What and why is a PhD?

When I was thinking of beginning a PhD – and I was stupidly young to do so – my prospective supervisor told me that with a doctorate in Literature I would never be rich, but also I would never be bored. That’s ultimately what decided me: the idea that a PhD, despite basically being a teaching qualification, was more importantly an undertaking, a fantastic journey, that taught you how to use your brain. It wasn’t about articulating what you were taught, as with an undergraduate degree or even an MA. Instead, you were supposed to be adding something truly original to the store of human knowledge. That meant thinking for yourself. That meant discovering where to go, what to find out, what to reject, and how to argue and prove what you believed. It meant, to me, being intellectually grown up and independent. It was part of a project of individuality.

And doing it nearly killed me – metaphorically, of course, in the form of nearly cracking up. I came close to quitting, and I know that had I done so, the rest of my life would have required me to look for comfortable boltholes where I could be told what to do and use my intelligence in a second-order way to complete tasks for others instead of doing my own original thinking. I would have known I had failed the challenge – although that was more about failing to complete than failing to actually pass. By the time I finished typing up my thesis I knew I’d done what I had set out to, and that if it was rejected it wouldn’t bother me at all, psychologically speaking. I was already thinking for myself.

If you get a PhD it gives you the armour, and the confidence – especially if you’re a little bit introverted – to go and investigate and decide things for yourself; and it gives you the training to do the right research in the right way in order to make your case. It really is a priceless possession to have.

So a PhD is partly the 80,000 or so words, or about half a ream of Xerox paper when it’s printed out. Feels good! But it’s also something much more important and intangible. Somewhat thanks to my PhD I have had a fantastically interesting life outside the university – to be honest, I never planned on staying in it. I’m still not rich but I’m still not bored. I have just watched my wife get her PhD (molecular biology) and I can see in her what I felt in myself when I completed my own thesis. The journey was well worth all the heartache, and it helps if you have a good teacher making that journey alongside you, a guide who is there when you need pointers and advice. Hence I guess the reason, with academia in the state it is these days, for the existence of this place.


By Dr Andrew Marino, Academic at The PhD Consultancy

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