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How the PhD Program Works

Program Overview

Completing your doctorate at Wharton requires 5 years of full-time study. The first 2 years in the program prepare you for admission to candidacy by taking courses, qualifying exams, and starting research projects. In the last few years, you are primarily conducting research full-time including writing and defending your doctoral dissertation.

Admission to candidacy.

You begin by taking courses required for your program of study. All programs requires a preliminary exam, which may be either oral or written.

Some programs may have further requirements, such as an additional exam or research paper. If you enter with a master’s degree or other transfer credit, you may satisfy the formal course requirements more quickly.

Beginning the Wharton PhD Curriculum How the first two years of the Wharton program helped students discover their interests, learn the tools of the profession, and fuel their passion for teaching.

The Doctoral Dissertation

Upon successful completion of coursework and passing a preliminary examination, you are admitted to candidacy for the dissertation phase of your studies.

Your doctoral dissertation should contain original research that meets standards for published scholarship in your field. You are expected to be an expert in the topic you choose to research.

You are admitted to candidacy for the dissertation phase of your studies upon successful completion of coursework and passing a preliminary examination, but you can start thinking about and working on research of relevance at any time.

The dissertation process culminates with a “defense,” in which you defend the proposal orally before your dissertation committee.

While working on your dissertation, you interact extensively with Wharton faculty. Together with interested faculty, you create your own research community that includes your dissertation advisor and dissertation committee.

Policies and Procedures

Get more detailed explanation of course requirements, academic standards, the Teacher Development Program, time limits, and dissertation procedures and requirements.

Sample Program Sequence

Years 1 & 2.

Coursework Examination Research Papers Research Activities Field-Specific Requirements

Directed Reading & Research Admission to Candidacy Formulation of Research Topic

Years 4 & 5

Continued Research Oral Examination Dissertation

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  • The PhD Journey - Stages of a Doctoral Degree

The PhD Journey

Written by Mark Bennett

A PhD typically involves between three and four years of full-time study, culminating in a thesis which makes an original contribution to your field.

The process of getting a PhD is made up of quite a few components and milestones, from the literature review and writing up your dissertation right through to the viva examination at the end.

This section is a guide on how to do a PhD, providing in-depth advice and information on some of the main challenges and opportunities you’ll meet along the way!.

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7 stages of the PhD journey

A PhD has a few landmark milestones along the way. The three to four year you'll spend doing a PhD can be divided into these seven stages.

  • Preparing a research proposal
  • Carrying out a literature review
  • Conducting research and collecting results
  • Completing the MPhil to PhD upgrade
  • Participating in PhD teaching, conferences and publications
  • Writing your thesis
  • Defending your PhD results at a viva voce

We've expanded on what you can expect from each stage below.

1. Preparing a research proposal

Strictly speaking, your research proposal isn’t part of your PhD. Instead it’s normally part of the PhD application process.

The research proposal sets out the aims and objectives for your PhD: the original topic you plan to study and / or the questions you’ll set out to answer.

It also explains why your work is worthwhile and why it fits with the expertise and objectives of your university.

Finally, a PhD proposal explains how you plan to go about completing your doctorate. This involves identifying the existing scholarship your work will be in dialogue with and the methods you plan to use in your research.

All of this means that, even though the proposal precedes the PhD itself, it plays a vital role in shaping your project and signposting the work you’ll be doing over the next three or more years.

2. Carrying out a literature review

The literature review is normally the first thing you’ll tackle after beginning your PhD and having an initial meeting with your supervisor.

It’s a thorough survey of work in your field (the current scholarly ‘literature’) that relates to your project or to related topics.

Your supervisor will offer some advice and direction, after which you’ll identify, examine and evaluate existing data and scholarship.

In most cases the literature review will actually form part of your final PhD dissertation – usually setting up the context for the project, before you begin to explain and demonstrate your own thesis.

Sometimes a literature review can also be evaluated as part of your MPhil upgrade .

Research vs scholarship

Research and scholarship are both important parts of a PhD. But they aren't the same thing - and it's helpful to know the difference. Research is the original work you produce with your thesis. Scholarship is the expert understanding of your subject area that enables you to conduct valuable research.

3. Conducting research and collecting results

Once you’ve carried out your literature review, you’ll move from scholarship to research .

This doesn’t mean you’ll never read another academic article or consult someone else’s data again. Far from it. You’ll stay up to date with any new developments in your field and incorporate these into your literature review as necessary.

But, from here on in, your primary focus in your PhD process is going to be investigating your own research question. This means carrying out organised research and producing results upon which to base your conclusions.

Types of PhD research

The research process and the type of results you collect will depend upon your subject area:

  • In Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects you’ll focus on designing experiments, before recording and analysing their outcomes. This often means assembling and managing complex numerical datasets – sometimes in collaboration with the rest of your laboratory or workshop.
  • In Social Science subjects you’ll be more focussed on designing surveys or conducting case studies. These will produce quantitative or qualitative data, depending on the nature of your work.
  • In Arts and Humanities subjects you’ll often have less raw data, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be working with ‘hard’ factual information. You’ll analyse texts, sources and other materials according to an accepted methodology and reflect upon the significance of your findings.

Whatever subject you’re in, this research work will account for the greater part of your PhD results. You’ll have regular meetings with your supervisor, but the day-to-day management of your project and its progress will be your own responsibility.

In some fields it’s common to begin writing up your findings as you collect them, developing your thesis and completing the accompanying dissertation chapter-by-chapter. In other cases you’ll wait until you have a full dataset before reviewing and recording your conclusions.

4. Completing an MPhil to PhD upgrade

At UK universities it’s common to register new PhD students for an MPhil before ‘ upgrading ’ them to ‘full’ doctoral candidates. This usually takes place after one year of full-time study (or its part-time equivalent).

Forcing you to register for a ‘lesser’ degree may seem strange, but it’s actually an important part of the training and development a PhD offers:

  • As an MPhil student you’re able to comprehend your field and produce new research.
  • As a PhD student you’re able to go that crucial step further and produce the significant original contribution to knowledge that defines a doctorate.

The MPhil upgrade is when you take the step from the former to the latter.

The MPhil upgrade exam

Upgrading from MPhil to PhD registration usually involves a form of oral exam – similar to the viva voce that concludes a PhD. But, unlike a full viva, the MPhil upgrade is less formal and only covers part of your thesis.

In most cases you’ll submit a small amount of the material you’ve produced so far. This could be a draft of your first chapter (or part of it) and / or your literature review. You could also be asked to reflect on your progress in general.

You’ll then sit down with your supervisor and someone else from your department (familiar with your field, but unrelated to your project). They’ll offer feedback on the quality of your work and ask questions about your findings.

The aim of the process won’t be to examine your drafts so much as to confirm that your project has the potential to justify a PhD – and that you’re on track to complete it on time.

‘Failing’ a PhD upgrade is actually quite rare. Your university may ask you to repeat the procedure if they are concerned that you haven’t made sufficient progress or established a viable plan for the rest of your project.

What is an MPhil?

The MPhil (Master of Philosophy) is also a research degree, but its scope is more limited than a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). And no, just like a PhD, an MPhil isn’t necessarily a Philosophy qualification. Our guide covers all you need to know about the difference between a MPhil and PhD .

5. PhD teaching, conferences and publications

During the PhD process, you’ll have lots of opportunities to take part in extra-curricular activities, such as teaching, academic conferences and publications.

Although it isn’t usually compulsory to participate in these, they can be an incredibly rewarding experience and will look great on your CV.

Teaching during a PhD normally involves hosting undergraduate seminars or supervising students in the lab, as well as marking work and providing feedback.

Academic conferences are an excellent way to network with like-minded colleagues and find out the latest developments in your field. You might even be able to present your own work to your peers at one of these events.

Publishing during a PhD will help you increase your academic profile, as well as give you experience of the peer review process. It’s not normally a requisite of your PhD, but publications will certainly help if you plan on applying for postdoc positions.

6. Writing your thesis

As the culmination of three or more years of hard work, the thesis (or dissertation) is the most important part of the procedure to get your PhD, presenting you with the opportunity to make an original scholarly contribution to your discipline.

Our guide to writing your thesis covers everything you need to know about this lengthy research project, from structure and word count to writing up and submission.

We’ve also written a guide to the PhD dissertation abstract , which is an important part of any thesis.

7. Defending your PhD results at a viva voce

Unlike other degrees, a PhD isn’t normally marked as a piece of written work. Instead your dissertation will be submitted for an oral examination known as a viva voce (Latin for ‘living voice’).

This is a formal procedure, during which you ‘defend’ your thesis in front of appointed examiners, each of whom will have read your dissertation thoroughly in advance.

Examiners at a viva voce

A PhD is normally examined by two academic experts:

  • One will be an internal examiner, usually appointed from elsewhere in your faculty and department. They won’t be directly associated with your project, but will have sufficient expertise to assess your findings.
  • The other will be an external examiner. They will be a recognised expert in the area you are researching, with a record of relevant research and publication. Most universities in the UK allow you to invite an external examiner of your choice, provided there is no existing conflict of interest.

Your supervisor will help you prepare for the viva and will offer advice on choosing an external examiner. However, they will not normally be present during the examination.

The PhD timeline

PhD timeline
Meet with your and discuss your proposed project. Here you will clarify any changes that are needed and agree a schedule of meetings and a plan of work for the following months.
Clarify the direction of your research, methods and the necessity of any research trips. You will also discuss your training and development needs and begin working towards a .
Hand in of an advanced , thesis plan and timetable for completion. This will then be discussed in the with two internal examiners.
Biannual review with your supervisor(s) to discuss your progress to date and feasibility of completing on time.
You will have made considerable progress on your research by the end of the second year. You may have begun drafting your and engaging in professional activities such as , , and skills training. All of your progress will be discussed in another annual review.
Most of the third year will be spent writing up and redrafting your . You may also engage in professional activities such as , and .
Application for examination and nominate your examiners.
and assisting work such as a skills development log.
Usually the will take place within 10 weeks of the examiners receiving your thesis.
Most PhD students pass with corrections and are given a period to edit the thesis. The length of time given will depend on whether you pass with major or minor corrections.
Receipt of award and graduation!

Ready to take the next step?

There's lots more information about how to get a PhD in our advice section . Or, if you're ready to start looking at different projects, why not check out one of the thousands of current PhD opportunities in our database?

how does phd research work

Not sure how PhD study will differ from a Masters? In this guide, we take a look at how the two qualifications compare, including applications, course structure, assessment and more.

how does phd research work

Every student will need to write an abstract for their PhD dissertation. Here's everything you need to know about what an academic abstract is and how to write one.

how does phd research work

What can you expect from a PhD? What's life actually like as a postgraduate student? Read our guides to the doctoral research experience.

how does phd research work

The viva voce is the final oral exam at the end of a PhD degree. Our guide explains the usual viva format, covers common questions and explains how to prepare.

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10 things you need to know before starting a PhD degree

So you want to do a PhD degree, huh? Here we've got everything you need to know about getting started.

So you want to do a PhD degree, huh? Are you sure about that? It’s not going to be an easy decision, so I’ve put together a list of 10 things you need to know before starting a PhD degree. Oh, and don’t panic!

I have recently graduated from the University of Manchester with a PhD in Plant Sciences after four difficult, but enjoyable, years. During those four years, I often felt slightly lost – and there was more than one occasion on which I didn’t even want to imagine writing up my thesis in fear of delving into fits of panic.

On reflection, I realise that – to quote a colleague – commencing my PhD was like “jumping in the deep end with your eyes closed.” If only I’d known to take a deep breath.

1. Are you sure you want to do a PhD degree?

Let’s be under no false impressions, completing a PhD isn’t easy. There will be times when you feel like Wile E Coyote chasing after the Roadrunner – a little bit out of your depth a lot of the time. It’s four years of your life, so make sure it is what you really want to do.

If you want to pursue a career in science, a PhD isn’t always necessary.

It is possible to make great inroads into industry without a doctoral degree. That said, a PhD can also be a very useful qualification with many transferable skills to add to your CV.

By the time you’ll have finished, you can include essentials such as time management, organisational skills, prioritising workloads, attention to detail, writing skills, presenting to an audience – and most importantly – resilience, to name but a few.

2. Choose your project, and supervisor, wisely.

This is  very  important.

Time after time, our experienced scientists at EI, including Erik Van-Den-Bergh (and I agree) say, “ make sure you’re extremely passionate about exactly that subject. ” When I saw the PhD opening that I eventually was offered, I remember being demonstrably ecstatic about the project before I’d even started it.

I was always interested in calcium signalling and organised a meeting with my potential supervisor immediately, which (to quote Billy Connolly) I leapt into in a mood of gay abandon.

Not only does this help you to keep engaged with your project even through the painstakingly slow times, it also greatly enhances your ability to sell yourself in an interview. If you can show passion and enthusiasm about the project and the science then you’ll be that one step ahead of other candidates – which is all the more important now that many studentships are competitive.

You have to  be the best  out of many, often exceptional candidates.

However, as important as it is to be passionate about your project, make sure that the person who will be supervising you is worthy.

Does your potential supervisor have a prolific track record of publishing work? What is the community of scientists like in the lab you may be working in? Are there experienced post-doctoral scientists working in the lab? Who will your advisor be? Is your supervisor an expert in the field you are interested in? Is the work you will be doing ground-breaking and novel, or is it quite niche?

There is nothing more frustrating – and I know many PhD degree students with this problem – than having a supervisor who is rarely there to talk to, shows little interest in your work, and cannot help when you are struggling in the third year of your project and some guidance would be much appreciated.

Personally, and I was very lucky to have this, I think it’s incredibly useful to have two supervisors. My PhD degree was split between the University of Manchester and the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth. Between my supervisors, I had two people with expertise in different fields, who could give me some fantastic advice from different perspectives. This also meant that I had two people to check through my thesis chapters and provide useful comments on my drafts.

PhD students networking during the last Student Symposium

Make sure you are passionate about your subject before taking it to PhD level. And by passionate I mean  really  passionate.

For a start, you will most likely have to write a literature review in your first three months, which if done well will form the main bulk of your thesis introduction and will save you a lot of stress and strain when it comes to writing up.

At the end of your first year, you will have to write a continuation report, which is your proof that you deserve to carry on to the end of your three or four years. This doesn’t leave much time for lab work, which means time management is incredibly important. If you think you’ll be able to swan in at 11 and leave at 3, think again.

Fundamentally, never, ever rest on your laurels! As tempting as it may be to slack-off slightly in the second year of your four year PhD, don’t.

4. Be organised.

This is a no-brainer but still, it’s worth a mention. Take an hour on a Monday morning to come up with a list of short-term and long-term goals. You’ll probably have to present your work at regular lab meetings, so it’s always worth knowing what has to be done (lest you look a pillock in front of the lab when there’s nothing to show for your last two weeks.)

It’s always good to have a timeline of what will be done when. If you have a PCR, maybe you can squeeze in another experiment, read a few papers, start writing the introduction to your thesis, or even start collecting the data you already have into figures.

The more good use you make of your time, the easier it’ll be to finish your PhD in the long run. Plus, it’s lovely to sit back and look at actual graphs, rather than worry about having enough to put into a paper. Once you’ve typed up your data, you’ll realise you’ve done far more than you had anticipated and the next step forward will be entirely more apparent.

