A friend took me by surprise with this question yesterday afternoon, and it took me a moment to come up with a suitable response. Twenty-four hours later and I’m still thinking about it, pondering what the essence of a PhD really is.
Baldly speaking, a PhD is a postgraduate research degree that typically lasts around three years (or longer, in some countries) and is awarded purely based on the content of the candidate’s written thesis (a document that’s probably at least 40,000 words, if not closer to 80,000) which they defend in an oral examination, or viva. The thesis must contain an original contribution to human knowledge — the world must be a better, richer place thanks to your PhD than it was when you began it.
This rather noble pursuit of some deeper understanding of the world is a daunting prospect for any PhD student. However, a PhD is more than that. It is, quite literally, a life-changing experience.
To do a PhD, one must be comfortable with one’s own ignorance. One must learn not to fear the unknown, but to embrace it, to let it into one’s bed at night and give one’s self completely over to it. The three most powerful words a PhD student will learn are “I don’t know”. Say them. Say them often. To your friends, colleagues, supervisors. To yourself. Learn their taste and weigh them on your tongue. That is fifty percent of a PhD. The other fifty percent is learning how to say “… but I know how to find out.”
In doing a PhD, you will come to understand yourself, and your strengths and weaknesses, like you have never done before. Alongside a deep dive into your chosen field of research you will have many days where you critically examine yourself, your knowledge, your approach to your research and often, your own ability to see the thing through to the end.
Eventually, you will learn to trust your own instincts when it comes to answering questions (and asking them). You will learn to be determined; tenacious, even. You will learn how to be disciplined, and to work even when you’re not motivated. You will learn that even professors make mistakes, and it’s ok if you do too.
In summary, by the time you step out of the other side of your viva, you will be a different person. The material gain is small — three little post-nominal letters. But the intellectual gain is immeasurable, and the spirit of enquiry that led you to start a PhD in the first place will be with you for life.
So what is a PhD? It is not easy. It is not quick. It is quite often not even fun. But doing a PhD will change your life — and I believe it’s a change for the better.