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The PhD Journey: 7 Stages of a Successful Doctorate

More so than any other type of degree, each PhD is different.

You might be studying on the same programme, or in the same laboratory, as another student. You might be working in the same specialist area. You might even have the same supervisor. But your PhD will be completely unique, with its research aims, its own core findings and its own original contribution to knowledge.

It has to be. That’s what makes it a PhD.

With that said, there are a few components that are part of most PhD experiences. In this article we’ve picked what we think are seven common stages of PhD research and provided an overview of each one.

The exact nature of these components and the way you complete them will vary slightly from subject to subject (and even between countries). But they form part of the vast majority of PhD experiences.

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.

Proposals for different project types

PhD proposals for some projects are more detailed than others:

  • If you’re applying for a self-proposed PhD (more common in Arts, Humanities and some Social Science subjects) you’ll need to ‘sell’ your project as well as your ability to do it. The university will want to know why this PhD is worth doing and why you’ve proposed to do it with them.
  • If you’re applying for a pre-defined topic (more common in Science and Engineering subjects) you won’t need to persuade the university that their own project is worthwhile, but you will need to demonstrate an understanding of it. You’ll also have to make a case for your suitability as a researcher and the benefits you could bring (particularly if funding is at stake!).

What makes a good PhD research proposal? The research proposal is the most important component of a PhD application - and it plays a big role in defining the early stages of a doctorate. Our guide will help make sure yours is as strong as possible.

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.

Just as the PhD (‘Doctor of Philosophy’) degree isn’t restricted to Philosophy students, your literature review doesn’t require you to study English Literature (unless you are, in fact, completing a PhD in English Literature).

Instead, 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.

The aim will be to see how this work can inform your own research: whether it includes findings you need to take account of, presents useful methodologies to incorporate or even reaches conclusions you plan to challenge.

Whereas the bulk of a PhD involves original research, the literature review is where you demonstrate skills in scholarship. You’ll show that you comprehend the current state of your field at an advanced level and are therefore able to offer a new contribution to it through your PhD.

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 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. 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. You can find out more about MPhil degrees in our guide.

5. Producing an original thesis

Once you’ve confirmed your PhD candidacy and gathered sufficient results, you’ll begin to finalise your thesis and get ready to write up your dissertation.

'Thesis' vs 'dissertation'

It’s quite common to use the terms ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ interchangeably, but this isn’t strictly correct:

  • Your thesis is your argument. It’s the conclusions you’ve arrived at through surveying existing scholarship in your literature review and combining this with the results of your own original research.
  • Your dissertation is the written statement of your thesis. This is where you lay out your findings in a way that systematically demonstrates and proves your conclusion.

Put simply, you submit a dissertation, but it’s the thesis it attempts to prove that will form the basis of your PhD.

What this also means is that the writing up of your dissertation generally follows the formulation of your thesis (it’s fairly difficult to write up a PhD before you know what you want to say!).

But it’s not always quite as clear cut as that.

Researching, writing and presenting

Just as your thesis will take shape throughout your PhD (you may begin to formulate parts of it as far back as your research proposal) so too will you draft and re-draft material that will form part of your dissertation. This process itself will contribute to the development of your argument.

And, once you’ve begun to formulate a thesis, you may also begin to present parts of it ‘outside’ your PhD.

This could involve sharing your findings at academic conferences by giving papers or showing ‘posters’ of your data. It can even mean publishing part of your research in academic journals and other media.

Both of these activities will raise your profile as a researcher and help prepare you for an academic career (if this is your intention). But presenting work will also feed back into your thesis. You’ll benefit from the feedback of other specialists and gain confidence in your findings as they are accepted for papers or articles.

6. Writing up your dissertation

Once you’ve conducted your research and settled upon your thesis, there’s only one thing left to do: get it down on paper (or typed up with your preferred word processing software…).

Appropriately enough, this final part of a PhD is often referred to as the ‘writing up period.’

This is when you produce the final dissertation that demonstrates your thesis and which will be submitted as the basis for your viva voce exam.

The nature of this task can vary from PhD to PhD:

  • In some cases you may already have a large amount of chapter drafts and other material. ‘Writing up’ therefore becomes a process of re-drafting and assembling this work into a final dissertation. This approach is common in Arts and Humanities subjects where PhD students tend to work through stages of a project, writing as they go.
  • Alternatively, you may have spent most of your PhD collecting and analysing data. If so, you’ll now ‘write up’ your findings and conclusions in order to produce your final dissertation. This approach is more common in Science and Technology subjects, where experiment design and data collection are much more resource intensive.

