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PhDs and doctorates explained

Wonder how studying a PhD or doctorate can get you the qualifications you need for your career? Read on to find out more.

Who are they for?

PhDs and doctorates are for people who want to do a piece of original research or gain advanced academic qualifications in a particular field of study. You will have to write a dissertation that your tutors think is good enough to be published in an academic journal. PhD is short for ‘doctor of philosophy’. This doesn’t mean you can only study philosophy to get one though; ‘philosophy’ in this case means the study of the unknown, because you will have to research an area that very few people have researched before.

Not all doctorates are PhDs, however. Some – such as clinical psychology – include more practical work as well as research. Although you will have to do write a dissertation for these doctorates, it will normally be based on practical work in your field, for example researching the treatment of patients in a hospital, rather than library or laboratory-based research.

You will need at least a bachelor’s degree and normally a postgraduate qualification such as a master’s degree before you can study for a doctorate or PhD. However, some doctorate courses will accept you without a postgraduate qualification if you can show enough practical work experience in the right area.

Where are they taught?

PhDs and doctorates are taught at universities with research departments. They are taught mainly in lectures and seminars, and many doctorates also include practical work experience placements. However, because so much of a PhD or doctorate is based upon your dissertation, most of the work and research you do will be done independently and without much supervision from your tutors. As well as your final dissertation, you will also be assessed through exams and coursework during the course. PhDs and doctorates are either a ‘pass’ or a ‘fail’ and very occasionally a ‘distinction’. But whether you study a PhD or doctorate, you’ll be able to officially call yourself ‘doctor’ if you pass.

What can I study?

For a PhD you can study almost anything you like, provided the research department at the university approves it. The actual subject of your dissertation will normally be very specific, so you might study the mating patterns of one species of fish in great detail if you’re doing a PhD at a biology department for example.

How long does it take to study a PhD or doctorate?

Most PhDs or doctorate courses last for a minimum of three years full-time study, although some may last for longer, depending on the subject. You will normally spend the first few years planning and researching your dissertation, and write it in your final year.

Where can they lead?

Doctorates and PhDs are normally the highest qualification you can achieve, so after completing one you’ll normally either become an academic at university doing teaching and research, or move into work. Some people might later achieve a ‘higher doctorate’, which is awarded by certain universities to individuals who have done outstanding work in their field. You’ll normally have to work for at least 20 years and write a lot of academic papers before you’re even considered for one of these though!

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