The Ph.D. Journey—Stages of a Doctoral Degree

The Ph.D. Journey—Stages of a Doctoral Degree


A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest degree that is conferred after a course of study, by universities. PhDs or Doctorates are awarded for programs across the whole breadth of academic disciplines. PhD scholars are usually required to produce original research that expands the boundaries of knowledge, normally in the form of a thesis or dissertation. They defend their work in front of expert/s in the field.

It is interesting to note that a person who did his masters in Arts say MA in Sociology or English or masters in Science say MSc Botany or Physics or masters in Engineering say MTech in Electrical Engineering or Mechanical Engineering or masters in Management MBA, while going for higher education, is awarded a degree of Doctor of Philosophy PhD, on completion of stipulated requirements, notwithstanding the nomenclature or specialization of the academic discipline i.e. Arts, Science, Engineering or Management in which the previous highest degree was obtained.

Why the word “Doctor” and why the word “Philosophy” is used irrespective of the branch or discipline of knowledge in which the work is being carried out and the degree of Doctor of Philosophy is being conferred.

Doctor is an academic title that originates from the Latin word of the same spelling and meaning. The word is originally an agentive noun of the Latin verb docēre 'to teach'. It has been used as an academic title in Europe since the 13th century when the first doctorates were awarded at the University of Bologna and the University of Paris. Having become established in European universities, this usage spread around the world. "Dr" or "Dr." is used as a prefix for a person who has obtained a doctorate i.e. PhD.

The Ph.D. can be awarded in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, engineering, and humanities. The term “philosophy,” does not refer solely to the field or academic discipline of philosophy, but is used in a broader sense in accordance with its original Greek meaning, which is ‘love of wisdom.’

There are two ways in which it may be reasoned why the term Philosophy is used in Ph.D.

One, the earliest doctoral degrees were in theology – Divinitatis Doctor or DD, law – Legum Doctor or LLD, later DCL and medicine – Medicinæ Doctor or MD, or DM, reflecting the historical separation of all higher University studies into these three fields. Studies outside theologylaw, and medicine were then called "philosophy", due to the Renaissance conviction that real knowledge could be derived from empirical observation. Studies in what once was called philosophy are now classified as sciences and humanities. Hence, most disciplines, other than a few like medicine and law, have their roots in Philosophy. Accordingly, the name of the degree awarded is Doctor of Philosophy.

Two, the purpose of Research in Higher Education is to advance the body of knowledge by adding to the existing body of knowledge, or, challenging the existing knowledge in the form of theories, principles and postulates, etc., or reinterpreting the existing knowledge.

Philosophy is the foundation of critical thinking. It brings the important questions to the table and works towards an answer. Philosophical methods include questioningcritical discussionrational argument, and systematic presentation. These methods facilitate the work of research. Philosophy helps in analyzing concepts, definitions, arguments, and problems. It also helps in synthesizing a variety of views or perspectives into one unified whole. Philosophical thinking strongly emphasizes clear formulation of ideas and problems, selection of relevant data, and objective methods for assessing ideas and proposals. It also emphasizes development of a sense of the new directions suggested by new hypotheses and questions one encounters while doing research. As the father of the field of logic Aristotle was the first to develop a formalized system for reasoning. He observed that the validity of any argument can be determined by its structure rather than its content. Aristotle claimed that a human’s highest functioning must include reasoning.

The reasoning given above is based on my personal understanding.

To sum up, the word Doctor in Doctor of Philosophy refers to one who is licensed to or who can teach. And Philosophy being love of knowledge and wisdom provides methods and methodology to do effective research to broaden the base of knowledge.

The Ph.D. Journey

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

The process of getting a Ph.D. 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!.

The six stages of the Ph.D. journey

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

Stage 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 Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. 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.

Stage 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.

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.

Stage 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.

Stage 4. Ph.D. 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.

Stage 5. 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 Ph.D., presenting you with the opportunity to make an original scholarly contribution to your discipline.

Stage 6. Defending your PhD results at a viva voce

Unlike other degrees, a Ph.D. 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 recognized expert in the area you are researching, with a record of relevant research and publication.

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 doctoral degree conferment ceremony

The doctoral degree conferment ceremony is the faculties’ most important academic celebration. The doctoral graduates who completed their research studies and successfully defended their theses.

The doctoral degree conferment ceremony is a traditional rite of passage originally serving to promote doctoral graduates from being students to becoming entitled to teach in academia themselves. This is marked by the doctoral graduates being led by a presenter over the symbolic Parnassus to receive the insignia of their newly acquired status. The insignia are the honorary symbols of the doctoral degree. Some of them disappeared a long time ago, such as the book and the sword. The hat, the laurel wreath, the ring and the diploma remain.

The doctoral degree conferment ceremony is also an occasion for the faculties to honour highly deserving researchers from other universities and other citizens, by appointing them as honorary doctors, or doctor honoris causa. The honorary doctors are people who have achieved something of major importance for the University or for society and whom the faculties wish to recognise and tie to their research community. Although often academics from other universities, honorary doctors can equally well be from outside academia.

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