How is a PhD different from masters?

Here are a few things that struck me a few months into my PhD on how my student life and academics are different in comparison my masters:

In many ways it is similar to masters than undergrad as there is more independent work to do than lectures to attend. However, in a PhD there are no lectures to attend and assignments to submit – no timetable to follow. There are deadlines to work towards, but are farther away in the future. My PhD is partially funded for three years by the end of which I should have had submitted my thesis. My first real deadline on this PhD is the confirmation viva I need to give 12 to 15 months into my PhD. So, I have a year to have done some reading, writing, conducted a study and written it up. But for the whole of my first year, there really aren’t any deadlines. And having to work without deadlines is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I often give myself fake deadlines to work towards. If it doesn’t work, I ask my supervisor for deadlines.

On a PhD, everything you do, you do in depth. I’ve had so much fun doing my masters dissertation. As my PhD is built on it, I revisited it by the start of my PhD and thought it made no sense. Simply because in my mind, it wasn’t good enough or didn’t explain the research question in the best possible way. But, that’s not why we do dissertation on masters. We do it more to understand how to conduct research than answering research questions in the best possible way. On a PhD however, it is possible to do that. PhD is a long and slow process which is perfect for exploring a topic in depth. Now for the same topic, I can split my questions into group and explore it one by one.

One of the things I often forget and need reminding of is that I am still a student, and this is still a learning process. Probably because now I also assist with teaching for undergrads and master students, I have an office and I am between being a student and staff, I forget I am here to learn. I was very comfortable being a student on my masters – exploring, making mistakes, not afraid to fail. It certainly seems different now and I need reminding every now and then that I can and should be a ‘student’.

Now, the above reasons are probably why the entire process is slow. I’ve lost a count of the number of time I’ve tried explaining this to a masters student and they’ve said ‘ oh, just do it faster! Finish it in two years’ (eyerolls). In my first couple of months on the PhD, I was impatient. I remember wanting to get a lot of work done but failing to notice that I was doing enough but wasn’t tangible. I was reading lots and was trying to understand and make sense of the literature and my topic. In three months’ time on my masters, I got a lot of work done – the study was very small (in comparison to PhD) and I had deadlines. As it was the only piece of research I’ve done so far, I kept comparing myself to my masters-self and it took me a while to realise a PhD is different and slower.

I’ve also noticed that my interactions with the ‘outside world’ i.e., other student groups on campus has gone down. This is not a bad thing at all. It doesn’t mean I don’t meet people, but only those who have more in common with me. Like other PhD students, master’s students, post-docs, ECRs, academic staff and so on. And it is a given that I continue to see my other friends on campus and those on the societies and clubs I’m involved in. As I tend to do most of my work in my office, there is rarely a need for me to go to the library or other study spaces on campus – unfortunately for me, this is where I used to run into people I know and have a quick catch up. But the number of coffee breaks I take anyway with other PhDs are enough to get me well-exposed to student-life at uni. I am very close to the library, so often see the stalls up and flyers around about the events on campus.