded.

Also, a Ph.D. candidate can be downgraded to M.Phil. if it is felt they cannot produce enough new information to a subject area.     This again can happen at the mid-point exam or even more painfully, at the final oral exam or 'viva' (as explained during Question 5).



11) What difficulties can a person face whilst attempting to do a Ph.D.?   For example, I've heard of problems with lack of information, supervisors, communication, facilities, conflicting aims of candidate, supervisor and possible industrial sponsor, university support, etc.?

Almost everybody at some point during a Ph.D. will face difficulties.   It is all too easy to place the blame elsewhere when things go wrong and the candidate feels they are not receiving adequate support or information.   Many candidates seem to forget that a Ph.D. is as much about the person doing it as the actual project itself.   In many cases should you not be looking for your own solution to a problem, rather than looking for supervisors or others to solve it for you?

My own Ph.D. was fairly hassle free and whilst taking four and a half years may suggest otherwise, that was more due to me working closely with my primary supervisor to ensure the thesis was a strong enough document to survive the examiner's scrutiny.   I also held back slightly to ensure scientific correctness, knowing I had a five year limit to submit and not the four years some universities impose.   Also, my primary supervisor made sure I had regular meetings with him and I would also make sure I saw him if there were problems where I needed his help.   I'll add, however, that I have a very strong sense of self-reliance in that I would look to solve my own problems as I did feel the Ph.D. was supposed to be what I myself was capable of doing.   That combination on the whole suited me fine.  

I can't comment on specific difficulties people may have, as each person will best know the problems that face them.   However, things do go wrong and sometimes a situation can be beyond a candidate's control and I've listed a few points that may crop up depending on circumstances (click on the following links as appropriate).   Don't get too disheartened before you start, as the below are things that might happen rather than will - researching and planning what you want to do, and talking to people can minimise the problems a candidate is likely to face.

a) Supervision, the University and Colleagues;

b) Industrial Sponsors;

c) Facilities;

d) Family, Friendships and Relationships;

e) Money and Finances; and

f) Mid-term / Write-up Blues.

a) Supervision, University and Colleagues


If you feel things are going wrong, your first action should be to sit down with one of your supervisors and talk to them about how to get your project back on track.   You may also wish to talk to a trusted colleague who knows something of your subject if you feel your supervisor is not necessarily your first port of call.   If you are having personal or health problems, then it's probably advisable to at least inform your supervisor of these.   A temporary suspension of studies can be granted in many cases to give you time to sort things out.  

Many complaints are levelled at supervisor support and from my own time as a Ph.D. candidate, I can recount a number of complaints from other candidates about insufficient support.   I also see this frequently on the internet and complaints can typically include a supervisor not knowing the candidate's subject (this may happen for example if the candidate has proposed their own project), being inaccessible or constantly absent, or being unable to fulfil their duties as a supervisor (illness, needing to take extended leave, too great a work load, etc.).   If this is the case, the candidate should seek to resolve any difficulties by directly meeting with the supervisor.  

Failing all else it is possible for a candidate to seek a new supervisor, however, this should be done only as a last resort as this can reflect badly on the candidate.   If you're thinking of doing this, a request must be made to the university's School Research Committee (a supervisor can also do this if they decide not to continue as a supervisor) or equivalent to do this.   However, you may want to quietly seek advice from the student union or talk to a counsellor before taking what is a drastic step.   That said, some people are faced with no choice if they are to get through their Ph.D. work with anything to show for it.

There are number of important facets to look for in a good supervisor - following are a few key points:

However, I will reiterate that for a Ph.D. to be a success, it is up to the candidate to put the work in and not the supervisor; the supervisor is there to guide and help keep structure to a project, and not to do the candidate's work for them.   The candidate should not expect too much of the supervisor and realise the supervisor has other work to do (lecturing, research, consultancy, other candidates to look after, etc.).

It is also important that when a project is set, that there is a good outline as to the aims of the project (though these may change as the project proceeds depending on feasibility and / or data collected).   If the project is candidate-proposed, then the candidate needs to have a clear plan of action and aims.   In the latter case, the candidate needs to find a supervisor (and university / university department) with a good grounding in the relevant field.