Whatever process you adopt, you’ll now produce a persuasive and coherent statement of your thesis, ready to submit for examination.

The length of a PhD dissertation

PhD dissertations vary in length from subject to subject, but all are far longer than those for undergraduate or Masters degrees. Your university will usually set an upper limit - typically between 70,000 and 100,000 words, with most dissertations coming in at around 80,000.

Structuring a PhD dissertation

The exact structure and make-up of your dissertation will vary between fields, but you may find yourself following the course of your PhD quite closely.

  • You’ll begin with an introduction that sets out the key objectives of your project, why the work is significant and what its original contribution to knowledge is. At this point you may also summarise the remaining chapters, offering an abstract of the argument you will go on to develop.
  • This introduction will generally lead into a write-up of your literature review. Here you’ll outline the scholarly context for your project. You’ll acknowledge where existing research has shaped your PhD, but emphasise the unique nature of your work.
  • Remaining chapters will then summarise your results and begin explaining the thesis you have based on them. Some PhDs will also include specific chapters on methodology and / or a recreation of the data you have developed. Others will develop your argument over a series of stages, drawing on sources and results as relevant.
  • The dissertation will end with a conclusion. This will normally be a final chapter that pulls together the different elements of the thesis you have argued and the evidence you have provided for it. You’ll restate the significance of your project (and its all-important original contributing to knowledge). You may also take the opportunity to acknowledge the potential for further work or opportunities to apply your findings outside academia.

Once you have a final draft your supervisor will normally read it through and provide feedback. When they and you are satisfied that the dissertation is of the required standard you will submit it for examination.

7. Defending your PhD 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 viva voce process

The primary aim of the viva is to establish that the PhD is your own work and that you fully understand your thesis and its significance.

To this end your examiners will question you about the contents of your dissertation and the underlying logic of your argument.

Other questions may be designed to check your general subject knowledge or to investigate the methodology you have employed. Often the examiners will want to know how your research developed and why you made the decisions you did.

If there are any weak points in your thesis or poorly explained elements of your dissertation these will be challenged and you will have the chance to acknowledge or defend them.

The length of a viva isn’t specified, but, under normal circumstances the procedure can take one or more hours.

Don’t let the prospect of a long viva or tough defence intimidate you. Much of this time may actually be spent in stimulating conversation as you discuss your work with interested experts. Your supervisor will also ensure you are fully prepared for the viva and should not advise you to submit unless they are confident your thesis can pass.

PhD viva results

There are several possible outcomes for a PhD viva, depending on the number of issues identified by your examiners:

  • You may pass with no corrections. This is the ‘best’ possible result, indicating that your thesis is convincing and significant – and that your dissertation is clear and coherent.
  • You may pass with minor corrections. This is probably the most common viva result. It means that your examiners have found some small issues with your thesis, but that your argument as a whole is sound. Examples could include suggestions for other supplementary research to consider and acknowledge or for basic typographical and bibliographical corrections. You will be given a deadline for these corrections to be made, but the thesis itself won’t normally be re-submitted for examination.
  • You may be given major corrections. This is a more serious result. It indicates that there are some significant problems with your thesis or errors in your dissertation and that these must be addressed before your PhD can pass. Such a result is often referred to as a ‘revise and resubmit’ decision. It doesn’t mean you have failed, but it will normally mean going through a second viva voce examination once changes have been made.
  • Your thesis may be recommended for an MPhil. If the scope of your work is insufficient to justify a PhD or if your original contribution to knowledge is not judged to be sufficiently significant, clear or convincing, the examiners may recommend that you be awarded an MPhil instead. This is a comparatively rare outcome and will only occur if there are significant weaknesses in your thesis that cannot be rectified with major corrections.
  • You may fail outright. If your thesis is judged to be significantly below the standard of a PhD and unsuitable for reconsideration as an MPhil, you may be judged to have failed your viva with no degree being awarded. This outcome is very rare. Your supervisor should be able to identify significant weaknesses that may cause a thesis to fail. A failed PhD usually results from a student choosing to submit a weak thesis against the advice of their supervisor.

The majority of PhD vivas end in one of the first three outcomes, with the thesis being passed and a doctorate being awarded, with or without corrections.

Once this happens there’s only one thing left to do… decide which documents to use your new title on first!

Ready to take the next step? There's lots more information about PhD study elsewhere 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?

Last updated - 06/05/2016

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