5. Embrace change – don’t get bogged down in the details.

Felix Shaw – one of our bioinformatics researchers at EI – put it best when he said, “ it felt like I was running into brick walls all the way through [my PhD]… you’d run into a brick wall, surmount it, only to run straight into another. ”

You’ll find that, often, experiments don’t work. What might seem like a great idea could turn out to be as bad as choosing to bat first on a fresh wicket on the first day of the third Ashes test at Edgbaston. (Yeah, we don't know what that means either - Ed).

Resilience is key while completing your PhD. Be open to change and embrace the chance to experiment in different ways. You might even end up with a thesis chapter including all of your failures, which at the very least is something interesting to discuss during your  viva voce .

6. Learn how to build, and use, your network.

As a PhD student, you are a complete novice in the world of science and most things in the lab will be – if not new to you – not exquisitely familiar. This matters not, if you take advantage of the people around you.

Firstly, there are lab technicians and research assistants, who have probably been using the technique you are learning for years and years. They are incredibly experienced at a number of techniques and are often very happy to help show you how things are done.

There are postdocs and other PhD students, too. Not only can they help you with day-to-day experiments, they can offer a unique perspective on how something is done and will probably have a handy back-catalogue of fancy new techniques to try.

There are also a bunch of PIs, not limited to your own, who are great to talk to. These people run labs of their own, have different ideas, and might even give you a job once you’ve completed your PhD.

Don’t limit yourself to the labs directly around you, however. There are a massive number of science conferences going on all around the world. Some of them, such as the Society of Biology Conference, take place every year at a similar time in different locations, attracting many of the leaders in their respective fields.

If you are terrified by the prospect of speaking at a full-blown science conference and having your work questioned by genuine skeptics, there are also many student-led conferences which will help you dangle your fresh toes in the murky waters of presenting your work.

One such conference, the Second Student Bioinformatics Symposium, which took place at Earlham Institute in October 2016, was a great place for candidates to share their projects with peers, who are often much more friendly than veteran researchers with 30 year careers to their name when it comes to the questions at the end of your talk.

Another great reason to attend conferences, of course, is the social-side too – make the most of this. You never know who you might meet and connect with over a few drinks once the talks are over and the party commences.

7. Keep your options open.

You should be aware that for every 200 PhD students,  only 7  will get a permanent academic post , so it’s  incredibly unlikely that you’ll become a Professor  – and even if you make PI, it probably won’t be until your mid-forties.

You may also, despite having commenced along the academic path, decide that actually, working in a lab environment isn’t for you. Most PhD graduates, eventually, will not pursue an academic career, but move on to a wide range of other vocations.

It might be that Science Communication is more up your street. This was certainly the case for me – and I made sure that I took part in as many public engagement events as possible while completing my PhD. Most Universities have an active public engagement profile, while organisations such as STEM can provide you with ample opportunities to interact with schools and the general public.

You might also consider entrepreneurship as a route away from academia, which might still allow you to use your expert scientific knowledge. There are a variety of competitions and workshops available to those with a business mind, a strong example being Biotechnology YES.

I, for example, took part in the Thought for Food Challenge, through which I have been able to attend events around the world and meet a vast array of like-minded individuals. Many of the participants from the challenge have gone on to set up successful businesses and have even found jobs as a result of the competition.

10 things phd fire

8. Balance.

Remember that you still have a life outside of your PhD degree – and that this can be one of the greatest opportunities to make amazing friends from around the world.

A science institute is usually home to the brightest students from a variety of countries and can provide a chance to experience a delightful range of different people and cultures. Don’t just stick to the people in your lab, go to events for postgraduate students and meet people from all over campus.

There are usually academic happy hours happening on Fridays after work where you can buy cheap beer, or some lucky institutions even have their own bar. At Norwich Research Park, we not only have the Rec Centre, along with bar, swimming pool, calcetto, samba classes, archery, and a range of other activities, but there are also biweekly “Postdoc pub clubs” which are very fun to join on a Tuesday evening.

Maintain your hobbies and keep up with friends outside of your PhD and you’ll probably find it’s not that gruelling a process after all.

Plus, the people you meet and become friends with might be able to help you out – or at least be able to offer a sympathetic shoulder.

10 things phd relaxing

9. Practical advice.

If, after reading all of this, you’re still going to march forth and claim your doctorhood, then this section should be rather useful.

Firstly, make sure your data is backed up. It’s amazing how many people don’t do this and you’d be bonkers not to. Keep your work saved on a shared drive, so that if your computer decides to spontaneously combust upon pressing the return key, you won’t have lost all of your precious work – or have to go through every one of your lab books and type it all up again.

Secondly, don’t leave your bag in the pub with your half-written thesis in it. I did this, the bag was fine, I was in a state of terror for at least half an hour before the kind person at Weatherspoons located said bag.

Thirdly, read. Read broadly, read anything and everything that’s closely related to your project – or completely unrelated. It’s sometimes amazing where you might find a stroke of inspiration, a new technique you hadn’t thought of … or even in idea of where you might like to go next.

Finally, ask questions – all of the time. No matter how stupid it might sound in your head, everyone’s probably been asked it before, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

You’ll probably look far less stupid if you just ask the person standing next to you how the gradient PCR function works on your thermal cycler rather than standing there randomly prodding buttons and looking flustered, anyway.

10. Savour the positives.

At the end of all of this, it has to be said that doing a PhD is absolutely brilliant. There’s no other time in your life that you’ll be this free to pursue your very own project and work almost completely independently. By the time you come to the end of your PhD, you will be the leading expert in the world on something. A real expert! Until the next PhD student comes along …

Related reading.

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A PhD, is it worth it? Just ask our students

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The realities of doing a PhD

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My advice for PhD students? See what bites

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How does a PhD work and how to find the right one

Becky Shaw, PhD student at Earlham Institute

Building the confidence to take on a PhD

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PhD life, 10 things we learned in our first six months

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What’s the third year of a PhD like? Tips for navigating your PhD

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What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students

How long does it take to get a doctorate degree how do you get into grad school are you qualified to do a phd answers to these questions and more.

PhD, doctorate

What is a PhD?

A PhD, which stands for “doctor of philosophy”, is the most advanced academic degree. It’s earned through extensive research on a specific topic, demonstrating expertise and contributing new knowledge to the field.

What does “PhD” mean?

The term “PhD” is often used as a synonym for any doctoral-level qualification. Doctorate degrees can often be split into two categories: MPhil and PhD.

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An MPhil is similar to a PhD as it includes a research element (which is usually shorter and less in-depth than a PhD thesis, and often more akin to a dissertation undertaken at undergraduate or master’s level). 

MPhil students focus more on interpreting existing knowledge and theory and critically evaluating other people’s work rather than producing their own research. The precise nature and definition of an MPhil can vary among institutions and countries. 

A PhD, meanwhile, follows a more widely known and traditional route and requires students, often referred to as “candidates”, to produce their own work and research on a new area or topic to a high academic standard.

PhD requirements vary significantly among countries and institutions. The PhD, once completed, grants the successful candidate the title of “doctor of philosophy”, also called PhD or DPhil.

What is a professional doctorate?

A professional doctorate is a kind of degree that helps people become experts in their fields. Instead of focusing mainly on theory and research like a regular PhD, a professional doctorate is all about practical skills and knowledge.

This kind of doctorate is great for students who want to get better at their jobs in areas like teaching, healthcare, business, law or psychology. The courses and projects in these programmes are designed to tackle real problems you might face at work.

For example, you might have heard of the doctor of education (EdD), doctor of business administration (DBA), doctor of psychology (PsyD) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP). These programmes combine learning, hands-on projects and sometimes a thesis paper or essay to show you’re skilled at solving on-the-job challenges.

How long does it take to study a PhD?

The time required to complete a PhD can vary significantly based on several factors. Generally, a full-time PhD programme takes around three to six years to finish. However, it’s important to take into account individual circumstances and the nature of the research involved.

1. Full-time vs. part-time: If you’re studying full-time, dedicating most of your time to your studies, it usually takes about three to four years to complete a PhD. However, studying part-time while managing other commitments might extend the duration. Part-time PhDs can take around six to eight years, and sometimes even longer.

2. Nature of research: The complexity of your research proposal can influence the time required. Certain research questions may involve intricate experiments, extensive data collection or in-depth analysis, potentially leading to a longer completion timeline.

3. Field of study: The subject area you’re researching can also affect the necessary time. Some fields, such as sciences or engineering, might involve more hands-on work, while theoretical subjects might require more time for literature review and analysis.

4. Supervision and support: The guidance and availability of your academic supervisor can affect the pace of your research progress. Regular meetings and effective communication can help keep your studies on track.

5. Thesis writing: While the research phase is crucial, the stage of writing your thesis is equally significant. Organising and presenting your research findings in a clear and cohesive manner can take several months.

6. External commitments: Personal commitments, such as work, family or health-related factors, can influence your study time. Some students need to balance these alongside their PhD studies, potentially extending the duration.

7. External Funding: The availability of funding can also affect your study duration. Some funding might be linked to specific project timelines or research objectives.

So, although a PhD usually takes between three and six years of full-time study, with potential variations based on research complexity, enrolment as part-time or full-time, field of study and personal circumstances. It’s vital to have a realistic understanding of these factors when planning your PhD journey.

How long is a PhD in the UK?

In the UK, the length of a PhD programme typically ranges from three to four years of full-time study. As explained above, there are many factors to consider.

How long is a PhD in the US?

Similarly to the UK, in the United States, the duration of a PhD programme can vary widely depending on the field of study, research topic and individual circumstances. On average, a full-time PhD programme in the US typically takes between five and six years to complete.

Why does it take longer to study a PhD in the US?

PhD programmes generally take longer to complete in the US than in the UK due to various factors in the education systems and programme structures of each country:

1. Programme structure: UK PhD programmes often emphasise early, focused research from the first year, leading to shorter completion times. In contrast, US programmes commonly include more initial coursework in your first and second year and broader foundational training, which can extend the overall duration.

2. Course work requirements: Many US PhD programmes require a lot of course work, which can lengthen the time needed to finish. UK programmes tend to have fewer or no course work demands, allowing students to concentrate primarily on research skills.

3. Research funding: In the UK, PhD funding is often awarded with specific timeframes in mind, motivating completion of the research degree in the agreed duration. In the US, funding approaches can vary, requiring students to secure funding from multiple sources, potentially affecting their progress and completion time.

4. Teaching responsibilities: Some US PhD students take on teaching roles as part of their funding, dividing their time and potentially prolonging their studies.

5. Research approach: Differences in research methodologies and project scopes can affect the time needed for data collection, experimentation and analysis.

6. Academic culture: The US education system values a well-rounded education, including coursework and comprehensive exams. This can extend the time before full-time research begins. UK PhD programmes often prioritise independent research early on.

7. Part-time and work commitments: US PhD candidates might have more flexibility for part-time work or other commitments, which can affect research progress.

8. Dissertation requirements: US PhD programmes generally include a longer and more comprehensive dissertation, involving more chapters and a broader exploration of the research topic.

These variations in programme structures, funding models and academic cultures contribute to the differing completion times between the two countries.

What qualifications do you need for a PhD?

To be eligible for a PhD programme, certain educational qualifications are generally expected by universities. These qualifications serve as indicators of your readiness to engage in advanced research and contribute to the academic community.

First, an undergraduate or bachelor’s degree in a relevant field is typically the most common requirement. This degree provides you with a foundational understanding of the subject and introduces you to basic research methodologies. It serves as a starting point for your academic journey.

Do you need a master’s degree to get into a PhD programme?

In addition to an undergraduate degree, many PhD programmes also require candidates to hold postgraduate or master’s degrees, often in fields related to the intended PhD research. A master’s degree offers a deeper exploration of the subject matter and enhances your research skills. Possessing a master’s degree signifies a higher level of expertise and specialisation.

The combination of both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees demonstrates a solid academic background. This background is crucial before you engage in doctoral study because pursuing a PhD involves more than just knowledge; it requires advanced research abilities, critical thinking and the capacity to provide an original contribution and new insights into the chosen field of study.

While these qualifications are usually requested, there are exceptions. Some institutions offer direct-entry programmes that encompass bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees in a streamlined structure. This approach is often seen in scientific and engineering disciplines rather than humanities.

In exceptional cases, outstanding performance during undergraduate studies, coupled with a well-defined research proposal, might lead to direct entry into a PhD programme without requiring a master’s degree.

Admission requirements can vary between universities and programmes. Some institutions might have more flexible prerequisites, while others could have more stringent criteria. Make sure that you thoroughly research all admission requirements of the PhD programmes you’re interested in to ensure you provide the right information.

Are PhD entry requirements similar in other countries?

PhD entry requirements in Canada and Australia can be somewhat similar to those in the UK and the US, but there are also some differences. Just like in the UK and the US, having a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree is a common way to qualify for a PhD in Canada and Australia. However, the exact rules can vary, such as how much research experience you need or the grades you should have.

In Canada and Australia, as in the UK and the US, international students usually need to show their English language skills through tests like IELTS or TOEFL. And, like in other places, you might need to give a research proposal to explain what you want to study for your PhD.

But remember, even though there are some similarities, each country has its own rules.

PhD diary: Preparing for a PhD Nine things to know before doing a PhD Women in STEM: undertaking PhD research in cancer Studying for a part-time PhD: the challenges and the benefits Is it possible to do a three-year PhD as an international student? Looking for PhD tips? Why not check Twitter PhD diary: Where do I begin? How to do a PhD on a budget

How much does it cost to study a PhD?

The cost of pursuing a PhD can vary significantly between international and home (domestic) students, and it depends on the country, university and programme you choose.

United Kingdom (UK)

Home students in the UK often pay lower tuition fees compared with international students. Home students might also have access to government funding or subsidised tuition rates.

International students typically pay higher tuition fees, which can vary widely depending on the university and programme. Fees can range from around £10,000 to £25,000 or more per year.

United States (US)

PhD programme costs in the US can be quite high, especially for international students. Public universities often have lower tuition rates for in-state residents compared with out-of-state residents and international students.

Private universities in the US generally have higher tuition fees, and international students might be charged higher rates than domestic students.

Canadian universities often charge higher tuition fees for international students compared with domestic students.

Some universities offer funding packages that include tuition waivers and stipends for both domestic and international doctoral students.

In Australia, domestic students (Australian citizens and permanent residents) usually pay lower tuition fees than international students.

International students in Australia might have higher tuition fees, and costs can vary based on the university and programme.

Apart from tuition fees, other aspects play a role in the overall financial consideration:

PhD studentship: Many universities offer PhD studentships that provide financial support to research students, covering both tuition fees and a stipend for living expenses.

Stipend and housing: Stipends are designed to cover living expenses. Stipend amounts can vary depending on the university and location. If you’re studying in London in the UK, stipends might be higher to account for the higher living costs in the city. Some universities also offer subsidised or affordable housing options for doctoral students.

Tuition and stipend packages: Some PhD programmes provide funding packages that include both tuition waivers and stipends. These packages are to help relieve the financial burden on students during their doctoral studies.

Research the financial support options provided by the universities you’re interested in to make an informed decision about the cost of your PhD journey.

What funding options are available for PhD candidates?