    The University

The standing of the university is one point that is often raised and it is true that pass levels can vary quite widely between institutions.   People always view the prestigious universities as the places to go and automatically assume they will get better support by going there.   However, that is not necessarily the case and I believe immediate supervision, support and atmosphere within the department / group are more important in choosing where to do a Ph.D.   Also, the University might have a good overall reputation, but is it strong in the subject you want to study and research? 

Before deciding on a Ph.D., make sure you get the chance to talk to the supervisor and ensure they know the subject area.   The opportunity to do this will be at interview, where they themselves (especially with funded Ph.D.s) will want to make sure you are the best or right person to undertake the research.   Also make sure you see the facilities and talk to other Ph.D. candidates or recently passed post-docs (post-doctoral researchers) about their experiences working for the supervisor.   Get a feel for the university, department / group and colleagues you could potentially be working with.

A breakdown of English University pass rates is given on the 'Higher Education Funding Council for England' website, however, bear in mind the comments I've made in the previous two paragraphs.




As regards colleagues, you should all really be in it together.   This will include other Ph.D. candidates and also post-docs (who will now typically be Research Associates doing an extra couple of years research work) who already have their Ph.D.s.   As such they may be able to help you during the early stages as to equipment use, techniques and basic general guidance to get you up and running.   However, keep in mind that they have their own work to do, so don't be too much of a nuisance and show your appreciation by remembering to thank them.   The chances are these are amongst the people you'll socialise with whilst doing your Ph.D., so keeping things friendly is important from the beginning.  

That said, there's always the odd person who's an annoyance and doesn't want to know.   In such circumstances, if they're not involved in what you're doing just avoid such people and work with the friendlier people in the department / group as they'll already got such people pretty well figured out.   Only raise the issue of a colleague's behaviour with a member of staff (or supervisor) as a last resort and only if they are obstructing you from doing your work.   It may be they're stressed over their own work and may have their own problems to sort out, not uncommon if they're writing up their own thesis for example.   The use of quiet diplomacy and a little understanding may be more productive and it may turn out once such problems are sorted out, that person turns out to be okay.   However, don't allow yourself to be seen as a pushover either.



b) Industrial Sponsors

Problems may also occur with an industrial sponsor if the aims of candidate, supervisor and / or the sponsor diverge.   This can be more difficult to sort out, as an industrial sponsor's main aim will be to gain commercial advantage or to produce a marketable product from the research.   The candidate attaining a Ph.D. or M.Phil. (via say a Teaching Company scheme) may be secondary to this.  

As the sponsor may be providing some or all of the funding for a project, then resolving these differences can be difficult as the sponsor can pull the plug depending on the contract agreed with the university.   Again, communication is important and my first attempt at applying for a Ph.D. came to an abrupt end when the sponsor decided to withdraw (a director refused to recognise the project).   The university concerned decided not to pursue the issue further and it was another five years before I did a different project at another university.  

I have heard of the odd case of sponsors demanding recompense from the university or even the candidate themselves in the event of the candidate withdrawing or not successfully completing the M.Phil. or Ph.D. In light of this, I'd advise the candidate to read the small print carefully of any sponsor contract carefully to ensure none of the liability ends up theirs. 



c) Facilities

If a university lacks the facilities required to carry out certain work, the solution to this may be simple.   Can another university or private company be approached to make use of their facilities? Your own university (or probably sponsor - I'm not sure where self-funded students stand) will have to foot the bill though.



d) Family, Friendships and Relationships

This is one area overlooked by many candidates before they start a Ph.D., simply because the amount of work that can be involved is hugely underestimated.  

There can be quite a dramatic effect on friendships and relationships as you simply won't be there for people.   You may find people who you considered close friends drift away and leave you out of things as time goes by; you feel can't go out with them, do parties or because the Ph.D. dominates your life, you can talk about nothing else when you're with them and you're regarded as being a bit boring.  
If you're in a relationship, I hope your wife / husband / boyfriend / girlfriend / civil partner is an understanding person, because you do disappear into your own little world.   Divorces and break-ups for Ph.D. candidates are very high, and those that give up their Ph.D. to save their relationships can find the damage is already done.  

You emerge from the other end to find that other people you knew have moved on with their lives, started families, moved away, etc.   and some people find they have to start all over again (to a certain extent, that's how I felt).   If you're in any form of relationship, discuss what you want to do with your partner before you start as it's going to affect them as well as you.

