So what exactly is a PhD? I remember asking myself that question, and this is my attempt at an answer a year and a half into completing the degree.
A PhD is a Doctorate of Philosophy Degree, which can vary across different countries but the main similarity is the awarding of Doctor as a title after the completion of the degree. (On a side note this is usually a good way to explain to family and friends with no experience of academia what a PhD is. However make it clear you are not a medical doctor!). The degree can vary in how long it takes to complete, depending on the discipline, and in the discipline of Geography it is usually 3 or 4 years, full-time. In Ireland on the National Framework of Qualifications, an undergraduate degree is a level 7 or level 8, and a master’s degree is a level 9. The PhD is level 10 on this framework; the highest level.
In Ireland a PhD is now part of a structured programme. There are a number of reasons for this, including employability after the degree is finished. In the past PhD students focused on a very specialist aspect of a subject for a number of years and graduated as an expert in this topic, but had very little transferable skills. The structured PhD programme avoids this, and has proven to produce graduates that are more well-rounded employees, have broader knowledge and skills and most actually complete the PhD in less time. Given that most PhD graduates will work outside of academia, there are clear benefits to this approach.
Now the downside to a structured PhD programme is that most universities (Maynooth University included) require you to complete a certain number of modules in your degree. In the Department of Geography, you are required to undertake 60 European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) and 30 ECTS have to be completed in your first year. This is basically the equivalent of a third of a masters degree in the first year of your PhD. Indeed for those who came straight from an MA or MSC, it can seem like your repeating this year. And yes there are numerous benefits to this PhD programme and it certainly informs your research and moves it along in huge ways BUT it is also difficult. No two ways about it, getting any conducive research done in this year is extremely hard, and most of the year you feel like your barely keeping afloat (and at certain times drowning- November and January get a special mention here). Having done 35 credits in first year I can honestly say they were of huge benefit to me, and form the basis of most of the work I’m doing now, and provide a foundation I would have struggled without. But it wasn’t easy, so I can’t sugar-coat it.
So that’s a structured PhD programme. More generally what is a PhD? It’s honestly some of the best and worst times of your life. If you’re getting to this stage of academia it is because you deserve to be there, imposter syndrome aside, and because you crave the kind of intellectual stimulation that a PhD provides. At times this can be very rewarding. However at times it can all seem too much, and too hard to fit into real life and this can be some of the most testing times of your life. A piece of advice for times like that would be to talk to someone else in the same boat, anybody who is going through this or has been through this has felt this way I’m sure. You’re going to end up spending a lot of time with the people you work with and share an office with so start getting to know them. We will all make it in the end, keep your head up.