PhD candidates have various funding options available to support their studies and research journeys. Some of these options include:

PhD scholarships: Scholarships are a common form of financial aid for PhD candidates. They are awarded based on academic merit, research potential or other specific criteria. Scholarships can cover tuition fees and provide a stipend for living expenses.

Bursaries: Bursaries are another form of financial assistance offered to students, including PhD candidates, based on financial need. They can help cover tuition fees or provide additional financial support.

In the UK, specific funding options are available:

Regional consortium: Some regions have research consortiums that offer funding opportunities for doctoral candidates. These collaborations can provide financial support for research projects aligned with specific regional needs.

UK research institute: Research councils in the UK often offer stipends to PhD candidates. These stipends cover living expenses and support research work.

University-based studentship: Many UK universities offer studentships. You can read more about these above.

In the USA, there are also funding options available:

Research assistantships (RAs): Many universities offer research assistantships where PhD candidates work on research projects under the guidance of faculty members. In exchange, they receive stipends and often have their tuition waived.

Teaching assistantships (TA): Teaching assistantships involve assisting professors in teaching undergraduate courses. In return, PhD candidates receive stipends and sometimes tuition remission.

Fellowships: Fellowships are competitive awards that provide financial support for PhD candidates. They can come from universities, government agencies, private foundations and other institutions. Fellowships can cover tuition, provide stipends and offer research or travel funds.

Graduate assistantships: Graduate assistantships include a range of roles, from research and teaching to administrative support. These positions often come with stipends and sometimes include tuition benefits.

External grants and fellowships: PhD candidates can apply for grants and fellowships from external organisations and foundations that support research careers in specific fields. Examples include the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Fulbright Programme.

Employer sponsorship: In some cases, employers might sponsor employees to pursue PhDs, especially if the research aligns with the company’s interests.

You can read about the current available scholarships for international students of all education levels on our website .

What does a PhD Involve?

How does a PhD work?

A PhD includes thorough academic research and significant contributions to your chosen field of study. The timeline for completing a PhD can significantly vary based on the country, college or university you attend and the specific subject you study.

The duration of a PhD programme can vary based on factors such as the institution’s requirements and the academic discipline you’re pursuing. For instance, the timeline for a PhD in a science-related field might differ from that of a humanities discipline.

UK PhD timeline example

Looking at a typical PhD degree in a London higher education institution, we can consider this example timeline.

In the initial year of your PhD, you’ll collaborate closely with your designated academic supervisor. This collaboration involves refining and solidifying your research proposal, which lays the foundation for your entire doctoral journey.

This is also the time to establish a comprehensive plan, complete with well-defined milestones and deadlines. A crucial aspect of this year is conducting an extensive literature review, immersing yourself in existing academic works to understand the landscape of your chosen research area. It’s important to make sure that your research idea is original and distinct from prior studies.

As you begin the second year, you’ll actively collect data and gather information related to your research topic. Simultaneously, you’ll initiate the process of crafting your thesis. This involves combining your research findings and analysis into sections of your thesis document.

This is also the phase where you might have opportunities to share your research insights at academic meetings, conferences or workshops. Depending on the programme, you might even engage in teaching activities. Some PhD candidates also begin contributing to academic journals or books, showcasing their findings to a broader audience.

The third year of a PhD programme often marks the final stage of your research efforts. This is when you dedicate substantial time to writing and finalising your complete thesis. Once your thesis is completed to the highest standard, you’ll submit it for thorough evaluation.

A significant milestone in the third year is the viva voce, an oral examination where you’ll defend your thesis before a panel of experts in your field. The viva voce is an opportunity to showcase your deep understanding of your research and defend your findings.

Why should you do a PhD?

For many people, acquiring a doctorate degree is the pinnacle of academic achievement, the culmination of years of commitment to higher education.

However, the act of pursuing a PhD can be a complex, frustrating, expensive and time-consuming exercise. But with the right preparation, some sound advice and a thorough understanding of the task at hand, your years as a doctoral student can be some of the most rewarding of your life. 

People choose to work towards a doctorate for many reasons. If you are looking to pursue an academic position, such as university lecturer or researcher, then a PhD is usually required.

Many people obtain a PhD as part of a partnership with an employer, particularly in scientific fields such as engineering, where their research can prove useful for companies.

In some cases, however, PhDs are simply down to an individual’s love of a subject and their desire to learn more about their field.

What are some benefits of studying a PhD?

Pursuing a PhD can have many benefits that extend beyond academic achievement, encompassing personal growth, professional advancement and meaningful contributions to knowledge.

One of the most notable benefits of a PhD is the potential for tenure in academia. Attaining tenure provides a level of job security that allows you to delve into long-term research projects and make enduring contributions to your field. It signifies a stage where you can explore innovative ideas and pursue in-depth research, fostering your academic legacy.

While not obligatory, the opportunity to collaborate on research projects with your supervisor is another valuable aspect of a PhD pursuit. These collaborations might even come with financial compensation, offering real-world experience, skill development and practical applications of your research. Engaging in such collaborations can enrich your research portfolio and refine your research methodologies.

A pivotal aspect of a PhD journey is the chance to publish your original research findings. By disseminating your work in academic journals or presenting it at conferences, you contribute to the expansion of knowledge within your field. These publications establish your expertise and reputation among peers and researchers worldwide, leaving a lasting impact.

The pursuit of a PhD can provide a unique platform to build a diverse network of colleagues, mentors and collaborators. Engaging with fellow researchers, attending conferences and participating in academic events offer opportunities to make valuable connections. This network can lead to collaborations, expose you to a spectrum of perspectives and pave the way for future research endeavours.

What is a PhD thesis? And what is a PhD viva?

A PhD thesis will be produced with help from an academic supervisor, usually one with expertise in your particular field of study. This thesis is the backbone of a PhD, and is the candidate’s opportunity to communicate their original research to others in their field (and a wider audience).  PhD students also have to explain their research project and defend their thesis in front of a panel of academics. This part of the process is often the most challenging, since writing a thesis is a major part of many undergraduate or master’s degrees, but having to defend it from criticism in real time is arguably more daunting.  This questioning is known as a “viva”, and examiners will pay particular attention to a PhD’s weaknesses either in terms of methodology or findings. Candidates will be expected to have a strong understanding of their subject areas and be able to justify specific elements of their research quickly and succinctly.

In rare cases, students going for a PhD may instead be awarded an MPhil if the academic standard of their work is not considered fully up to par but still strong enough to be deserving of a qualification.

Can you do a PhD part time? 

Many PhD and MPhil candidates choose to pursue their qualification part time, in order to allow time to work and earn while studying. This is especially true of older students, who might be returning to academia after working for a few years. 

When applying, you should always speak to the admissions team at your university to ensure this is possible and then continue to work with your supervisor to balance all your commitments. 

Can I do a PhD through distance learning?

This is something else that you will need to check with your university. Some institutions offer this option, depending on the nature of your research. 

You will need to be clear how many times you will need to travel to your university to meet with your supervisor throughout your PhD. 

Your PhD supervisor

Choosing the right PhD supervisor is essential if you want to get the most out of your PhD. Do your research into the faculty at the institution and ensure that you meet with your proposed supervisor (either virtually or in person) before fully committing. 

You need to know that not only do they have the right expertise and understanding of your research but also that your personalities won’t clash throughout your PhD. 

Remember, to complete your PhD, you will need a strong support network in place, and your supervisor is a key part of that network. 

Coping with PhD stress

If you do decide to embark on a doctorate, you may well encounter stress and anxiety. The work involved is often carried out alone, the hours can be long and many students can suffer from the pressure they feel is on their shoulders.

Ensuring that you check in regularly with your emotions and your workload is crucial to avoid burnout. If you have other commitments, such as a job or a family, then learning to balance these can feel overwhelming at times. 

Give yourself regular breaks, speak to your supervisor and ensure that you know what university resources and support systems are available to you in case you need to access them. 

Post-doctorate: what happens after you finish your PhD?

Many PhD graduates pursue a career in academia, while others will work in industry. Some might take time out, if they can afford to, to recover from the efforts of PhD study.

Whatever you choose to do, undertaking a PhD is a huge task that can open up a range of doors professionally. Just remember to take some time out to celebrate your achievement. 

How does a PhD affect salary and earning potential?

How much does a professor with a PhD make a year?

Professors with PhDs can earn different amounts depending on where they work and their experience. In the UK, a professor might make around £50,000 to £100,000 or more each year. In the US, it's between about $60,000 and $200,000 or even higher. The exact salary depends on things like the place they work, if they have tenure, and what they teach.

How much does a PhD add to salary?

Having a PhD can make your salary higher than if you had a lower degree. But exactly how much more you earn can change. On average, people with PhDs earn more than those with bachelor’s or master’s degrees. The increase in salary is influenced by many things, such as the job you do, where you work and what field you’re in.

In fields such as research, healthcare, technology and finance, your knowledge and skills from your PhD can potentially help you secure a higher salary position.

In the end, having a PhD can boost your earning potential and open doors to well-paying jobs, including professorships and special roles in different areas. But the exact effect on your salary is influenced by many things, so ensure you weigh the cost against the benefit.

How to choose a PhD programme?

Choosing a PhD programme involves defining your research interest, researching supervisors and programme reputation, evaluating funding options, reviewing programme structure, considering available resources, assessing networking opportunities, factoring in location and career outcomes, visiting the campus if possible and trusting your instincts.

How can I find available PhD programmes?

You can find available PhD programmes by visiting university websites, using online directories such as “FindAPhD”, checking professional associations, networking with professors and students, following universities on social media, attending career fairs and conferences, contacting universities directly and exploring research institutes’ websites.

How to apply for a PhD programme?

To apply for a PhD programme:

Research and select universities aligned with your interests.

Contact potential supervisors, sharing your proposal, CV and references.

Prepare application materials: research proposal, CV, recommendation letters and a writing sample.

Ensure you meet academic and language-proficiency requirements.

Complete an online application through the university’s portal.

Pay any required application fees.

Write a statement of purpose explaining your motivations.

Provide official transcripts of your academic records.

Submit standardised test scores if needed.

Some programmes may require an interview.

The admissions committee reviews applications and decides.

Apply for scholarships or assistantships.

Upon acceptance, review and respond to the offer letter.

Plan travel, accommodation and logistics accordingly.

Remember to research and follow each university’s specific application guidelines and deadlines.

How to apply for a PhD as an international student?

Many stages of the PhD application process are the same for international students as domestic students. However, there are sometimes some additional steps:

International students should apply for a student visa.

Take language proficiency tests such as TOEFL or IELTS if required.

Provide certificates if needed to validate your previous degrees.

Show evidence of sufficient funds for tuition and living expenses.

Check if you need health insurance for your chosen destination.

Translate and authenticate academic transcripts if necessary.

Attend orientation sessions for cultural adaptation.

Apply for university housing or explore off-campus options.

Familiarise yourself with international student support services.

Ben Osborne, the postgraduate student recruitment manager at the University of Sussex explains in detail how to apply for a PhD in the UK .

Giulia Evolvi, a lecturer in media and communication at Erasmus University, Rotterdam explains how to apply for a PhD in the US .

Finally, Samiul Hossain explores the question Is it possible to do a three-year PhD as an international student?

Q. What is a PhD? A. A PhD is the highest level of academic degree awarded by universities, involving in-depth research and a substantial thesis.

Q. What does “PhD” mean? A. “PhD” stands for doctor of philosophy, recognising expertise in a field.

Q. What is a professional doctorate? A. A professional doctorate emphasises practical application in fields such as education or healthcare.

Q. How long does it take to study a PhD? A. It takes between three and six years to study a full-time PhD programme.

Q. How long is a PhD in the UK? A. It takes around three to four years to study a full-time UK PhD.

Q. How long is a PhD in the US? A. It takes approximately five to six years to complete a full-time US PhD.

Q. Why does it take longer to study a PhD in the US? A. US programmes often include more course work and broader training.

Q. What qualifications do you need for a PhD? A. You usually need an undergraduate degree as a minimum requirement, although a master’s might be preferred.

Q. Do you need a master’s degree to get into a PhD programme? A. Master’s degrees are preferred but not always required.

Q. Are PhD entry requirements similar in other countries? A. Entry requirements are similar in many countries, but there may be additional requirements. Make sure to check the university website for specific details.

Q. How much does it cost to study a PhD? A. The cost of PhD programmes vary by country and university.

Q. What funding options are available for PhD candidates? A. Scholarships, assistantships, fellowships, grants, stipends are all funding options for PhD candidates.

Q. What does a PhD involve? A. PhDs involve research, seminars, thesis, literature review, data analysis and a PhD viva.

Q. Why should you do a PhD? A. There are many reasons to study a PhD including personal growth, research skills, contributions to academia and professional development.

Q. What are some benefits of studying a PhD? A. Benefits of graduating with a PhD include achieving tenure, collaborations with colleagues, publication of your work, and networking opportunities.

Q. What is a PhD thesis? A. A PhD thesis is a comprehensive document that showcases the original research conducted by a PhD candidate.

Q. What is a PhD viva? A. A PhD viva, also known as a viva voce or oral examination, is the final evaluation of a PhD candidate’s research and thesis where the panel asks questions, engages in discussions and assesses the depth of the candidate’s understanding and expertise.

Q. Can you do a PhD part-time? A. Yes, part-time options are available for PhDs.

Q. Can I do a PhD through distance learning? A. Some universities offer online PhDs; you can find out more on their websites.

Q. How to choose a PhD programme? A. You can find PhD programmes through research, by contacting faculty, checking resources and considering location.

Q. How can I find available PhD programme? A. You can find available PhD programmes on university sites, through directories and by networking.

Q. How to apply for a PhD programme A. To apply for a PhD programme, research suitable universities and programmes, get in touch with potential supervisors, gather required documents like transcripts and reference letters, complete the online application, pay any necessary fees and submit a statement of purpose and research proposal. If needed, meet language-proficiency criteria and attend interviews. After acceptance, explore funding choices, confirm your spot and get ready for the programme’s start.

Q. How to apply for a PhD as an international student A. To apply for a PhD as an international student, follow similar steps to domestic students, but you need to include securing a student visa and passing language requirements.

Q. What is a PhD dropout rate? A. The dropout rate from PhDs varies but is approximately 30-40 per cent.

Q. How does a PhD affect salary and earning potential? A. A PhD can boost earning potential, especially in research, technology, healthcare and academia. Impact varies by job, industry and location. Experience, skills and demand also influence salary.

Q. How to address a person with a PhD? A. When addressing someone with a PhD, it’s respectful to use “Dr”, followed by their last name, whether they have a PhD in an academic field or a professional doctorate. For instance, “Dr. Smith”.

Q. Is there a difference between a PhD and a doctorate? A. The terms “PhD” and “doctorate” are often used interchangeably, though a PhD is a specific type of doctorate focused on original research. A doctorate can refer more broadly to any doctoral-level degree, including professional doctorates with practical applications.

Q. What is the difference between a PhD and an MD? A. A PhD is a doctor of philosophy, awarded for academic research, while an MD is a doctor of medicine, focusing on medical practice. They lead to different career paths and involve distinct areas of study.

Q. What is the difference between a PhD and a professional doctorate? A. A PhD is an academic research-focused degree, while a professional doctorate emphasises applying research to practical fields such as education or business. PhDs often involve original research, while professional doctorates focus on real-world application.