If you do go ahead, you really do have to make time for those closest to you.   Don't shut yourself away, tell them what is happening in your life and also make time into which the Ph.D. does not intrude (personal or family time, whether a few hours, a given day each week or holiday time).   Given the workload many will face, achieving this balance can be quite difficult.  

If you've children you must decide whether you can balance all your commitments and spend quality time with them.   I know I'll not be popular for asking this question, but if you've Ph.D. aspirations should you not wait until your children have grown up and are more independent?

In plain English, it is easy to come to the conclusion that a Ph.D. is a single man's or woman's game.     That's not necessarily the case, however, are your personal circumstances such that relationships with friends and family may be irreversibly strained by doing one?   Again, the emphasis is communication.



e) Money and Finances

It may be you've managed to obtain funding and you're going to get a bursary or sponsorship for your Ph.D. It may be you're self-funded.   However, finances can and do run out.   Either way, have you budgeted for the duration of the Ph.D.? Can you live on limited money for the next three to five years of your life?

Normally, a bursary or sponsorship has a fixed time limit and this is normally three years in the UK.   This is not normally a massive amount of money, only really sufficient to cover your day-to-day living expenses.   However, you may find this is insufficient and many people end up doing part time jobs or, if the university offers them, limited paid teaching, examination or laboratory supervision duties.
As for married people, people in civil partnerships, people with children and mature candidates (those who've returned from the outside or 'real' world), extra money may be available depending on your circumstances.   A married colleague of mine with children got 50% more money than me, whilst I as a mature student got ~30% more than a fresh graduate coming straight out of a degree.   However, you'll have to enquire about this and rules do keep changing.   The money available still doesn't match a wage going in the bank each month and you'll have to be sure your partner (if you have one) is happy about you not putting as much money in the pot each month.

There's also the problem if you exceed the bursary or sponsorship time limit before you submit.   Most people exceed this period due to the time taken to write up even with the best planning in the world.   Until you submit, you have to find alternative sources of finance (unless your partner is working and on a very good wage).   This is where many universities play the system and obtain a grant for a new project, keeping the candidate on as a Research Associate for a further one or two years until the candidate can submit.   But that does not necessarily happen (though does explain how you can get post-docs who don't yet have a Ph.D.).

Many have to find a job at this stage to remain solvent and once the pressures of being back in the world of work kick in, the Ph.D. can be permanently put on the back burner and forgotten about.   Again, if you have family, getting the money to pay the bills will take priority.   Some of the temporary jobs on offer can be quite poorly paid (bar work, call centres) and I've heard of interesting solutions to keep going.   Trying to take on extra teaching, examination or laboratory supervision duties may help (if available), but won't cover all the money lost if the bursary or sponsorship expires (made worse in rare cases that the sponsor tries to reclaim money from the candidate - see Question 11b).

The fact you may overrun the funding period is another factor many do not realise before they start.   This needs to be factored in and you need to discuss what may happen (such as taking up a Research Associate position) with your supervisor if you are likely to significantly exceed the expected submission date.   Whilst the money paid may well stop, the bills and outgoings do not.



f) Mid-term / Write-up Blues

However, many perceived problems are simply due to mid-term or write-up blues.   Almost all candidates face these in some form, say weight of workload, not seeing an end in sight, missing out on aspects of your social life, working unsocial hours, not seeing as much of your friends and families as normal (and missing out on their lives - see the third part of Question 8) regarding strains of relationships) and there being seemingly nothing else in your life but the Ph.D. / doctoral work.  

Some handle mid-term / write-up blues better than others and it all depends on the person whether they get through this phase - some people don't.   This is why it's important to take the occasional break to take stock, talk things through for colleagues, ensure you do get some sort of social life and you spend time with friends and family.   Whilst it's tempting just to plough on, you can become stale and it's necessary to take occasional breaks to do something different to avoid this.

I found a few beers with mates helped with mid-term / write-up blues (mind off subject, make a point of talking about something else - apologies if you don't drink) as did clearing off for a jog or run (really good for me getting my head straight or getting a seemingly insurmountable problem into its correct context).   We all have our own way of chilling out - what's yours?

