What is a PhD and What is it like to be doing one?: Thoughts of a First Year PhD Student.

12:31 AM

If you are reading this blog post then you are most likely one of two things; an undergraduate/masters student wondering whether they should pursue a PhD or a brand new PhD student who, like me, has googled about a PhD to get some reassurance on the work that they are currently doing.

I am currently just coming into my 6th month on my PhD. Having come straight from my undergraduate degree, being offered the position completely out of the blue with no application and feeling like I wasn't smart enough. I have most certainly come a long way in those 6 months, even though the majority of the time the little voice inside my head says I have nothing to show for it.

When I was offered a position for a PhD, I genuinely had no idea what to expect. I had planned to go into teacher training as I had no idea what I wanted to do a PhD in so I thought that I would teach A-Level Psychology for a while and do my PhD later following from a masters, but to be offered one when I had not yet completed a masters was so incredibly daunting. I was met with a lot of "Isn't that such a huge jump?" from other PhD students on the induction days, to be honest I think it is just as big a jump to come from a masters programme. Yes, you may have more subject knowledge, but a PhD is so specific that you are going to have to teach yourself a hell of a lot anyway.

What is a PhD?

I'm going to start off by explaining a PhD as though you genuinely know absolutely nothing about it, so if you do know the basics then you may want to read ahead. A PhD is essentially the highest form of education that there is, or if you prefer, you can think of it as the start of the ladder to becoming an academic/researcher. At an undergraduate and masters level, you are being given information. You are taught about the knowledge that already exists within a certain field and you are tested on this knowledge. At PhD level you are expected to take that already existing knowledge and add to it. At the end of a PhD you will get the title of "Dr." at the beginning of your name and "PhD" at the end, pretty fancy right?

What is the structure of a PhD?

In the majority of cases you have to do at least 3 years on a PhD. The first year is called an "MPhil" and at the end of this year you have to write a report where you detail how your research is going and what you intend to do for the rest of the time, you also have what is called an "exam" but is essentially just talking to someone about your research and where you plan on taking it. If this is successful you are then transferred to the "PhD" aspect of the course. There are no lectures, coursework or exams as such on a PhD, it is an incredibly independent degree as a way to show your capabilities as a researcher. You do, of course, have a supervisory team of a minimum of two supervisors, but usually three, who will help you along the way. However, you should not rely entirely on them, they will not remind you about work that needs to be done, they will not nag you about setting up meetings, they are just a support system, not something you should abuse.

How are you assessed on a PhD? Do you still have grades?

The only form of grades on a PhD are at the very end which consist of;

  • Pass
  • Pass with Minor Corrections
  • Pass with Major Corrections
  • Resubmit or award a lower degree such as MPhil or MSc
  • Fail

This happens at your "Viva" which is arguably the most important part of a PhD. This is where you discuss and defend your research in front of those who are experts within your research area. It sounds incredibly scary, but you must realise that you are only human and so are those who will be assessing you. You will know a lot by the end of your PhD if you do it correctly, the majority of those who set out on a PhD Pass with minor corrections, it is incredibly difficult to pass with no corrections  and a fail is considered a failure of your supervisory team of supporting you, not a failure of yourself unless of course you do absolutely no work. The only other assessment is the one I touched upon earlier that happens at the end of the first year.

Does a PhD just consist of conducting Research for Three Years?

RThis is what I was expecting from a PhD but it is not the case, especially if you want to make the most of it. There a number of other things I would recommend doing and in some cases you are expected to do, whilst on your PhD;


  • Teaching; Workshops, Lab Demonstrations, Lectures - this can be anything and usually is only to first year undergraduate students, but sometimes you may be able to teach higher levels depending on what the topic is. A lot of PhDs offer you the chance to gain a teaching qualification whilst you are there, I would definitely recommend going for this. In my universities case they offer both a fellowship to the HEA and a PGCE. I am currently in the middle of doing my fellowship and will do my PGCE when I am given the opportunity which will allow me to mark assessments.
  • Workshops; There are always tons of workshops that you can attend on a PhD. I would recommend making the most of them as after your PhD you would be surprised how much they can cost! Take any opportunity you can to further your training/knowledge. Even if you may not think you'll need it right now but will in the future, take notes!
  • Conferences; I had no idea that this is something you are expected to do on a PhD. A conference is essentially a gathering of academics who show posters and give presentations on their research. These are really great ways to network and get your name out there as well as some experience in talking about your research which will help with your Viva later on!
  • Publications; This is particularly important if you want to go into academia (like I do). Get as many publications as you can even if it just consists of a literature review, take up other projects with other researchers/academics. If you collaborate and help them, then you get your name on a publication and you get more experience in research! I knew I wanted to continue with other projects as I have such a wide range of interests my PhD is in education but I am also doing research in Forensic and Health Psychology!
How do you manage your time?

Managing time can be super easy for some people and incredibly difficult for others. The best way to go about it is to be realistic, if you know that you are not going to get any work done whilst you are at home, then go into the office. The general consensus for a PhD is to treat it like a 9am - 5pm work day. Give yourself an hour for lunch, but for the rest of the time make sure you are working.

But I'm not smart enough.

This has gone through my head so often you wouldn't believe. It's actually such a common feeling on a PhD that it's even got a name; Imposter Syndrome. This is essentially where you are worried that people will "find out" that you aren't "smart enough" or "good enough" to be doing a PhD. It's completely normal, but what you don't want to do is let it overtake you, no one can know everything. We are only human beings and you can't be too hard on yourself.

Am I doing enough?

Another one of my daily struggles is feeling like I have never done enough work, even if I have worked solid for a full day I can still feel like it's never enough. It's fine to feel this way, it's fine to feel a bit lost at what you're doing and not being entirely sure. I've found that as long as I do some reading, write some notes then you ARE doing something. It may only seem small at first but it will soon get more and more. And some people will just never feel like they have done enough!

How to stay organised?

This is going to vary from person to person, but I myself use the everything notebook method which was coined by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega and he discusses how to start one here. I would highly recommend going with this method, you can easily tab things that you need to find again. You only have to take one notebook with you whenever you go to workshops/the office etc. and I bought mine from ASDA for £8 and just labelled it as "Research Journal 1" so I can look back on it when I'm finished.

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I hope this post was of some use to you! Please feel free to leave comments/questions below. Please remember I am a brand new PhD student and I am learning as I go! 

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