Q. What is the difference between UK and US PhDs? A. The difference between UK and US PhDs lies mainly in structure and duration. UK PhDs often have shorter durations and a stronger emphasis on independent research from an early stage. US PhDs typically include more initial coursework and broader foundational training before full-time research begins.

Q. What is the difference between a PhD student and a candidate? A. A PhD student is actively studying and researching in a doctoral programme, while a PhD candidate has completed programme requirements except for the dissertation and is close to completion.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and an EdD? A. A PhD and an EdD (doctor of education) differ in focus. A PhD emphasises research and academic contributions, while an EdD focuses on applying research to practical educational issues.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and a DBA? A. A PhD and a DBA (doctor of business administration) differ in purpose. A PhD emphasises theoretical research and academia, while a DBA is practice-oriented, aimed at solving real business problems.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and a PsyD? A. A PhD and a PsyD (doctor of psychology) differ in emphasis. A PhD focuses on research and academia, while a PsyD emphasises clinical practice and applying psychological knowledge.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and an LLD? A. A PhD and an LLD (doctor of laws or Legum doctor) are distinct. A PhD is awarded in various disciplines, while an LLD is usually an honorary degree for significant contributions to law.

Q. What’s the difference between a PhD and an MD-PhD? A. A PhD and an MD-PhD differ. An MD-PhD is a dual degree combining medical training (MD) with research training (PhD).

Q. What is the Cambridge PhD? A. A Cambridge PhD involves original research guided by a supervisor, resulting in a thesis. It’s offered at the University of Cambridge .

Q. What is the Oxford DPhil? A. An Oxford DPhil is equivalent to a PhD and involves independent research leading to a thesis. The term “DPhil” is unique to the University of Oxford .

Q. What is the PhD programme acceptance rate? A. PhD acceptance rates vary by university, field and competition. Prestigious universities and competitive fields often have lower acceptance rates.

Q. What is a PhD supervisor? A. A PhD supervisor guides and supports a student’s research journey, providing expertise and feedback.

Q. What is a PhD panel? A. A PhD panel evaluates a candidate’s research, thesis and oral defence. It consists of experts in the field.

Q. What is a PhD stipend? A. A PhD stipend is a regular payment supporting living expenses during research, often tied to teaching or research assistant roles.

Q. What is a PhD progression assessment? A. A PhD progression assessment evaluates a student’s progress, often confirming their continuation in the programme.

Q. What is a PhD defence? A. A PhD defence, or viva, is the final oral examination where a candidate presents and defends their research findings and thesis before experts.

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9 things you should consider before embarking on a PhD

June 23, 2021 | 15 min read

By Andy Greenspon

Andy Greenspon

The ideal research program you envision is not what it appears to be

Editor's Note:  When Andy Greenspon wrote this article, he was a first-year student in Applied Physics at Harvard. Now he has completed his PhD. — Alison Bert, June 23, 2021

If you are planning to apply for a PhD program, you're probably getting advice from dozens of students, professors, administrators your parents and the Internet. Sometimes it's hard to know which advice to focus on and what will make the biggest difference in the long-run. So before you go back to daydreaming about the day you accept that Nobel Prize, here are nine things you should give serious thought to. One or more of these tips may save you from anguish and help you make better decisions as you embark on that path to a PhD.

1. Actively seek out information about PhD programs.

Depending on your undergraduate institution, there may be more or less support to guide you in selecting a PhD program – but there is generally much less than when you applied to college.

On the website of my physics department, I found a page written by one of my professors, which listed graduate school options in physics and engineering along with resources to consult. As far as I know, my career center did not send out much information about PhD programs. Only after applying to programs did I find out that my undergraduate website had a link providing general information applicable to most PhD programs. This is the kind of information that is available all over the Internet.

So don't wait for your career center or department to lay out a plan for you. Actively seek it out from your career center counselors, your professors, the Internet — and especially from alumni from your department who are in or graduated from your desired PhD program. First-hand experiences will almost always trump the knowledge you get second-hand.

2. A PhD program is not simply a continuation of your undergraduate program.

Many students don't internalize this idea until they have jumped head-first into a PhD program. The goal is not to complete an assigned set of courses as in an undergraduate program, but to develop significant and original research in your area of expertise. You will have required courses to take, especially if you do not have a master's degree yet, but these are designed merely to compliment your research and provide a broad and deep knowledge base to support you in your research endeavors.

At the end of your PhD program, you will be judged on your research, not on how well you did in your courses. Grades are not critical as long as you maintain the minimum GPA requirement, and you should not spend too much time on courses at the expense of research projects. Graduate courses tend to be designed to allow you to take away what you will find useful to your research more than to drill a rigid set of facts and techniques into your brain.

3. Take a break between your undergraduate education and a PhD program.

You are beginning your senior year of college, and your classmates are asking you if you are applying to graduate school. You think to yourself, "Well, I like studying this topic and the associated research, and I am going to need a PhD if I want to be a professor or do independent research, so I might as well get it done as soon as possible." But are you certain about the type of research you want to do? Do you know where you want to live for the next five years? Are you prepared to stay in an academic environment for nine years straight?

Many people burn out or end up trudging through their PhD program without a thought about what lies outside of or beyond it. A break of a year or two or even more may be necessary to gain perspective. If all you know is an academic environment, how can you compare it to anything else? Many people take a job for five or more years before going back to get their PhD. It is true though that the longer you stay out of school, the harder it is to go back to an academic environment with lower pay and a lack of set work hours. A one-year break will give you six months or so after graduation before PhD applications are due. A two-year gap might be ideal to provide time to identify your priorities in life and explore different areas of research without having school work or a thesis competing for your attention.

Getting research experience outside of a degree program can help focus your interests and give you a leg up on the competition when you finally decide to apply. It can also help you determine whether you will enjoy full-time research or if you might prefer an alternative career path that still incorporates science, for example, in policy, consulting or business — or a hybrid research job that combines scientific and non-scientific skills.

I will be forever grateful that I chose to do research in a non-academic environment for a year between my undergraduate and PhD programs. It gave me the chance to get a feel for doing nothing but research for a full year. Working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the Space Division, I was the manager of an optics lab, performing spectroscopic experiments on rocks and minerals placed in a vacuum chamber. While my boss determined the overall experimental design, I was able to make my own suggestions for experiments and use my own discretion in how to perform them. I presented this research at two national conferences as well — a first for me. I was also able to learn about other research being performed there, determine which projects excited me the most, and thus narrow down my criteria for a PhD program.

4. Your current area of study does not dictate what you have to study in graduate school.

You might be studying the function and regulation of membrane proteins or doing a computational analysis of the conductivity of different battery designs, but that doesn't mean your PhD project must revolve around similar projects. The transition between college or another research job to a PhD program is one of the main transitions in your life when it is perfectly acceptable to completely change research areas.

If you are doing computation, you may want to switch to lab-based work or vice versa. If you are working in biology but have always had an interest in photonics research, now is the time to try it out. You may find that you love the alternative research and devote your PhD to it, you might hate it and fall back on your previous area of study — or you may even discover a unique topic that incorporates both subjects.

One of the best aspects of the PhD program is that you can make the research your own. Remember, the answer to the question "Why are you doing this research?" should not be "Well, because it's what I've been working on for the past few years already."While my undergraduate research was in atomic physics, I easily transitioned into applied physics and materials science for my PhD program and was able to apply much of what I learned as an undergraduate to my current research. If you are moving from the sciences to a non-STEM field such as social sciences or humanities, this advice can still apply, though the transition is a bit more difficult and more of a permanent commitment.

5. Make sure the PhD program has a variety of research options, and learn about as many research groups as possible in your first year.

Even if you believe you are committed to one research area, you may find that five years of such work is not quite what you expected. As such, you should find a PhD program where the professors are not all working in the same narrowly focused research area. Make sure there are at least three professors working on an array of topics you could imagine yourself working on.

In many graduate programs, you are supposed to pick a research advisor before even starting. But such arrangements often do not work out, and you may be seeking a new advisor before you know it. That's why many programs give students one or two semesters to explore different research areas before choosing a permanent research advisor.

In your first year, you should explore the research of a diverse set of groups. After touring their labs, talking to the students, or sitting in on group meetings, you may find that this group is the right one for you.

In addition, consider the importance of who your research advisor will be. This will be the person you interact with regularly for five straight years and who will have a crucial influence on your research. Do you like their advising style? Does their personality mesh with yours? Can you get along? Of course, the research your advisor works on is critical, but if you have large disagreements at every meeting or do not get helpful advice on how to proceed with your research, you may not be able to succeed. At the very least, you must be able to handle your advisor's management of the lab and advising style if you are going to be productive in your work. The Harvard program I enrolled in has professors working on research spanning from nanophotonics to energy materials and biophysics, covering my wide range of interests. By spending time in labs and offices informally chatting with graduate students, I found an advisor whose personality and research interests meshed very well with me. Their genuine enthusiasm for this advisor and their excitement when talking about their research was the best input I could have received.

6. Location is more important than you think — but name recognition is not.

The first consideration in choosing a PhD program should be, "Is there research at this university that I am passionate about?" After all, you will have to study this topic in detail for four or more years. But when considering the location of a university, your first thought should not be, "I'm going to be in the lab all the time, so what does it matter if I'm by the beach, in a city, or in the middle of nowhere." Contrary to popular belief, you will have a life outside of the lab, and you will have to be able to live with it for four or more years. Unlike when you were an undergraduate, your social and extracurricular life will revolve less around the university community, so the environment of the surrounding area is important. Do you need a city atmosphere to be productive? Or is your ideal location surrounded by forests and mountains or by a beach? Is being close to your family important? Imagine what it will be like living in the area during the times you are not doing research; consider what activities will you do and how often will you want to visit family.

While many of the PhD programs that accepted me had research that truly excited me, the only place I could envision living for five or more years was Boston, as the city I grew up near and whose environment and culture I love, and to be close to my family.

While location is more important than you think, the reputation and prestige of the university is not. In graduate school, the reputation of the individual department you are joining — and sometimes even the specific research group you work in — are more important. There, you will develop research collaborations and professional connections that will be crucial during your program and beyond. When searching for a job after graduation, other scientists will look at your specific department, the people you have worked with and the research you have done.

how does phd research work

At the Asgard Irish Pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Andy Greenspon talks with fellow graduate students from Harvard and MIT at an Ask for Evidence workshop organized by Sense About Science. He grew up near Boston and chose to go to graduate school there.

7. Those time management skills you developed in college? Develop them further.

After surviving college, you may think you have mastered the ability to squeeze in your coursework, extracurricular activities and even some sleep. In a PhD program, time management reaches a whole new level. You will not only have lectures to attend and homework to do. You will have to make time for your research, which will include spending extended periods of time in the lab, analyzing data, and scheduling time with other students to collaborate on research.

Also, you will most likely have to teach for a number of semesters, and you will want to attend any seminar that may be related to your research or that just peaks your interest. To top it all off, you will still want to do many of those extracurricular activities you did as an undergraduate. While in the abstract, it may seem simple enough to put this all into your calendar and stay organized, you will find quickly enough that the one hour you scheduled for a task might take two or three hours, putting you behind on everything else for the rest of the day or forcing you to cut other planned events. Be prepared for schedules to go awry, and be willing to sacrifice certain activities. For some, this might be sleep; for others, it might be an extracurricular activity or a few seminars they were hoping to attend. In short, don't panic when things don't go according to plan; anticipate possible delays and be ready to adapt.

8. Expect to learn research skills on the fly – or take advantage of the training your department or career center offers.

This may be the first time you will have to write fellowship or grant proposals, write scientific papers, attend conferences, present your research to others, or even peer-review scientific manuscripts. From my experience, very few college students or even PhD students receive formal training on how to perform any of these tasks. Usually people follow by example. But this is not always easy and can be quite aggravating sometimes. So seek out talks or interactive programs offered by your department or career center. The effort will be well worth it when you realize you've become quite adept at quickly and clearly explaining your research to others and at outlining scientific papers and grant proposals. Alternatively, ask a more experienced graduate student or your advisor for advice on these topics. In addition, be prepared for a learning curve when learning all the procedures and processes of the group you end up working in. There may be many new protocols to master, whether they involve synthesizing chemicals, growing bacterial cells, or aligning mirrors on an optical table. In addition, the group may use programming languages or data analysis software you are unfamiliar with. Don't get discouraged but plan to spend extra effort getting used to these procedures and systems. After working with them regularly, they will soon become second nature. When I first started my job at Johns Hopkins, I felt overwhelmed by all the intricacies of the experiment and definitely made a few mistakes, including breaking a number of optical elements. But by the end of my year there, I had written an updated protocol manual for the modifications I had made to the experimental procedures and was the "master" passing on my knowledge to the next person taking the job.

9. There are no real breaks.

In a stereotypical "9-to-5" job, when the workday is over or the weekend arrives, you can generally forget about your work. And a vacation provides an even longer respite. But in a PhD program, your schedule becomes "whenever you find time to get your work done." You might be in the lab during regular work hours or you might be working until 10 p.m. or later to finish an experiment. And the only time you might have available to analyze data might be at 1 a.m. Expect to work during part of the weekend, too. Graduate students do go on vacations but might still have to do some data analysis or a literature search while away.

As a PhD student, it might be hard to stop thinking about the next step in an experiment or that data sitting on your computer or that paper you were meaning to start. While I imagine some students can bifurcate their mind between graduate school life and everything else, that's quite hard for many of us to do. No matter what, my research lies somewhere in the back of my head. In short, your schedule is much more flexible as a PhD student, but as a result, you never truly take a break from your work.

While this may seem like a downer, remember that you should have passion for the research you work on (most of the time), so you should be excited to think up new experiments or different ways to consider that data you have collected. Even when I'm lying in bed about to fall asleep, I am sometimes ruminating about aspects of my experiment I could modify or what information I could do a literature search on to gain new insights. A PhD program is quite the commitment and rarely lives up to expectations – but it is well worth the time and effort you will spend for something that truly excites you.


Andy greenspon.

how does phd research work

Navigating Your PhD Topic Choice

Embarking on an impactful research career, starting with your thesis.

We’ve compiled this guide to share the tools and frameworks we think will be most helpful to you if you’re searching for a meaningful thesis topic for your PhD.

About this guide

If you’re applying for a PhD, this guide can provide comprehensive assistance throughout your journey towards finding the best possible PhD for you. In the first part we focus on how you can decide whether to pursue a PhD, identify the values you want to guide your research and start generating research ideas. In the second half we will introduce a framework you can use to narrow your ideas down to a specific research question and ultimately create a PhD proposal. Finally, we will help you with finding the best possible supportive environment for your project and identifying the next steps of your PhD journey.

If you are not yet very familiar with core concepts like career capital and the ITN framework , we recommend reading the linked articles. We also recommend you read this article to understand why systematic approaches to career decisions are probably more useful than popular advice like “follow your passion”, and why helping others with your career will help you experience your job as more meaningful. 

How to use this guide

We recommend completing this guide over multiple sittings, e.g. working through one section per week. However, please adjust the pace to suit your circumstances. We think you will get the most out of this guide if you start from the beginning, but you might want to skip some sections if you’ve already thought deeply about the content.