There are also the highs, where you feel things are going well and you've that data that will give you those original findings putting you on the path to attaining your Ph.D.   But don't get too carried away when that happens as a Ph.D. is a marathon and not a sprint!!!



12) Where can I find out what Ph.D. research projects are available and at which universities?

For an overview of what's on offer as regards Ph.D. research projects and at which universities, take a look at:

...and click on 'Search'.   While focussed on the United Kingdom, a number of other countries are accessible via the drop down menu once you have clicked 'Search'.

The alternative is trawling through individual university websites.   Believe me, not the most entertaining way to spend an evening!!!



13) Are there any books or literature I can read to understand better what's involved?

You could look at the Wikipedia entry, however, it's a reasonably heavy read and introduces quite a few terms (including different forms of the Doctor title), which are either not used anymore, becoming increasingly irrelevant even to academics or awarded for significant lifetime contribution to a field of knowledge.     It's probably not the best starting point if you want to keep it simple for now.

There are some books that might be of help and a quick search of Amazon brought up quite a few entries.     The most comprehensive amongst these seems to be The Ph.D. Pack Version 3, consisting of How to Get a PhD, How to Write a Thesis and How to Survive Your Viva.     The middle book of the three was recommended to me by my immediate predecessor and I don't suppose a quick look at it would do any harm.     There are others and perhaps a hunt around a decent quality bookshop or larger library would probably be best to help you decide which to go for.

A good online forum where you can talk to other prospective, current and former Ph.D. students (very useful) is:

Just register and away you go!!!   Note the forum mentioned on is actually the above.

However, it's your supervisors who will likely have the final say on approach and no matter what is said anywhere else, what they says goes.     The best is to talk to any of their past students or researchers that may still be contactable or alternatively, have a look at any theses written by past students or researchers.  


14) A final note of warning...

I hope this helps to clarify things a little for those thinking about doing a Ph.D. or a non-academic for whom all this is a mystery.     However, I finish with the following warning for any potential candidates or those that have been awarded a Ph.D.

Your qualification only means you have done a degree by research.     Although you've worked hard for it and most probably feel you've done something special, it is only special to you (and possibly close family).     A Ph.D. as with any other qualification (academic or otherwise) DOES NOT MAKE YOU ANY BETTER OR WORSE THAN ANYONE ELSE - DO NOT PUSH IT IN PEOPLE'S FACES AND ONLY USE THE TITLE IT GIVES YOU DURING PROFESSIONAL CORRESPONDENCE.     There is nothing worse than someone with a title before or letters after their name (and that includes people with B.Sc.'s, B.Eng.'s and B.A.'s) implying or saying how wonderful they are, even if they don't intend or mean to.     Do not volunteer your qualifications or the fact you've done a course of study unless you're specifically asked and I would advise downplaying it unless there is requirement to say exactly what you've done (say in a job interview or academic conference - even then, use with caution).

Let's put it this way.     In the United Kingdom a successful Ph.D. candidate gains a qualification that is held by as few as 0.5% of the United Kingdom population, which works out as one person in every two hundred.     There is no other way of avoiding the fact you will become part of an elite group, something a lot of people out there DO NOT want to hear about!!! 


Anyway, I've had my say and I hope on reading this, you either understand better what a Ph.D. is and if you're considering doing one, it helps you make you're mind up either way.     Other people will have differing opinions and don't just take my word, ask around.     That's all for now, but if you've any other questions or comments, just send me an e-mail and I'll do my best to help.

I'll finish by asking one simple question, which a person wanting to do a Ph.D. should ask themselves before they start out.     Easy to ask, but not so simple to answer.

Why do you want to do a Ph.D. and what do you hope to achieve in your life by doing one?

If you have no clear answer, are you truly ready to face the trials that follow if you proceed?   There's no avoiding the fact it's going to be tough.

Would I do it again if I had my time over?   Yes, it was amongst the best and most challenging four and a half years of my life!!! ;-)


Many regards,


Ian, alias 'Mackem_Beefy' (Ian A. Inman)

   ●   What is a Ph.D.?

●   My Ph.D. - what's it all about?

●   My Ph.D. Viva Voce (Exam) ●   Journal and Conference Papers ●   Ph.D. Game

(Version 1 - 2004; Version 2 - 2011; Version 3 - 2020)