The PhD Journey - Stages of a Doctoral Degree |
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The PhD Journey

Written by Mark Bennett

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

The process of getting a PhD 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!.

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7 stages of the PhD journey

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

We've expanded on what you can expect from each stage below.

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.

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.

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 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.

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. Our guide covers all you need to know about the difference between a MPhil and PhD.

5. PhD 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.

6. 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 PhD, presenting you with the opportunity to make an original scholarly contribution to your discipline.

Our guide to writing your thesis covers everything you need to know about this lengthy research project, from structure and word count to writing up and submission.

We’ve also written a guide to the PhD dissertation abstract, which is an important part of any thesis.

7. Defending your PhD results 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 PhD timeline

PhD timeline
1 month Meet with your supervisor(s) and discuss your proposed project. Here you will clarify any changes that are needed and agree a schedule of meetings and a plan of work for the following months.
3-6 months Clarify the direction of your research, methods and the necessity of any research trips. You will also discuss your training and development needs and begin working towards a literature review.
9 months-1 year Hand in of an advanced literature review, thesis plan and timetable for completion. This will then be discussed in the MPhil upgrade review with two internal examiners.
18 months Biannual review with your supervisor(s) to discuss your progress to date and feasibility of completing on time.
2 years You will have made considerable progress on your research by the end of the second year. You may have begun drafting your thesis and engaging in professional activities such as conferences, publishing, teaching and skills training. All of your progress will be discussed in another annual review.
3 years Most of the third year will be spent writing up and redrafting your thesis. You may also engage in professional activities such as conferencing, teaching and publishing.
4 months before submission Application for examination and nominate your examiners.
3-4 years Submission of thesis and assisting work such as a skills development log.
10 weeks after submission Usually the viva will take place within 10 weeks of the examiners receiving your thesis.
3-6 months after viva Most PhD students pass with corrections and are given a period to edit the thesis. The length of time given will depend on whether you pass with major or minor corrections.
After editing period Receipt of award and graduation!

Ready to take the next step?

There's lots more information about how to get a PhD 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?

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Last Updated: 14 September 2022