After reading the articles linked in each step, take some time (5-10 minutes) to answer the prompts we list, or to complete the exercises we recommend. We find that writing your thoughts down on paper is a step that people often want to skip, but it can help tremendously in getting clarity for yourself. 

Is a PhD the right next step for you?

Lots of people “stumble” into PhDs. For example, they might see it as a default step in completing their education, or they might have been offered to continue with their previous supervisor. Before committing to a PhD programme, it is good to consider a broad range of alternatives in order to ensure that a PhD is the best path for you at this stage. Make sure you have done enough reflection and updated your plans based on your experiences thus far, instead of going down the “default” academic path.

We also recommend that you take some time to browse through these short descriptions of core concepts , particularly ‘Expected Value’, ‘Opportunity Cost’ and ‘Leverage’.  Perhaps note down a few takeaways that apply to your decision.

Reflection prompts

If you’re unsure whether a PhD is right for you, here are some prompts to consider.

  • Where do you envision yourself a few years after completing a PhD? 
  • How does a PhD align with your long-term goals and aspirations?
  • Are you genuinely interested and intrinsically motivated by the subject area you intend to pursue with your PhD? 
  • Have you carefully assessed whether obtaining a PhD is a necessary requirement for your desired career path? 
  • Are there alternative routes or professional qualifications that may lead you to your desired destination more efficiently, e.g. in less time/ with a better salary?
  • Have you talked to people who completed or are currently pursuing the kind of PhD you are considering?

Exercise: exploring career paths

One helpful activity to undertake could be to search for job opportunities that you find exciting. To start, do a job search (2-5 hours) and list the five most attractive options you can find. Now, check which job requirements you’re currently lacking. Do you need a PhD to get the role? Would you get there faster or be better prepared by taking a different route?

Here are some more articles if you are interested in the question ‘Who should do a PhD?’:

  • Survival Guide to a PhD – Andrej Karpathy
  • Why I’m doing a PhD – Jess Whittlestone
  • Pro and Cons of Applying for a PhD – Robert Wiblin

Reflect on your values and moral beliefs

Understanding your values and moral beliefs is an ongoing endeavour and you don’t need to have it figured out before choosing your topic. However, we do encourage reflection on this, as doing so might significantly shift your motivation to work on some problems over others. If that happens, the earlier you make this shift the better. What do we mean when we say doing good ? Most people agree that they want to “do good” with their lives. However, it is worth reflecting on what this actually means to you. We recommend reading the article linked above to learn more about some concepts we think are particularly relevant when reflecting on this question, such as impartiality, the moral circle, and uncertainty. This will help you to get a better understanding of what sort of thesis topics would align with your values and what kind of problems you want to contribute to solving with your research.

  • How much do you value animal lives vs human lives ?
  • How important do you think is it to reduce existential risks for humanity?
  • How much do you value future generations ? How do you feel about improving existing lives vs lives that exist in the future?

This flowchart from the Global Priorities Project can help you navigate through this cause prioritisation process.

Here are two further resources that could help you with this reflection:

How to compare global problems for yourself – 80,000 Hours

World’s Biggest Problems Quiz | ClearerThinking.org

Getting inspired

Now it’s time to get inspired! You can read more about how research can change the world , and how academic research can be highly impactful . Finally, have a look at our thesis topic profiles for inspiration or, if you have no time constraints, sign up to our Topic Discovery Digest to receive biweekly inspirational emails. These emails cover a range of particularly impactful research areas, along with example research questions that are recommended by our experts and relevant to many different disciplines of study. We recommend you read the 3-5 profiles that interest you the most in depth.

  • Which of the topic profiles that sparked your interest are new to you? How could you quickly get a better understanding of what it is like to work on these topics?
  • How would disregarding your current skill set change your top choices? Would you consider taking some time out to “upskill” to switch to a new area of research, if possible?
  • What are the uncertainties that, if you could find an answer to them, would help you decide between your top choices?

See here if you want to learn more about how we go about writing our thesis topic profiles and why we prioritise these topics.

Side note: Because we try to feature problems that are particularly important, tractable, and neglected, you might see some problems listed on our site that it’s uncommon to see described as global problems, while others are not featured. As an example, in our “human health and wellbeing” category, we list anti-aging research but not cancer research. We think research on widely recognised problems such as cancer is highly important. However, because so many more researchers are already working on these problems, we think that – all else equal – you will probably have a bigger impact working on problems that are relatively neglected.

Generating ideas

After reading a few of our topic profiles , we recommend that you start a brainstorming document as an ongoing way of collecting research questions you’re interested in. This will help you keep track of and develop your ideas during your idea generation phase, and make it easier for others to give you feedback later on. 

In addition to exploring our topic profiles, you could also identify questions through a literature review and reach out to your supervisor or other researchers in the field(s) you’re interested in and ask what they think some of the most important and neglected open questions are. Moreover, you could contact some of the organisations listed on our topic profiles and ask if there are research projects you could undertake that would be decision-relevant for them. Reaching out to others at this stage can also help to discard unfeasible ideas early on, before you invest too much time in them.

Some tools that might be useful during the idea generation phase:

  • Connected papers – explore connections between research papers in a visual graph.
  • Elicit – an AI research assistant to help you automate research workflows, like parts of literature review.
  • Find more resources and tools for research here .

We recommend collecting at least 20 research questions, grouped into overarching topics or research fields, and then adding some context, e.g. relevant papers and researchers, why you think this question is worth addressing, what relevant expertise you already have, and how qualified you are to work on this compared to other options. 

NB : We think that many people feel too limited by their past work, so we think you should probably lean towards considering questions and topics that are slightly outside your comfort zone.

Exercise: create a brainstorming document

Use this template to create a brainstorming document.

Comparing options

Once you feel you have collected enough research questions in your brainstorming document, you can start comparing how these research questions score on the factors that are most important to you. We recommend you take 15-20 minutes to think about which factors are key to your decision of pursuing a PhD and write them down. Here are some factors (adapted from this post ) that you could consider:

  • Importance – How large in scale and/or severity is the problem your question would address? 
  • Tractability – How realistic is it that you would make progress? Is your research question concrete and manageable, and do you have a clear strategy to tackle it?
  • Neglectedness – Will others work on this question if you don’t?
  • Actionability – Would your research have a clear audience and could it inform positive actions? Will this project generate genuinely new and useful findings/data? Will it help to translate/ communicate important ideas that need more attention/ awareness?
  • Learning value – Will you learn useful things from working on the project? Will it help you build valuable research skills, build your model of how something important works, and/ or help you refine a vaguely defined concept into a crisp, important question?
  • Exploration value – Will this project help you decide what to do next? 
  • Personal fit & situational fit – Does your personal background make you a good fit for working on this question? Do you currently have or can you find support for working on it, e.g. excellent mentorship? 
  • Credentials and career capital – Will the output demonstrate your research competence? For example, if you could get a reference from a particularly prestigious researcher by working on one of the projects you’re interested in, this might be an important consideration. Will the project reflect well on you, and is it shareable with others (or could it be developed into something shareable/ a publication)? Will the project allow you to build relationships with people whom it will be helpful to know going forward? 
  • Intrinsic motivation   – Are you excited about working on this project?
  • Method efficacy – How well can a particular approach help solve the problem that you are trying to address?

Exercise: sketch theories of change for your research questions

Once you’ve considered which of these factors matter to you, take a few minutes to sketch a theory of change for each research question you’re considering. 

A theory of change is a step by step plan of how you hope to achieve a positive impact with your research, starting with the context you’d be working in, the research outputs you would plan to produce, and the short- and long-term impacts you would hope to achieve with your research. Sketching some theories of change will help you outline how your research ideas could have a positive impact, giving you something to get feedback on in the next step below.

how does phd research work

Consider whether your research could have negative outcomes too

When you’re considering the value of working on a particular research problem, it may also be important to remember that research isn’t a monolithic force for good. Research has done a lot of good, but there are many examples of it doing a lot of harm as well. There is a long history of research being biased by the discriminatory beliefs and blindspots of its time, as well as being used to justify cruelty and oppression . Research has made warfare more deadly and has facilitated the development of intensive factory farming . Dual-use biotechnology research is intended to help humanity, but could, for example, cause a catastrophic pandemic in the event of a lab accident or if the technology was misused. While some researchers are trying to increase the chance that future artificial intelligence is safe for humanity , many more researchers are focused on making AI more powerful. 

While it isn’t realistic for researchers to foresee every way their research could be (mis)used, many researchers are trying to create frameworks for thinking about how research can do harm and how to avoid this. For example, if you’re interested in working on biosecurity or AI safety, you could explore concepts such as differential progress and information hazards . If you’re working on global health questions, it may be important to educate yourself about the concept of parachute science .

Reach out to others for feedback

At this point, we think it could be helpful to identify some experts who might be interested in talking about your collection of potential research questions, and reach out to them for feedback. Getting feedback might then help you to prioritise between questions, develop your methodology further or discard projects before investing too much effort in them. You could seek feedback via two strategies – firstly, by sending your brainstorming document to people asking for general comments, and secondly, by seeking out people who have specialist knowledge on specific questions you’re considering and asking for their feedback on those ideas.

Here are some ways of connecting with other researchers:

  • Reach out to your existing connections
  • Attend research conferences related to your field of interest and speak to relevant people there, e.g. 1-1s at EAGs could be a great place to reach out to people for feedback on research ideas on directions that we recommend
  • Are there any local student and/ or reading groups in your area that focus on a research area that you are planning to work on? 
  • Public Slack channels on your research area, e.g. List of EA Slack workspaces

When preparing to reach out to experts, keep these key points in mind:

  • Give the expert relevant information about yourself (e.g. What is your background? What is the scope of the project you’re planning to work on?).
  • Prepare a short agenda if they’ve agreed to call you and share it with them beforehand (although they might not have time to read it, many people appreciate having the option to consider topics of discussion in advance).
  • Think about what your key uncertainties actually are and what kind of feedback you want from the expert. Would you like their overall reaction? Detailed comments? Feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of your research ideas? Specific suggestions to improve your ideas? Feedback on how you plan to use the outputs of your research project? 
  • Consider having a brainstorming document ready to share with them.
  • You might want to have a look at this and this for more information about how to prepare.

Exercise: creating a weighted-factor model

Choosing which factors you want to base your thesis decision on will help you to reflect on what is important to you. Once you’ve done the exercise above and gathered some feedback from other people about your ideas, think about how much weight you want to give each factor. Lastly, try to evaluate how the research questions you’re considering score on each factor. The outcome of this ranking can serve as guidance for deciding on a question and can help clarify your intuitions about which questions would be the best fit for your dissertation. Here is an example of a ranking of potential thesis questions using a weighted-factor model (WFM).

Refining your research question

Once you have settled on a research question, it is time to develop a well-scoped and viable research proposal. The purpose of the proposal is to identify a relevant research topic, explain the context of the research, define concrete goals, and propose a realistic work plan to achieve them. If you’ve already built a Theory of Change for your research question, we recommend adding detail at this stage to help you create a proposal. We also think it’s important to reach out to your supervisor or other relevant people in the field of your research interests to ask for feedback, as this will help you develop an appropriate methodology. 

Here are a few more tips that could help you with narrowing the scope of your research project or refining your research question:

  • First, make sure you have a detailed model of the problem you are planning to address in your research. Who are the different actors involved? How can research help fill gaps in our current knowledge? What are the particularly neglected approaches and interventions for this problem?
  • You will only be able to make a valuable research contribution if your project is focused. Break down goals into discrete tasks and summarise what you are actually going to do. We suggest you create a detailed plan for the first few months of your project, a less detailed but fully coherent plan for the first year, describe a direction you might take in the second year, and generate some ideas for the following years. This will help you understand how much work is involved in every step and evaluate what is feasible in the available time frame.
  • Consider practical questions. What kind of facilities do you have? Do you meet the university requirements?
  • Try to develop the smallest possible question that can be answered and that data can be collected on, then have conditional upgrades/sub-questions based on that. This can be ambitious, but each stage should be developed enough to not be overwhelming or too vague.
  • Start with a research question that’s as simple as possible and that you’re confident will be successful. From there, you can slowly and incrementally work towards pursuing more complex research questions. 

Find the best possible supportive environment

There are many different types of PhD programmes available – from 3-year PhDs to which you apply with a very specific project idea, to 6-year PhD programmes in which the first years are dedicated to coursework. It is important to find the best environment for your studies, with crucial considerations including the university and its community, the supportiveness of the supervisor/lab and the availability of funding. This section has advice on these three points and aims to facilitate you reflecting on them.

How much does the reputation of the university where you study your PhD matter for an academic career?

This is a commonly asked question among students, and we have compiled a set of key insights based on conversations with 30 of our experts. 

  • The general advice is that you should pick the most prestigious university or research hub that you can get into.
  • The importance of your university’s reputation varies across regions, with the US and the UK placing more significance on it compared to Europe or Australia. For the US especially, you will likely get a much better education and teaching quality, as well as access to resources, from a more prestigious university.
  • It is worth noting that high-quality research labs (and supervisors) can be found outside of big-name universities, as specific research hubs may exist elsewhere. 
  • It is important to note that even researchers in the most prestigious universities can be poor supervisors. 
  • Ideally, you’ll find a great supervisor at a highly reputable institution. However, if you have to decide, finding an excellent supervisor seems to be the superior consideration – see below. 
  • The significance of the university’s reputation increases if your career aspirations involve influencing government, e.g. in policy roles.
  • Outstanding research, impactful contributions to the field, and a strong professional network could potentially outweigh the importance of a university’s reputation. 

Find a standout advisor

We think it is very important to find someone who genuinely cares about your research question and who will make a lot of time to supervise you well. Further, your supervisor will influence how effective you are in your work and how much you enjoy the research, as they will be the primary person guiding you throughout your whole research process. Especially at the PhD level, your advisor’s network matters tremendously for how well- connected you are and what sorts of opportunities will be open to you. So, here are some green flags to look out for in a supervisor:

  • They care about your research question (pitch your ideas to the supervisor and see how enthusiastic they are about the potential project).
  • They have the skills to supervise your project (check if they have experience in the methodologies you want to use).
  • They truly care about mentoring you well (ask questions about their mentoring style, get a feel for how you match as a person).
  • Their previous and current students are satisfied with them as a supervisor (ideally the person has a good track record of supervising other students – arrange a meeting with at least one current or past student). 
  • They are successful (e.g. based on their citation count and general prestige).

Sign up for access to our database of potential supervisors who work on the research directions we recommend. Here are more tips on finding the right person to supervise you. 

Financing your studies

Even if you get accepted to a programme, it does not automatically mean that you get funding as well. Here are some tips if you need to apply for funding independently:

Consider a wide range of funding sources, e.g. national scholarships, university scholarships, grants and foundations dedicated to specific causes, and excellence scholarships (e.g. Gates or Rhodes Scholarships). Here is our funding database which includes funding opportunities relevant to the research directions we recommend.

  • Consider the university environment – Would you be happy to live in the city of the programme you are applying to for 3-6 years? Do some university environments offer a more stimulating environment than others? Are there other researchers with similar values or motivations to you in this research hub?
  • Do you have any hard criteria for choosing the location for your PhD? For example, would you consider moving abroad for an exciting opportunity? 
  • What do you already know about the application process? What uncertainties do you have and how can you go about resolving them?

