Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Our resident PhD holder, Adeline, shares her own PhD experience.
Are you interested in studying for a PhD but are not sure where to start? Every field has its own specialisms, but I felt sharing my own experience might be of interest, especially to students in the field of Humanities. I have a PhD in English Literature and studied both in France and at the University of Cambridge, so have had a chance to compare both systems and to reflect on what defines PhD study.
My first piece of advice would be to think about your subject and what aspects you would like to focus on. By “subject”, I do not mean just “English Literature” or “Maths” — at PhD level you are expected to concentrate on a very specific area. For instance, within English Literature, I specialised in British drama and Harold Pinter’s work. Because this is still too wide, I narrowed my approach down to a dozen plays and a specific angle — the role of memory and the ghostly dimension. This may sound very niche, but it doesn’t feel like it when you’re studying for it! It takes a lot of thought and discussion to come to formulating your topic precisely and it will change as your research progresses, but everything will be easier if from the start you have a very strong interest in a specific area.
This brings me to my second point — a PhD is a long-term commitment. In most cases you will spend three or four years studying for it, so you may as well spend this time working on something you are passionate about! PhD study gives you the amazing chance to spend time researching things in detail and discovering new authors and theories. I’ve spoken to many experienced academics who looked back with nostalgia on their PhD days as a time when they were able to focus on a single subject without being distracted by other commitments.
However, this is only partly true. Once again, this very much depends on individual circumstances as the situation will be different if you have obtained funding, or if you find yourself working on your PhD in your spare time alongside a full-time job. I was lucky enough to have a funded position at my university, which meant I could teach undergraduates for a couple of hours a week and spend the rest of my time working on my PhD. I really enjoyed the balance between teaching and PhD work, as I believe one of the main dangers when working on such a project is to find yourself totally absorbed in it and unable to do or think about anything else — the most obvious symptom of this is when you realise the people you speak to the most are the librarians at your university or your cat…
Having other tasks and projects allows you to achieve shorter-term objectives and gain perspective on your own work. In addition to teaching, you might also have opportunities to work with other PhD students and academics on various projects: organising conferences, giving talks about your work, publishing or editing research material, getting involved in societies — these may all be part of your PhD experience!
In a nutshell, doing a PhD means you will become an expert in your field and perfect a range of skills very specific to academic life: reviewing and summarising material, writing scientific literature, communicating at conferences, etc. However, these skills are also transferable — strong communication skills and attention to detail, to quote only a few, are often sought after in the job market! In the end, you might find that doing a PhD is a much more formative and varied experience than you might have initially thought.
For a bit of an external perspective, we asked Joe Tucker at Bernie.agency about his own PhD experience:
“As someone who started a PhD and decided to withdraw from study to pursue a career in the media industry, I believe I have discovered a few points that everyone should think about before embarking on such a venture.
Firstly, a PhD will truly make you an expert in your field. It is satisfying, challenging and absolutely rewarding. However, a PhD is not guaranteed to get you that job that you want. Many employers won’t even know what a PhD is and they certainly won’t understand exactly what a PhD entails. It also takes a lot of post PhD work to get a job in academia.
Secondly, a PhD is not only a long term commitment, but it is one that will certainly shift you work/life balance. If you do your PhD part time over 7 years it's more manageable; however, a full time PhD over 3 years is extremely hard, especially if you are working to fund your study. This is one of the main reasons I had to withdraw from my own study.
Lastly, if you decide to do a PhD, I would say the most important thing to get right is your supervisor. You need to have a supervisor that you like, that you get on with and that really wants to help you because they are as passionate about the subject as you.”
So, there you have it — I hope I've given you a rounded and realistic view of the pros and cons of PhD study! Over to you...
Blog Post Crafted by Adeline
Adeline helps to run our Admin Team. With a PhD in English, she can call herself a doctor but can’t write prescriptions!
Adeline manages the staff on our Admin Team, liaising with tutors, clients and applicants. She is responsible for processing the ID, Qualifications, DBS Check and References for all our newly joining tutors, as well as taking tuition enquiries, matching tutors to clients, and supporting tutors and clients throughout the process of tuition.