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Studying a PhD

Read our full guide to studying a PhD abroad including why a PhD is beneficial, how to apply, the costs involved, what PhD life is like and more...

Studying a PhD

What is a PhD?

A PhD is a postgraduate course of study traditionally taken after a Masters course. The term stands for ‘Doctorate of Philosophy’ (and is also referred to as a ‘Doctorate’). However it does not necessarily refer to just a study of Philosophy as the name might suggest; but rather can be an advanced, detailed study of one of a number of subjects such as Law, Engineering and Biomedical Sciences. It is an internationally-recognised qualification and the highest level of study one can undertake.



What makes a strong PhD applicant?

PhD students will be called on to display the following qualities:

• Mastery of your subject along with ground knowledge of the basic theories and concepts related to your discipline.
• Research insight
• Capacity for independent research
• Ability to communicate results and relate them to the broader discourse



Why study a PhD?

A PhD gives a student more autonomy to study a particular area in far greater detail than they have at a Masters level. A PhD is built on the principle that the student is undertaking an original piece of research resulting in a thesis or dissertation which approaches an area from an angle which has not been taken previously. This is an opportunity to really impact your field and see your name accredited as a leading voice.

A PhD is globally-recognised so no matter where you decide to begin your graduate career, you’ll have an advantage over other applicants. In fact, distinguishing yourself as a top prospect in your field is becoming increasingly important in the globalised graduate climate, and a PhD can play a remarkable role in this.

Plus, Doctorate students will find themselves working alongside the top researchers in their field at their institution. PhD students will see that their relationship with their supervisors is less “student-teacher” and more one of colleagues working together on an equal level.



How long is a PhD?

A PhD lasts either 3 or 4 years if studied full-time. If studied part-time, a PhD can last as long as 6 years. However take note, a PhD is a major commitment requiring long hours of academic study.



How much does a PhD cost?

A PhD can either be funded or self-funded. A funded PhD will be financed by an institution after you’ve written your proposal outlining what you want to study and why it is important. A self-funded PhD is where a student uses their own funds, receive financial support from their family or work while studying to fund their studies. Many PhD students work as teaching assistants, teaching undergraduate classes at their university and marking students’ work, to finance their studies.

The cost of a PhD will vary from country to country. In the UK a PhD costs around £16,000 altogether for international students. In the US, international students can expect to pay a higher fee of $28-40,000 altogether. Fees will be higher at more prestigious universities, especially those which rank at the top of world rankings like Times Higher Education.



Applying to a PhD

Usually you will need to have a master’s degree in a related area to your PhD. As well as your formal application as you would have submitted to study at bachelor’s and master’s level, you will also have to write a research proposal which outlines what you plan to study in the context of previous work in the field; demonstrates your knowledge of current discussions ongoing in the field; gaps in current knowledge which you wish to investigate and illuminate; your methodology, and more.

Some institutions will allocate you with a supervisor once you have successfully applied and have enrolled. Other institutions will require you to find a tenured professor on staff to agree to be your supervisor; this will require meeting with them in advance and discussing your proposal to make sure your ideas fit in with the research currently being undertaken at that department.

Students who are funding their own PhD may be able to apply successfully with lower grades than those who are applying for funded PhDs.

When providing references, these should be written by individuals who know you in an academic context and can vouch for your previous study in the area you wish to pursue at doctorate level.

Read our guides, ‘Reference letters: Things to consider’ and ‘Who can I ask to be a reference?’ for more guidance.



What’s the difference between a PhD and a MPhil?

The MPhil is a less advanced qualification than the PhD in which the student is expected to master a content area. This can be completed in one or two years' full-time study. A candidate for an MPhil must undertake an investigation but, compared to the PhD, the work may be limited in scope and the degree of originality.

Considerably more emphasis is put on original work in the PhD and the PhD thesis involves greater depth than an MPhil dissertation. Greater synthesis and critical ability and also a more detailed investigation of any practical illustrations are expected from doctoral candidates.



What’s it like to study a PhD?

At undergraduate level, you might have been forced to study some modules which simply didn’t interest you. A PhD is an intense study of a particular area which you choose yourself which you may have only previously scratched the surface of. This may sound amazing because you finally get to dedicate all your time to a piece of research which you are passionate about but there is more to a PhD than that.

As well as your actual research, as a PhD student you’ll find that you’ll be completing more tasks beyond simple ‘studying’. As a PhD student you’ll be considered a proper member of the academic community. This will require you to write proposals for funding, write and collaborate on papers, attend and speak at conferences and much more. If you work as a teaching assistant on campus, teaching classes, meeting with students and marking papers will also take up your time. As a result, you may find yourself focusing on your own work at the most unconventional of times, whenever you have a spare moment i.e. late, late nights. Don’t expect a 9-5 working day!

However, if you’re passionate about your field of study and you want to rub shoulders with the elite minds in this area, a PhD will always be fulfilling and will set you on a path for a rewarding career.



Are there any cons to studying a PhD?

As mentioned above, a PhD is not cheap. Plus it’s not just a case of studying but a number of other responsibilities which result in a very busy schedule.

A PhD is also for 3 years minimum which may come as a shock if you’ve previously studied your master’s for 1 year. You’ll need to be able to pace yourself for the long run.

While not necessarily a con, many wrongfully assume that a PhD will automatically result in a top job. While it is certainly a tremendous advantage – even a requisite to be in the running for some academic roles – there are also a number of other factors to consider, such as how you present yourself in an interview.



Read more:

‘Studying a PhD in America: Q&A with Ivan’

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About Author

Studying a PhD

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.