We recommend that you make a list of the programmes that best fit your research interests and other factors that are important to you. Then, check the requirements and deadlines for each of them and write down the next steps you need to take to apply. We also recommend reaching out to people who have gone through the PhD programme(s) you are applying to to hear about their experiences.

Set out your next steps

Take a few minutes now to write down your next steps for applying to the programs you’re interested in.

It could be helpful to sign up for some accountability buddy schemes, ask friends to check on your progress, or to set yourself a hard deadline on some important next steps that you want to take. You could schedule some time in your calendar right now, or make a note in your to-do list about a task that you want to complete soon.

Reflection prompts:

  • What information do you need to get right now?
  • What are you uncertain about? 
  • What is keeping you from advancing with your project and how could you concretely resolve this?

Examples for concrete next steps could be:

  • Reach out to people for feedback on your brainstorming document
  • Reach out to potential supervisors
  • Apply to an EAG or other academic conference and make a list of people you want to speak to 
  • Reach out to people who have gone through the program you are applying to
  • Reach out to current PhD students about proposal examples

Here are some further resources that could be helpful for you:

  • Tips on impactful research
  • Resources and tools for research
  • Looking after your mental health
  • Our Effective Thesis Community
  • Research internships and other opportunities

For more general career advice, there are some other organisations that could help you with 1:1 advising. We recommend the following:

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What to expect from a phd schedule.

Take a look at a current student’s schedule and get the insider perspective from doctoral students and coordinators on what to expect from a PhD schedule.

The life of a PhD candidate can be stressful as you adjust to a rigorous academic and research schedule. Penn and Wharton offer a variety of resources to help support you in the transition to PhD life.

Wharton’s sense of community offers a level of comfort when reaching out to faculty as well as fellow students to help solve problems. Doctoral students and coordinators give the insider view on what to expect from a PhD schedule.

Class and Research First

The first two years of a PhD program are mainly made up of classes and the beginning stages of research. Deborah Small , the doctoral coordinator for the Marketing program , said, “It starts with heavy duty coursework and a lot of specific requirements. At the end of your first year, there are qualifying exams on all the core marketing courses. Second year they still have a lot of coursework to do, but more of that is elective with a focus more on their interests. During those years they’re expected to get started on research.”

In addition to taking classes and getting started with research, the Marketing program requires students to write two papers. The first research paper is due at the end of the second year, the other is due at the end of the third year.

The Real Estate and Business Economics and Public Policy programs run like the Marketing program. Fernando Ferreira , coordinator for the programs, said, “During the first year they complete six core courses. In the second year, the focus shifts to field courses and to independent research. They have two professors advising them in that year.”

After completing the main courses, students shift to conducting independent research. For REAL and BEPP students this means writing three dissertation chapters during the third and fourth years.

Time for Conferences and Seminars

Because coursework is usually completed by the second half of the program, there’s time for students to attend lectures and seminars. Andrea Contigiani , a fifth year student in the Management program, said, “In my fourth year, I usually attended a seminar around lunchtime. Wharton has an incredible seminar series throughout the year, with a good seminar happening almost everyday. Occasionally, I attended other events, like MBA events or speaker series. I then go back to research for most of the afternoon.”

Prof. Small said, “Students are expected to actively participate in seminars and activities. They’re also encouraged to go to academic conferences and try to present their work at those conferences. It is similar to the expectations of being a faculty member, minus teaching.”

Classes take up the majority of the first two years of the programs. When the focus then switches to research, you’re expected to work independently. Sometimes that can be intimidating. You become your own boss, which is an adjustment from being told what to do and when to do it.

So how do you manage it? Get advice from students and coordinators.

Posted: August 4, 2017

  • Work/Life Balance

Doctoral Programs

Matthew caulfield.

Hometown Ocean City, New Jersey

Concentration Management and Legal Studies & Business Ethics

Doctoral Stage Second Year

Typical Day at a Glance

8:30 am Wake up and get ready for the day

9:15 am Get to PhD Offices, respond to emails, check philosophy blogs and read news

10:30 am Journal article readings

11:30 am Meet with advisor

12:00 pm Attend departmental seminar speaker and lunch

1:30 pm Attend Wharton Social Impact Doctoral Community meeting

3:00 pm Attend business ethics seminar

5:00 pm Read for class

7:00 pm Meet with nonparametric statistics study group

8:00 pm Complete homework

12:00 am Go home

1:00 am Bedtime

What is your favorite part about Wharton?

First, the faculty are excellent. They are often leading experts in their fields, and they can offer advice that would be hard to find elsewhere.

Second, the other PhD students are just as passionate about research as you would hope. A huge part of my scholarly development has been due to the discussions I have had with other graduate students.

Third, the Wharton name can offer you serious advantages. In the course of research, I think industry practitioners as well as other academics have been more willing to talk or correspond with me because I am a graduate student at Wharton.

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How Does a PhD Work?

  • January 9, 2023

How Does a PhD Work?

How Does a PhD Work? Traditionally, a  Ph.D. usually goes through four stages of coursework: a core set of research and prep classes, some major area emphasis classes, and electives and dissertation courses.

Ph.D. programs may accept a portfolio of publications, but some countries also require coursework.

An Understanding Of PhD

PhD programs are diversified around the globe and are different from each other. But globally, that student gets a Ph.D. who has submitted a detailed research thesis. His work should be original, authentic, and related to the field of his study that serves a purpose by a higher educational institute. It is a post-graduate program.


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Ways to Pursue a Ph.D. :

  • Pursue a Ph.D.  after completing your Master’s Degree.
  • Go for Ph.D. directly after your bachelor’s.
  • In some cases, you can fast forward your Master’s degree into a PhD degree.

“Viva Voice and Oral Defense” is mandatory for completing a Ph.D., and it is best for the students if they study on campus while pursuing their Ph.D. But now, online and distant learnings are also acceptable by a few universities for PhD courses.

Conditions and Requirements for PhD

Here are the following things that are required for admission to PhDs.

  • The student must have good Grades in both bachelors and Master.
  • The student should possess skills and potential along with confidence.
  • A few institutions require an honors degree or a Master’s degree with distinction.
  • Some universities also accept admissions based only on a Master’s degree, but the academic background should be bright.
  • You are also required to choose a professor from the institute of your subject as the supervisor of your course and the whole PhD program before your admission is accepted. 
  • If not, you will be assigned with a professor of the institute’s choice after selecting the subjects.
  • Professors that you will choose as supervisors for your PhD program will guide you, and they will also help you out in your research work.

Requirements For Applications of PhD

Here are the details about what can be required for your application for PhD admission.

Competence In Language

The language you choose to study for your PhD requires you to be proficient. Some universities require this skill, and they ask for proof, and you have to show them that you are capable of doing so.

Academic and Employment Testimonials

The record of your employment, like a resume, the transcript for your academic records, will have the information about your modules and the Content of modules that are part of your PhD application. The details of the projects published or completed by you may be asked.

Students who apply for PhD are also asked to provide reference letters from at least two or three people who know the student and their academic backgrounds. The references should discuss your academic achievements and background, and your tutors or professors can write these letters and references.

Personal Statements

Some institutes require your Statement. You have to write an essay that should be short and precise, and it should have information about your goals and passion for the subject, why you chose it, and what purpose it will serve.

If you need any help while writing your Statement, you can either get it from your old professors or from the professors of the institute you would be applying to.

Proposals For PhD’s Research

If a student wants to get accepted for a PhD program, he must submit a research proposal song with the application.

  • You have to Outline your proposed research topics according to your previous work.
  • Bring the awareness and importance of your field into the limelight.
  • Describe the details of the analysis.
  • To fill in the gaps, you have to attach relevant research.
  • Describe the Hypothesis of relevant research and its contribution to the field of study.
  • Describe the methodology of research that you would be adopting.
  • Describe how your research can be implicated in real life. 

Your research proposal should be firm and have arguments that can convince the administration to accept your application for admission to PhD. Besides admission to PhD, the robust research proposal will also attract investors in the relevant field to fund your PhD research.

Various PhD research projects do get scholarships from private organizations. You will have to submit your research proposals to them, and they should have facts in them. If you are lucky enough, you will get the scholarship, and your research will be funded entirely.

Pursuing PhD Through MPhil

One other option to Pursue your PhD is doing it after completing your MPhil. Students who want to pursue PhD can apply as general research Students. Many students choose this way of method to get their PhD.

It can be a good option for those students who are not experienced in doing research, and by opting for MPhil, their skills will get polished.

Students who complete one year successfully can earn an award for the MRes degree, which has more components than a MPhil, and can replace a PhD for students who have not completed the study duration for PhD.

As a substitute, if the completion is done successfully, the student will be rewarded with the degree of MPhil.

When the 1st and 2nd years of research has passed, the institute from which you are doing MPhil gets satisfied with the work progress, and then you can apply for the registration for PhD.

The supervisor will be the one who will tell you if you are ready or not. If yes, you will need your supervisor’s help to decide on the title for your PhD research.

How To Start A PhD?

After completing the registration, you will be told about your professors,  supervisors, and formal notification about the acceptance of your research topics. It will also contain the details about the deadline for submitting the thesis.

The institute will guide you with everything about your PhD, like almost which goals you need to achieve to get a PhD, and they will provide you with everything you need from an institute.

Your supervisor will supervise all of your activities and the goals you will achieve. He will also submit reports on you and guide you about the next steps and procedures.

Substitutes Of PhD

If you are searching PhD programs, then you will get to know that other degrees have the term “doctor” in them, like Juris doctor, the doctor of physiotherapy (DPT), the Doctor of Pharmacy, and the American and Canadian versions of MD, the doctor of medicine.

These degrees are not termed PhDs because no research part is involved in them, which is the essential part of a Ph.D. program. After doing PhD, the name used is “post-professional Doctorate.”

Conclusion: How Does a PhD Work?

Traditionally, a  Ph.D. usually goes through four stages of coursework: a core set of research and prep classes, some major area emphasis classes, and electives and dissertation courses.



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What to expect from a PhD/ MA by Research

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest level of qualification awarded by universities in the UK, typically aimed at students who have successfully completed a Masters programme.

A  PhD  is awarded for the outcomes of intensive, independent study that demonstrates an original and significant contribution to knowledge in your chosen subject. You will be assessed at the end of the programme by a thesis of 80,000 words which will need to be deemed suitable for publication, in whole or in part in a learned journal or equivalent by your examiners. You will need to defend your thesis and demonstrate an in-depth knowledge of your subject at a  viva voce  (oral examination) before a panel of expert examiners.

By comparison, an  MA by Research  is a research-based Masters programme assessed by a thesis of 40,000 words. An oral examination may be held at the discretion of the examiners.

Unlike our postgraduate taught programmes, there are no formal lectures or seminars in a PhD or MA by Research, and your work is not formally examined until after your thesis has been submitted. Instead, our postgraduate research programmes provide you with the opportunity to undertake research under the expert guidance of a primary supervisor, co-supervisor and mentor, supported by complementary research training.

PhD and MA by Research programmes may start at any time of the year, though we strongly encourage students to begin their studies at the start of the UK academic year (September). We also offer flexibility in our programmes so that you can choose the mode of study that works for you - full-time, part-time, or distance learning . It usually takes three years (full-time) or six years (part-time) to complete a PhD, while the standard duration for an MA by Research is either one year (full-time) or two years (part-time).

Distance learning students will receive the same level of support and supervision as on-campus students, the only difference being that supervisory sessions will take place via audio and visual communication services such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, rather than in person. You will be funded to make one compulsory visit to the University per year of study (or every other year for part-time students), enabling you to meet your supervisory team, undertake intensive research skills training and make a start on your doctoral studies. You may also be invited to attend the University for annual meetings which give you the opportunity to interact with other research students both socially and academically, undertake important progress-review meetings and carry out any necessary training. For those studying a PhD, you will also generally be required to be present on campus for your viva voce (funded for travel and accommodation).

What is involved in a PhD/MA by Research?

Before you start.

One of your main sources of support, inspiration and encouragement throughout your PhD/MA by Research programme will be your supervisory team. Establishing an effective working relationship is important for staying on top of your work and making the most of your research.

If you are planning to apply for a PhD/MA by Research programme, you should first make sure that the relevant department within the College of Arts and Law offers the necessary expertise. We ask that you identify an appropriate supervisor before you submit your application and contact them in the first instance to discuss your research proposal. If you experience any difficulties with the application process and contacting potential supervisors, please email: [email protected]

Your research proposal should be a short written document (approximately 1,000-1,500 words) which sets out the central issues or questions that you intend to address. It should outline the general area of study within which your research falls, referring to the current state of knowledge and any recent debates on the topic, as well as demonstrate the originality of your proposed research. For further advice, please refer to our research proposal guidance pages .

During your studies

Your supervisory team will meet with you at regular intervals throughout your PhD/MA by Research programme in order to offer guidance on how best to approach, implement and report on your research. Supervisory sessions for distance learning students will take place via audio and visual communication services such as Skype or Facetime, rather than on campus.

Although your supervisory team are there to help you to complete your research, postgraduate research students are expected to take full responsibility for their work. Therefore, you will need to develop your own timetable for academic study, planning and managing your research so that you can successfully complete your thesis on time.

The first year (or part-time equivalent) of a PhD usually consists of a literature review specific to your thesis and topic, along with any other relevant work or training that will prepare you for undertaking the bulk of your research in the second year, which is normally then written up in the third year. For an MA by Research, these timescales are condensed into one year (or two years if studying part time).

During the course of your studies your supervisory team may also encourage you to present your research to the wider academic community and to the general public at seminars and conferences, or even submit work for publication in specialist journals. You will also have opportunities for teaching, networking, and playing an active role in the College's vibrant  postgraduate research community .

If you wish to proceed and submit an application, please refer to our six-step process for applying for PhD and MA by Research opportunities in Arts subject areas.

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5 Reasons to Study a PhD

21 st February 2020

PhD research

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A PhD is both financially draining and incredibly challenging. Lasting for 3 – 4 years (depending upon your subject matter) the percentage of students who start their qualification and either fail or drop out is significantly higher than any other postgraduate course.

However, there are plenty of reasons to study a PhD that outweigh those potential downsides. Here's five of them...

1) Make a Contribution Towards Your Chosen Field

Many students who pursue a PhD, do so because they are passionate about a specific subject, and want to use their research time to make important discoveries within that field.

One of the great things about your PhD is that you will be able to conduct your own research. If your thesis and your findings are strong and relevant, other experts within your chosen area of academia will reference your work and your discoveries when teaching future students.

2) Long-term Career Goals

Some students who pursue a PhD, do so in order to pursue their long-term degree goals.  For those looking to pursue a career in academia, then a PhD is an essential qualification which will allow them to both continue their research, and to teach University students. Those wishing to pursue a career within this field should try and gain teaching practice throughout their PhD by giving lectures and seminars to first year undergraduates.

Many PhD graduates who are lucky enough to be sponsored to do their course go on to find employment with the companies that funded them.  Similarly, the analytical and research skills learnt on a PhD course are highly transferable to other industries.

3) Improving and Challenging Knowledge

Some minds are just curious and for these people, studying for a PhD will feel like a natural next step. Unlike undergraduate and Master’s qualifications, the PhD program will be less structured and so students will be encouraged to research topics that are of specific interest to them.

