What is a PhD?

As you all probably know by this point, I am a PhD student in Sociology here at the University of Surrey. But quite a few times I have been asked what a PhD is. Do we have classes? Do we have coursework? What do we do? Even university students can’t seem to know exactly what does it mean to study a PhD. In this post, I’ll share my experience of what a PhD looks like in this county and in Surrey.

I spend a lot of time reading as part of my PhD

PhD means Doctor of Philosophy in Latin, which is the highest university degree in most countries. After an undergraduate course (that leads to, in most cases, a Bachelor’s Degree) that usually takes 3-4 years to complete, you might want to study for a master’s degree. This is a more advanced study programme that usually lasts 1-2 years. After a master’s degree, some people that are really passionate about studying might enrol in doctoral studies, which usually takes 3-4 years (full-time) to complete and that ultimately leads to a Doctor of Philosophy degree. When I finish my PhD I hope to be a researcher able to generate new ideas, apply skills to solve complicated problems and learn how to share findings with my audiences in my field of knowledge. I also hope to teach at the university as a lecturer, which is what I am passionate about. You will also be able to call me a Doctor, but I don’t care too much about these formalities!

But what studying for a PhD is? First, a PhD is always a long independent research project and it involves investigating a very specific problem that has not been explored before. I am investigating how Polish children in the UK perceive their school and classroom environments. I am going to spend some time in primary schools, doing observation on and talking to Polish young children to gather their ideas and thoughts. I plan to understand to what extent they believe their school is a welcoming and safe space for them.

Even though this is an individual research project, I do have a network of people to support me. I meet my supervisors at least once a month to discuss my progress. I also have more senior PhD students like Paola that are my mentors and help me when I get to forks. Finally, staff from the Library and the Doctoral College provide me with support for literature searching, workshops on my research etc. I also have space to share some of my ideas in conferences and receive feedback on what I’ve been doing.

Here at Surrey, I have a desk and a computer in a shared office in the Department of Sociology. Many PhD students in more natural or physical sciences or conducting a lot of experiments spend time in their labs, while my time is usually spent reading and writing on the computer. I do not have regular classes in Sociology though, I just enrolled for French in the Global Graduate Awards programme — more on this next week. I also attended some of my supervisor’s lectures on a topic that I was interested in, but I did not have to complete assignments or do exams — it’s been a while I don’t write any exam, to be honest.

Studying for a PhD looks like a regular full-time job in many ways. I really need to dedicate quite a big part of my week to develop my research project. However, I do have some flexibility than other jobs do not — and I really appreciate it. For example, I usually don’t come to the office in the mornings — I’m not a morning person in general. Most of the time I stay in here quite late though, and many weekends I also pop in for a few hours. There is no boss to control me, but I do need to finish my project within three/four years time and the university tries to make sure I do real progress while I’m here. I also engage with a lot of different things, including teaching, while I’m studying for my PhD. It is really a pleasant environment — and I am nerdy and passionate about studying and learning so it suits me quite nicely. I’m sure that’s not for everyone though.

I know the tone of this is more academic than this blog usually is… What can I do? It’s part of who I am! Next week I will come back to more fun stuff. Tonight I’m going to try rock climbing for the first time, and I am soo excited! I’ll let you all know how it goes!

Thanks for reading 🙂