A doctorate – abbreviated to a DPhil or PhD – is the pinnacle of academic education. The third level of academic training, following an undergraduate, and then a masters degree, a PhD is based around the completion of an independent, original research project, that will take you to the limits of human knowledge and the very cutting edge of your chosen discipline. If you work in the social or natural sciences, this will involve conducting your own field studies or experiments in a laboratory, whereas in the arts and humanities you will spend most of your time in libraries and archives.
A PhD is an inspiring, and extremely challenging undertaking, that will involve you working closely with senior academics to develop your project and refine your work. PhD students normally play a far more active role in the life of their host departments than other students, often being invited to lead seminars, provide teaching, and contribute to grant applications. The length and content of doctoral training and research varies from country to country – in the United States, completing a doctorate takes 5-6 years and involves internal examinations based on lengthy taught courses. In the UK and Europe, the taught component is less, and as such PhDs take between 3-4 years.
To apply for a PhD course, you will need a strong academic record in the discipline concerned – a high 2.i, 1 or 1* at undergraduate, followed ideally by a masters degree with a strong research component (such as an MRes). Universities will want to see evidence of a demonstrable passion for your chosen area of study, and skill with constructing an argument and appreciating the finer points of your discipline in examples of your previous work. You don’t need to be entirely certain about what your research question will be when you apply, but you will need to have some fairly clear ideas. These must motivate you personally, but it’s also worth thinking strategically – what themes and topics are current within your field currently? If you choose a popular research topic, it’s more likely other scholars will refer to your work, making you more employable in the long run.
Ultimately, the most important consideration is financial. Universities charge PhD students fees, and these range between £3,000 - £10,000 in the UK, and $28,000 - $40,000 in the USA, depending on your residency status, and whether or not you are studying a science or humanities degree. Although PhD students often pick up paid work teaching undergraduates, this will not pay sufficiently well to cover the cost of living, and the university’s fees. Although some people have sufficient savings or familial support to self-fund their studies, the majority of PhDs receive some sort of grant funding – either from the government, from companies interested in your research project, or from the university itself. In the sciences it is usual for this to be attached to a specific laboratory or collaborative project; while in the humanities you tend to require independent funding, often provided by your department.
Finding the right supervisor, at the right university, is a tremendous help with both. You’ll want someone with expertise relevant to your own project, but also who has the influence and resources to help you secure funding.