4) Enjoyment of the Subject Matter

Again, many students study for a PhD simply because they are passionate about the subject and want to explore that passion.

Although contact hours are minimal, the PhD is a very intense course and you will be living and breathing your research and thesis for at least 3 years - so make sure you enjoy it before you commit.

5) Demonstration of Intellectual Potential

One thing a PhD course will do is separate the good academics from the fantastic ones. It not only demonstrates an individual’s ability to conduct independent research, but also showcases their in-depth knowledge in a specific subject area. Within the world of academia this is essential.

NEXT: Search for PhD courses


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Reasons to do a PhD or research degree

Postgrad students on campus

Is research right for you?

Discover the benefits of getting a PhD or research degree and how it can boost your career.

Do you love learning, want to keep researching or hit the heights of your field of expertise?

PhDs and research degrees help you start or continue your research in a field you're passionate about. You can decide what you work on, how you work on it and how you get there, with support and guidance from a supervisory team.

Make a world-first discovery, create innovation with lasting impact or shine a new light on important topics.

Whether you've just finished your postgraduate degree, in the workforce or returning to uni after a break, a research degree gives you a lot of options.

Jump to section:

Questions to ask yourself.

Don’t just take our word for it – check out some of our Student Stories to see the great experience our students had at uni.

For me Portsmouth bridged the gap between academia and practical work, from leading my own firm (Alexandrite Decisions) to founding a charity organisation for cancer patients support.

Rania Azmi, Goal Programming Research Doctorate

1. Passion for research

If you simply love learning and have a passion for discovering new things then it's a good sign a research degree is for you.

You'll pick a topic you're interested in and have the freedom to dive deep into the heart of a problem.

Draw on the years of research in your field, forge your own findings or perspective and make your contribution to a body of exceptional research.

2. Become an expert in your field

Build on your knowledge from your Master's degree by engaging with complex topics in a more specialised field of your choice.

You'll be able to learn more about what you're passionate about and give you the tools to make meaningful contributions to specific research fields.

You'll dive into key areas and challenges in your field, developing your theoretical approach and applying it through your research.

Or you could look at conducting interdisciplinary research. Blend theories, approaches and expertise across fields and universities to create brand new, world-leading research.

3. Put your studies into practice

If you want to start applying what you learned in your studies then a research degree is a great way to do it.

You'll work independently in gathering resources and research. You'll develop sharp time management skills, share your findings with your peers and develop your work together.

You'll hone your communication skills so you can discuss complex topics both written and verbally to experts and everyday people alike.

You'll develop your interpersonal skills, working with professional staff, peers, academics and others. Become a master of taking on feedback as you refine your research.

Writing an extended report or essay takes time and skill. Identifying an objective, working in the lab or forging an argument and making your case with evidence takes talent. You'll end up a technical expert and writer no matter what field you're in.

4. Learn with engaged peers

During your research degree, you and your peers are all studying to get better at what you do. You'll learn with motivated researchers bringing their own perspectives and experiences to the same problems.

You'll build a solid study group to push and encourage each other to develop. You'll also gain new insights from your classmates that can help shape your learning.

5. Boost your career

A research degree is a great way to become a subject matter expert or researcher.

A research-based degree is the most direct pathway to an academic job at university. You'll get the skills you need to compete in the university sector. After you graduate you can look at becoming a tutor, researcher or lecturer. Most universities offer post-doctoral research fellowships where you can get paid to hone your skills, carry on researching and get your academic career rolling.

Some jobs require a Master's or PhD and generally pay very well in the private and public sector. You could:

  • work in the public or private sector in industrial research and development
  • advise on government policy to make an impact on your local region or country
  • become a communications expert for your field and share complex research in clear, everyday fashion

6. Networking opportunities

PhDs and research degrees are a great chance to expand your network and meet diverse people with similar interests, knowledge and passion.

You'll have the chance to attend conferences, seminars and workshops in different cities or countries. Gain new insights and build connections with other researchers and experts across borders.

Networking with coursemates, colleagues and other academics helps expand your knowledge base and balance the solitude that can often come with a research life. Having a network is also incredibly helpful in finding and applying for funding and looking for work in the future.

7. New city, new experiences

Studying for a PhD or research degree might mean moving cities or even countries. If you've been wanting a change of setting along with your career path it's a great opportunity to give both a try.

If you're an international student, studying in a different country gives you the chance to graduate with both fantastic life experiences and a great qualification.

Portsmouth is a welcoming, student-friendly city – one where you'll meet people from all around the world, and have the chance to make connections with people in a whole new environment.

See why Portsmouth is a great place to live

Robert in lab coat explaining something and gesturing to whiteboard

Since starting my PhD, I have been lucky enough to publish twice and visit three different conferences, one of which was held at Cornell University. These opportunities will prove invaluable in my career going forwards, in academia.

Robert Lawrence, PhD Molecular Microbiology

Just like any course, the benefits you'll get from a research degree depends on what you want to get out of it. When you're weighing up your options there are some important questions you should ask yourself to make sure it's right for you.

1. Is this subject something I'm passionate about?

Studying a research degree is a multi-year time commitment. If you're excited by the idea of spending a significant period of time dedicated to one subject, that's a good sign you're ready.

Research degrees often involve a lot of independent work, so if you're only partly interested in the subject, you might find yourself losing interest. That can make meeting your own expectations more difficult.

Is learning about and working in this field something that you can see yourself in for the next 5-10 years? And where do you want to be in that timeframe? It's important not to study just so you can put off bigger life decisions.

2. Do I need a research degree to follow my passion?

There are many different jobs or careers in every field. Not all of them require you to have a research Master's or PhD.

If you want to contribute to a specific industry or area, do you already have some skills and knowledge you can apply in it? If not, what skills or knowledge will a research degree give you?

3. Am I ready for more uni?

If you've finished your Bachelor's or Master's degree and are looking at your next options, a research degree is an option that keeps things familiar. For some students, if you've spent the last 3-4 years studying you might want to try something different.

It depends on who you are, what you care about and what you want to do with your life. If you finished your degree and you're mostly relieved it's over then jumping right back into study may not be the best fit for you.

Remember that you can always go to uni again later. Plenty of graduates spend a few years working before coming back to upskill, retrain or dive into their passion. In a lot of cases, what you've learned in your work experience will make you a better student when you go back to it.

4. Have I found the right supervisor?

Every research student has at least one supervisor. They're there to support and guide you as you develop your ideas and compile your research

Having the right supervisor can be the difference between making your research good, great or excellent. If they're running or part of a research centre or group you may have greater access to networks and resources

It's best you explore supervisors you can work with , which might mean checking out multiple universities and reaching out to them directly. Usually, their profile will say if they're taking on new students and they're happy to get back to you by email.

Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott - PhD in English Literature

As it is a PhD I have formed my course myself, but having a supervisor who is well-versed in my subject area is the most unique part of my work here, as no one else is approaching the subjects we look at in a similar way

Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott, PhD English Literature

5. Can I afford it?

Before you decide on a research degree it's important to think about the costs involved.

If you're a UK national applying for an MPhil or MRes course, you might be eligible for a Government Postgraduate Master's Loan  which you can use to fund your tuition fees, living costs and other costs for a Master's course.

If you're an international student you'll need to plan out how you can cover your costs and fund yourself while you're studying.

When considering a PhD there are funded and non-funded options:

  • If you've got an idea that aligns with an academic's field of expertise, you can contact them directly
  • Look to external funding from the government or an independent research body
  • Universities will offer funded PhD opportunities but these may be limited
  • Start a PhD without funding support

If you're currently working you may need to adjust your working hours or potentially look for part-time work. You might have less money to play with if you're studying full-time and working on the side.

If you're moving cities or countries there are other costs you'll need to consider. You'll need to factor in things like the initial cost of moving and your deposit if you're renting a place.

Find out more

Our research degrees subject areas.

Take your expertise further by studying for a PhD or other research degree at the University of Portsmouth. Explore the subject areas you can study & get started on your research journey.

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Find out how you can fund your postgraduate research project, with options including loans, bursaries, and scholarships.

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  • 09 July 2024

How PhD students and other academics are fighting the mental-health crisis in science

  • Shannon Hall

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Illustration: Piotr Kowalczyk

You have full access to this article via your institution.

On the first day of her class, Annika Martin asks the assembled researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland to roll out their yoga mats and stand with their feet spread wide apart. They place their hands on their hips before swinging their torsos down towards the mat and back up again. The pose, called ‘wild goose drinking water’ is from Lu Jong, a foundational practice in Tantrayana Buddhism.

Martin, a health psychologist, can sense that some students are sceptical. They are academics at heart, many of whom have never tried yoga, and registered for Martin’s course to learn how to deal with the stress associated with academic research. Over the course of a semester, she teaches her students about stress and its impact on the body before giving them the tools to help cope with it — from yoga, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation to journalling.

It is one of many initiatives designed to combat the mental-health crisis that is gripping science and academia more broadly. The problems are particularly acute for students and early-career researchers, who are often paid meagre wages, have to uproot their lives every few years and have few long-term job prospects. But senior researchers face immense pressure as well. Many academics also experience harassment, discrimination , bullying and even sexual assault . The end result is that students and academics are much more likely to experience depression and anxiety than is the general population.

But some universities and institutions are starting to fight back in creative ways.

The beginning of a movement

The University of Zurich now offers academics several popular courses on mental health. Beyond Martin’s class, called ‘Mindfulness and Meditation’, one helps students learn how to build resilience and another provides senior researchers with the tools they need to supervise PhD candidates.

The courses are in high demand. “We have way more registrations than we have actual course spots,” says Eric Alms, a programme manager who is responsible for many of the mental-health courses at the University of Zurich. “I’m happy that my courses are so successful. On the other hand, it’s a sign of troubling times when these are the most popular courses.”

Several studies over the past few years have collectively surveyed tens of thousands of researchers and have documented the scope and consequences of science’s mental-health crisis.

In 2020, the biomedical research funder Wellcome in London, surveyed more than 4,000 researchers (mostly in the United Kingdom) and found that 70% felt stressed on the average work day . Specifically, survey respondents said that they felt intense pressure to publish — so much so that they work 50–60 hours per week, or more. And they do so for little pay, without a sense of a secure future. Only 41% of mid-career and 31% of early-career researchers said that they were satisfied with their career prospects in research.

Students painting.

The International Max Planck Research School for Intelligent Systems run bootcamps involving activities such as painting. Credit: Alejandro Posada

A survey designed by Cactus Communications , a science-communication and technology company headquartered in Mumbai, India, analysed the opinions of 13,000 researchers in more than 160 countries in 2020 and found that 37% of scientists experienced discrimination, harassment or bullying in their work environment. This was especially true for researchers from under-represented groups and was the case for 42% of female researchers, 45% of homosexual researchers and 60% of multiracial researchers.

Yet some experts are hopeful that there is change afoot. As well as the University of Zurich, several other institutions have started to offer courses on mental health. Imperial College London, for example, conducts more than two dozen courses, workshops and short webinars on topics as diverse as menstrual health and seasonal depression. Most of these have been running for at least five years, but several were developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “At that time, the true dimension of the mental-health crisis in science was unveiled and potentially exacerbated by the lockdowns,” says Ines Perpetuo, a research-development consultant for postdocs and fellows at Imperial College London.

Desiree Dickerson, a clinical psychologist with a PhD in neuroscience who leads workshops at the University of Zurich, Imperial College London and other institutes around the world, says she has a heavier workload than ever before. “Before COVID, this kind of stuff wasn’t really in the spotlight,” she says. “Now it feels like it is gaining a solid foothold — that we are moving in the right direction.”

how does phd research work

A mental-health crisis is gripping science — toxic research culture is to blame

Some of this change has been initiated by graduate students and postdocs. When Yaniv Yacoby was a graduate student in computer science at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, he designed a course to teach the “hidden curriculum of the PhD”. The goal was to help students to learn how to succeed in science (often by breaking down preconceived ideas), while creating an inclusive and supportive community. An adapted form of that course is now offered by both Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the University of Washington in Seattle. And Yacoby has worked with other universities to develop single-session workshops to jump-start mental-health advocacy and normalize conversations about it in academia.

Similarly, Jessica Noviello, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, built a workshop series designed to target a key stressor for academics’ mental health: job insecurity, or specifically, the ability to find a job that aligns with career plans and life goals. She argues that most advisers lack experience outside academia, “making it hard for them to advise students about other career options”, and most institutes don’t have the resources to bring in outside speakers. Yet it is a key issue. The 2020 Wellcome survey found that nearly half of the respondents who had left research reported difficulty in finding a job.

So Noviello established the Professional Advancement Workshop Series (PAWS) in August 2021. The programme has run workshops and panel discussions about careers at national laboratories and in science journalism and media communications, science policy, data science, NASA management and more. And it has hosted two sessions on mental-health topics. “PAWS isn’t a programme that specifically set out to improve mental health in the sciences, but by building a community and having conversations with each other, the experts, and ourselves, I think we are giving ourselves tools to make choices that benefit us, and that is where mental health begins,” Noviello says.

Beyond the classroom

Although these courses and workshops mark a welcome change, say researchers, many wonder whether they are enough.

Melanie Anne-Atkins, a clinical psychologist and the associate director of student experience at the University of Guelph in Canada, who gives talks on mental health at various universities, says that she rarely sees universities follow through after her workshops. “People are moved to tears,” she says. “But priorities happen afterward. And even though they made a plan, it never rises to that. Because dollars will always come first.”

David Trang, a planetary geologist based in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the Space Science Institute, is currently working towards a licence in mental-health counselling to promote a healthier work environment in the sciences. He agrees with Anne-Atkins — arguing that even individual researchers have little incentive to make broad changes. “Caring about mental health, caring about diversity, equity and inclusion is not going to help scientists with their progress in science,” he says. Although they might worry about these matters tremendously, Trang argues, mental-health efforts won’t help scientists to win a grant or receive tenure. “At the end of the day, they have to care about their own survival in science.”

Still, others argue that these workshops are a natural and crucial first step — that people need to de-stigmatize these topics before moving forward. “It is quite a big challenge,” Perpetuo says. “But you have to understand what’s under your control. You can control your well-being, your reactions to things and you can influence what’s around you.”

Two PhD students doing a relay race, once carrying the other in a wheel barrel on the grass.

PhD students compete in a team-building relay race at a bootcamp run by the International Max Planck Research School for Intelligent Systems. Credit: Alejandro Posada

That is especially pertinent to the typical scientist who tends to see their work as a calling and not just a job, argues Nina Effenberger, who is studying computer science at the University of Tübingen in Germany. The Wellcome survey found that scientists are often driven by their own passion — making failure deeply personal. But a solid mental-health toolkit (one that includes the skills taught in many of the new workshops) will help them to separate their work from their identity and understand that a grant denial or a paper rejection is not the end of their career. Nor should it have any bearing on their self-worth, Effenberger argues. It is simply a part of a career in science.

Moreover, Dickerson argues that although systemic change is necessary, individuals will drive much of that change. “My sense is that if I can empower the individual, then that individual can also push back,” she says.

