What is studying for a PhD like?

It is difficult to write in general terms about what it is like to take a PhD since there are such great differences between different postgraduate programmes.
Working conditions and attitudes towards doctoral students also vary between different institutions of higher education and different faculties. The relations that develop between different individuals are crucial for determining the degree of creativity and stimulation provided by the working conditions at a department.

Labour market demand can also give certain doctoral students a stronger position. The following are a number of fairly characteristic features, however:


  • Research training for all doctoral students consists of course work, writing a thesis and, crucially, collaboration with a supervisor.
  • In addition, many programmes have various kinds of research seminars.
  • Most doctoral students also have some kind of paid employment at their higher education institution, often including teaching in first and second-cycle courses and study programmes.


  • There is a marked difference between laboratory and non-laboratory subjects, however. In non-laboratory subjects research is usually a lonely pursuit requiring independence and discipline. Doctoral students doing research in laboratory settings often belong to research teams, however, and a student's individual research assignment may well form part of a larger project, which means that the student receives ongoing support. It is usual for the project to be led by the supervisor, who as a result will in most cases be more accessible.
  • In the humanities and the social sciences, there is often a greater capacity for admitting doctoral students both with respect to supervision and places available, but the lack of funding restricts enrolment. In more technical subjects it is easier to find funding for students, but instead a lack of supervisory capacity and/or applicants may hinder departments from increasing student number.


Far too often doctoral students say that their department did not give them a particularly positive reception when they began their studies. They were given no introduction to the department and received no comprehensive information about what it entails to study for a PhD, or what is expected of them as colleagues at a department.
Last updated: 2011-12-12
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