Many researchers are starting to do just that through efforts aimed at improving working conditions for early-career researchers, an area of widespread concern. The Cactus survey found that 38% of researchers were dissatisfied with their financial situation. And another survey of 3,500 graduate students by the US National Science Foundation in 2020 (see go.nature.com/3xbokbk) found that more than one-quarter of the respondents experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity or both.

In the United States, efforts to organize unions have won salary increases and other benefits, such as childcare assistance, at the University of California in 2022, Columbia University in New York City in 2023 and the University of Washington in 2023. These wins are part of a surge in union formation. Last year alone, 26 unions representing nearly 50,000 graduate students, postdocs and researchers, formed in the United States.

There has also been collective action in other countries. In 2022, for example, Effenberger and her colleagues surveyed graduate students about their finances, and ultimately won an increase in pay at the International Max Planck Research School for Intelligent Systems (IMPRS-IS), an interdisciplinary doctoral programme within the Max Planck Society in Munich, Germany.

how does phd research work

Why the mental cost of a STEM career can be too high for women and people of colour

Union drives are only part of the changes that are happening beyond the classroom. In the past few years, Imperial College London has revamped its common rooms, lecture halls and other spaces to create more places in which students can congregate. “If they have a space where they can go and chat, it is more conducive to research conversations and even just personal connection, which is one of the key aspects of fostering mental health,” Perpetuo says. Imperial also introduced both one-day and three-day voluntary retreats for postdocs and fellows to build personal relationships.

The IMPRS-IS similarly runs ‘bootcamps’ or retreats for many of its doctoral students and faculty members. Dickerson spoke at the one last year. The programme also mandates annual check-ins at which students can discuss group dynamics and raise any issues with staff. It has initiated thesis advisory committees so that no single academic supervisor has too much power over a student. And it plans to survey its students’ mental health twice a year for the next three years to probe the mental health of the institute. The institute has even set various mental-health goals, such as high job satisfaction among PhD students regardless of gender.

Dickerson applauds this change. “One of the biggest problems that I see is a fear of measuring the problem,” she says. “Many don’t want to ask the questions and I think those that do should be championed because I think without measuring it, we can’t show that we are actually changing anything.”

She hopes that other universities will follow suit and provide researchers with the resources that they need to improve conditions. Last year, for example, Trang surveyed the planetary-science community and found that imposter syndrome and feeling unappreciated were large issues — giving him a focus for many future workshops. “We’re moving slowly to make changes,” he says. “But I’m glad we are finally turning the corner from ‘if there is a problem’ to ‘let’s start solving the problem.’”

Nature 631 , 496-498 (2024)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-024-02225-8

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Putting statistical theory into practice

Kat Hoffman

PhD student Kat Hoffman has been interested in public health and medicine since she was a kid. Her mom and several family members were nurses, and she herself considered going to medical school.

“I’ve always been passionate about how we can have a healthier lifestyle, how we can help others have a healthier lifestyle, as well as what we can do once someone is sick. How do we better treat them and improve their quality of life, once they are afflicted with acute or chronic challenges?” said Hoffman.

We sat down with Kat to learn more.

Why biostatistics?

I did my undergrad in biochemistry and thought I wanted to go to medical school, but then became interested in biostatistics. I applied for the biostatistics masters degree program at the University of Michigan, which is near where I grew up.

I got my masters in biostatistics in 2018 and went right into working in academic medical research and really loved it. 

I was a biostatistical consultant and got to work in a lot of different applied domains within biomedical research. I’ve done  Alzheimer’s work, substance use disorder research, and then a lot of my work was with a pulmonary and critical care team. I studied chronic and acute lung diseases, as well as diseases that people get when they're in the ICU, like sepsis. I did a lot of COVID research because I was working in New York City where we were dealing with the brunt of the first COVID wave. I worked in all sorts of different research domains within hospital-based research.

I came to UW for a PhD because I wanted to work at the intersection of methodological development for statistics and applied biostatistics, and decrease the gap between novel methods being produced and what analysts are actually using in their day-to-day analyses.

I want to learn to develop methods myself, especially methods for causal inference, and I’m particularly interested in studying methods that already exist.  I want to study how novel methods work in real applied settings, not just toy datasets or simulated datasets. I also want to work on disseminating information on methods that are already well-studied to the people who are actually doing the day-to-day analyses, and who could benefit the most from understanding those methods.

Tell us more about the intersection of methodology and applied work?

There are a lot of methods that have been developed by statistical methodologists that can be really useful for applied statisticians in their daily work. Having worked as a masters level statistician for five years, I saw a lot of the barriers that existed in being able to use new, more appropriate methods as an analyst. 

My experience is that the gap between what theory has been developed and software has been written, and what applied scientists actually know about and have the materials to learn in an accessible way without having a PhD and having studied this sub-area of methods research, is pretty wide.

Research Interview: Kat Hoffman

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

After graduation I’m open to research scientist roles and want to continue to do applied biomedical work. I’m excited about the idea of collaborating with and mentoring other biostatisticians and epidemiologists. As to where that would occur, what type of setting - academic versus consulting or industry - I’m open. I’d like to work anywhere that’s supportive of scientific communication and giving people the resources and the time to appropriately answer questions with the data that they have.

how does phd research work

  • PhD by Publication – Explained
  • Types of Doctorates


Obtaining a PhD by publication is relatively uncommon in higher education. It can, however, be especially useful for established researchers who have published work but don’t yet have a PhD. This article gives information on exactly what a PhD by publication is, how it works and what the advantages and disadvantages are. Read on to learn more.

What is a PhD by Publication?

A PhD by publication is a doctoral degree awarded to a person who has several peer-reviewed publications that have been put together as separate ‘chapters’, contributing to a unified research theme within a specific field.

This format typically consists of a significant introductory chapter, up to 10,000 words, similar to a traditional thesis, followed by around five published research papers and a final chapter to bring things to a conclusion. Although these papers will be separate bodies of work, it’s important that they’re connected along one research theme.

This route to PhD can be attractive to researchers that have published a lot in their academic career but have not followed the traditional PhD path. It helps them gain recognition for their contributions to their research field and recognition that the work they have done has been of a doctoral level without having to write a separate PhD thesis.

A PhD by publication is awarded following a  viva (also known as an oral examination) with examiners, similar to the process of a traditional PhD.

What are the Advantages?

A clear advantage of a PhD by publication is that you’re submitting a portfolio of work that has already gone through extensive peer review. This means that by the time you come to defend your work at a viva, it’s much easier. For example, the questions your examiners may ask you could be very similar to the questions you were asked by your reviewers during your paper publication phase and so you will already have prepared suitable responses to these.

Another advantage of this route is that it’s a much quicker way of obtaining a PhD degree; traditional PhD programmes take between three and four years from registration to completion whereas you can get a PhD by publication within one year of registration with the University, assuming that you enrol on this degree having already published all the papers that you will include in your portfolio of work. The shorter duration means that you often will only have to pay for one year of University fees, meaning that this approach is cheaper than a traditional method. It’s often possible that you can work any part-time job alongside preparing your publication portfolio for viva examination submission.

What are the Disadvantages?

Not all research fields or questions are suitable for a PhD by publication. In some cases, it may be necessary to design, set up and run a new PhD project in the field, recording the generation of further data. Additionally, it may be difficult to expand upon your previous publications and explore different research ideas as you put together your portfolio of papers. As this approach is a relatively uncommon way to get a PhD, some institutions may be unfamiliar or not set up to facilitate a PhD by publication. While the final viva examination will be the same as that in a traditional PhD, there is always the risk that some examiners may not see this publication route as being a ‘real’ PhD.

You’re also likely to miss out on some other aspects of PhD life by going down the publication route, including opportunities to teach or supervise undergraduate students and the experience of working within a research lab alongside other PhD students.

How Long Does a PhD by Publication Take?

You should expect a PhD by publication to take six months to one year to obtain from your point of registration with a UK University. This is on the basis that you have already published work for all the material that you would plan to include within your PhD portfolio, or that it is currently going through the review process. This approach is shorter than pursuing a traditional PhD, which typically takes between three and four years as a full-time student.

What is the Application Process?

You apply using the standard process required by the university to enrol, in the same way as the traditional route of a PhD. In addition, however, you will be asked to submit a portfolio of your prior publication track record and a supporting statement outlining the work of these existing publications, detailing how they tell a coherent story with the relevant subject area you’re applying to. You won’t need to submit a formal PhD research proposal as most, if not all, of the research should already have been completed.

Do you have Supervision?

Yes, in the same way that a traditional PhD student will have a primary supervisor to oversee your project. The role of the supervisor will be to help you establish a clear narrative for the theme you’re putting together of your publications, offering critical appraisal where necessary.

He or she will advise you on how to structure the introductory and concluding bodies of work that are required before you submit your portfolio for external examination and viva. Remember that the supervisor is there to advise and not tell you how to structure your dissertation; this is the same for any research student doing a standard PhD.

With this researcher-supervisor relationship, your options may be open in terms of whether you need to be based at the University in person or if you choose to work remotely as a distance learning student, communicating with your supervisor over email or video calls.

How does Assessment Work?

The body of work that you submit will be read and assessed by two examiners that are experts within your subject area of research. This will be followed by the viva examination with the two examiners, in line with the conventional PhD approach. To be awarded this research degree you will need to demonstrate that your work has made an original contribution to furthering the subject knowledge within your field.

Finding a PhD has never been this easy – search for a PhD by keyword, location or academic area of interest.

How Much Does It Cost?

As a PhD by publication usually takes about a year to complete, most universities typically charge a fee equivalent to one year of PhD study. The exact amount will vary depending on the University, but usually, the tuition fee will be around  £4,500  for one year for UK and EU students, and considerably more if you are an international student. It’s challenging to secure funding for these types of PhD degrees and you will find that you’re unlikely to be eligible for financial support from research councils or other routes of funding.

What Kind of Publications Can I use in my Portfolio?

Universities will have specific guidance about factors such as how many publications you can include in your portfolio and there may be some restrictions on when they should have been published. Typically, you will include 5 publications in your submission to your PhD examiners, but this can in some circumstances be as low as 3 or 4 or as high as 10 separate papers. Most often these will be in the form of  journal articles accepted by peer reviewed journals but can also include published book chapters, scientific or technical reports that have been published or other forms of publication that have gone through a level of peer review.

A PhD by publication is a good way for you to graduate with a doctorate if you enter this research programme having already published several academic papers on a single research theme. You need to demonstrate that you have made a significant contribution to your field through previous research. At this stage it is likely to be the cheapest and fastest route to gaining a PhD. However, applicants should be mindful when they apply that it may be challenging to secure funding for this.

Browse PhDs Now

Join thousands of students.

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More From Forbes

How to answer “why are you interested in this role” in 2024.

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The key to answer "Why do you want this job?" is to research the role and highlight unique angles ... [+] that are not typical of the job

You've been practicing for weeks.

You've (finally) figured out how to answer all the tough interview questions you know you're likely to be asked for your dream remote job.

But for some reason, you can never quite get past this question: "Why are you interested in this job/position/role?"

In theory, it's a ridiculously easy question to answer. Because why on earth would the hiring manager ask you that question when you are clearly motivated for the job? Surely, you wouldn't apply unless it was something you were interested in, right?

And at the end of the day, especially if you've been out of work for months or even years, why else would you want a job except to get back on your feet again? The answer to "Why are you interested in this role?" may seem fairly obvious—but you're wrong.

Applying for a job because you are in it mainly for the salary, because it's work-from-home, or applying because you like the idea of the prestige associated with the role itself or the employer, are not sufficient enough motivations to ensure wholehearted commitment to your job—and these will certainly not pass as good enough reasons for the hiring manager to take you seriously and hire you.

You need to provide the talent acquisition team and hiring manager with something more tangible and meaningful to persuade them that you are committed to the job as a career, a stepping stone, and not just something to make money and survive. Otherwise, any wise employer knows that without the right motivations, an employee will quickly lose interest and either job hop or prove unreliable and distracted when on the job.

Best High-Yield Savings Accounts Of 2024

Best 5% interest savings accounts of 2024, why does the hiring manager ask "why are you interested in this role".

Employers may ask the same thing in different ways. For instance, they may rephrase this question as, "What made you apply for this position?" or "What interests you most about this role?"

These are all fundamentally the same, and employers ask this to gauge several key insights about you, including:

  • Your motivation, passion, and enthusiasm for the role
  • Would your expectations align with the reality of the position and where the company is headed?
  • Do your skills and experience perfectly match with the role?
  • Are your personal and career goals aligned with the job? Do you even have any career goals, for that matter?
  • Are you committed to adding vale to the organization?
  • Do you understand the role you have applied for and what it entails? Have you read the job advert thoroughly?

Employers want to ascertain that you understand the role and its requirements, and have the right ... [+] expectations

How To Answer "Why Are You Interested In This Position?" Effectively

To satisfy each of the points above effectively, here are some steps you should consider that will help you formulate a compelling answer for your remote job interview:

1. Research The Role

This is the most obvious step you should take, but you should remember that this research extends beyond the role itself (as the job title might vary in meaning depending on the company you work for). You should research the company and the specific project, department, team, or program your role is being recruited to fill. This enables you to have a thorough grasp of the position and understand if it is what you initially expected.

2. Highlight Unique Angles Of The Role

The next step is to highlight unique aspects of the role that appeal to you the most. This demonstrates that you have undertaken due diligence to research the job, and shows them that you are keen and committed to the role. For example, if you were being hired to work as a program manager, you could talk about the specific program that you know you will be managing, and how excited you are about the program and its objectives, especially if it is something that resonates with you personally.

You should also make reference to how you are well positioned to contribute in the company within this role, based on your unique background and career achievements.

3. Align Answer With Yours And The Company's Goals

Finally, you need to ensure that your answer makes strong reference to how this particular position is part of your career plan and will help you achieve your long-term career goals. This is especially necessary if you are making a career pivot, as employers will likely be extremely curious as to why you are completely switching roles and applying for a job that has no relation to anything you've done previously.

You should also consider the company's vision and mission statement, and ensure your overall answer conveys the value you aim to provide to their organization in helping them achieve their business goals.

Sample Answer For "Why Are You Interested In This Position?"

So, a sample answer for a program manager at a healthcare organization would be:

"I am excited about this program manager role at [company name] because it aligns perfectly with skills and personal career goals to [career goal in X number of years]. Throughout my career so far, I have been deeply passionate about driving strategic initiatives and overseeing complex community health projects from inception to successful completion. This role as a [name of role and team name] provides the ideal platform for me to leverage my experience in project management, team leadership, and process optimization.

Your career goals, and their alignment with the company's goals and values, play a major role in ... [+] determining if the job is a right fit

"One of the aspects that drew me to [company name] is your commitment to innovation and excellence within the industry. [Go into further detail, briefly, about a specific project they completed recently that resonates with your personal values and professional aspirations].

"In my previous position at [previous company], [relate how your background is perfectly suited to the requirements of the role].

"I am also particularly interested in the opportunity to work at [company name] because of your strong emphasis on professional development and employee growth. I am eager to bring my expertise to your team and continue to grow as a program manager in such a supportive environment, while being a part of a company that is leading the way in [specific industry]."

Structuring your answer in this way perfectly highlights to the interviewer just why your motivations, skills, and experience, make you a strong fit for the position.

Rachel Wells

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  1. 1 Schematic overview of PhD research methodology showing the link

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