The Student Room Group

What do you actually do on a PhD?

Specifically a scientific one? I went to a talk recently about postgraduate study at my university and some of the things the students did seem interesting to me. I've considered doing a PhD but also the way some of the students talked it seemed they were trying to talk us out of doing one lol.
Some of my questions:

do you have to come up with your own project title?
What exams do you take whilst doing it if any?
Is the overall goal always to produce a research paper/thesis? Is this something you write yourself?
Is there a lot of lab work involved or is it mostly like reading books/computer research?
Are there lectures and seminars involved?
Are there any benefits other than academia jobs of doing one?

If anyone could answer any of these that would be great. I'm conflicted because I love the lab work I'm doing in uni right now, especially cell biology and microbiology and I would love to study it further. I just don't want to start aiming for something and it turns out it's nothing like I thought.
(edited 1 year ago)
Original post by Spelunker
Specifically a scientific one? I went to a talk recently about post graduate study at my university and soke of the things the students did seemed interesting to me. I've considered doing a PhD but also they way some of the students talked it seemed they were trying to talk us out of doing one lol.
Some of my questions:

do you have to come up with your own project title?
What exams do you take whilst doing it if any?
Is the overall goal always to produce a research paper/thesis? Is this something you write yourself?
Is there a lot of lab work involved or is it mostly like reading books/computer research?
Are there lectures and seminars involved?
Are there any benefits other than academia jobs of doing one?

If anyone could answer any of these that would be great. I'm conflicted because I love the lab work I'm doing in uni right now, especially cell biology and microbiology and I would love to study it further. I just don't want to start aiming for something and it turns out its nothing like I thought.

Hi there 😊

I’m a 3rd year PhD student in Plant Science (mainly biochemistry) at Cranfield University. While my experience isn’t universal, I will share my experiences and what I have seen with my peers!

do you have to come up with your own project title?
I didn’t come up with my own project title/content. I applied for a project designed by my supervisors, with general aims and objectives (and a title) already set out.
I did get to change (in many cases quite significantly) the aims/objectives, but the overall goal has remained the same. This isn’t because I didn’t like/want to do those pieces of the project, but as I searched the literature and looked at initial results, it made more sense for me to amend the project that way. I proposed these changes and agreed them with both my supervisors and my company sponsor.
You should check out findaphd.com for ideas of what is out there, and what kind of things are being studied.

What exams do you take whilst doing it if any?
I don’t have any formal exams, although I know many do. I have sat in on MSc classes and done trainings, but none of these for me had an exam attached.

Is the overall goal always to produce a research paper/thesis? Is this something you write yourself?
You do have to write a thesis for your PhD (at least I have never heard of one without!). You can do this the ‘traditional’ route, or by publication. By publication just means that you include your published papers in the thesis rather than writing the chapter ‘from scratch’.
It’s something you write yourself, but not alone. I have had great support and guidance from my supervisors through my thesis writing. As co-authors on my papers, they can also write some sections there which is incredibly valuable too.
In almost every case it is expected that you publish along the way is expected, but technically not required of a PhD student. You would also likely be expected to present (either orally or a poster) in conferences.

Is there a lot of lab work involved or is it mostly like reading books/computer research?
The goal of a PhD is to contribute to knowledge. While I’m not an expert in how this may work for something like a PhD in history, for biology that generally means collecting your own data, analysing, and interpreting it.
Some projects will have more computational aspects, which will reduce the ‘lab’ work you do, but it’s not reading either, it’s just computer-based.
Having said that, there is still a huge amount of reading and online research to do in a PhD. You need to identify a knowledge gap, something we don’t know, create a hypothesis around that, and design experiments to test that. To do this you need a good working knowledge of that area of science.

Are there lectures and seminars involved?
I have attended lectures, seminars, and conferences as a part of my PhD. You’ll be expected to identify the most valuable learning opportunities for you, and go to them. Also identifying the areas you need to strengthen (e.g. stats, public speaking, etc) and making sure you learn those skills is vital. Your supervisors might also be able to suggest good resources for those too!

Are there any benefits other than academia jobs of doing one?
I know many people doing PhDs who do not intend to stay in academia. Some jobs in industry require a PhD, others are just *very* difficult to get without one. A PhD teaches independence, perseverance, team and independent work, and a plethora of other skills highly valued by almost any employer.


I hope this helps, and good luck with your applications!
Ciara O'Brien
3rd year Agrifood PhD student
Cranfield Student Ambassador
Original post by Spelunker
Specifically a scientific one? I went to a talk recently about post graduate study at my university and soke of the things the students did seemed interesting to me. I've considered doing a PhD but also they way some of the students talked it seemed they were trying to talk us out of doing one lol.
Some of my questions:

do you have to come up with your own project title?
What exams do you take whilst doing it if any?
Is the overall goal always to produce a research paper/thesis? Is this something you write yourself?
Is there a lot of lab work involved or is it mostly like reading books/computer research?
Are there lectures and seminars involved?
Are there any benefits other than academia jobs of doing one?

If anyone could answer any of these that would be great. I'm conflicted because I love the lab work I'm doing in uni right now, especially cell biology and microbiology and I would love to study it further. I just don't want to start aiming for something and it turns out its nothing like I thought.

Hi @Spelunker,

My PhD is in English Literature so I've not got the STEM perspective. But I think the PhD experience has commonalities across disciplines so hopefully this response will still be helpful.

Firstly, it doesn't surprise me that you might have come away with mixed impressions of the PhD experience from the talk you went too. Like many PhD students, I love my research but there's no getting away from the fact it's hard. I'd be lying if I said there weren't days when I wanted to walk away from it - and from academia all together - or times when I haven't cried at the sheer challenge and isolation of the whole enterprise, especially during Covid (which was a very isolating experience for many PhD students) and with the current financial challenges of the cost-of-living crisis.

I've stuck with it because I do love my subject, I genuinely believe my research will add to knowledge in my field, and I've been supported by amazing supervisors and peers. So whilst I'd definitely encourage someone who has genuine passion and interest in pursuing a particular course of study to pursue a PhD, I would also want them to be aware of the challenges along the way and to go into it knowing that it can, at times, be a long, lonely, and difficult thing to pursue, especially if you're also juggling your PhD with working, or caring/family responsibilities.

It's worth saying, however that there's support out there to overcome those challenges - and on the whole I genuinely do think universities are getting better at both providing and signposting this to PGR students. Having supportive supervisors and building a good peer support network is also key. At Keele, we have a separate postgraduate students union - the KPA - and their social events have been an absolute gift at times.

Given that many PhD students are, in essence, their own boss, learning to manage your time and to balance work and social life is a really valuable part of the PhD experience - and probably one of the most difficult things to master as you move from the more structured timetabling of Undergraduate and Masters programmes to the more freeform and independent experience of studying for a PhD. But it's an important balance as sometimes having a coffee with your fellow research students is really all that's needed to revitalise your energy and get your PhD back on track.

I think @Cranfield University has provided some really good answers to your specific questions but I wrote a blog post for Keele called 'What does a PhD student actually do?' that might give you another perspective: https://link.unibuddy.co/unibuddy/9kZGaJ5S6FmNjBga7. I'd also recommend a book by Rebecca Peabody called 'The Unruly PhD' which contains several case studies of PhD students that give real-world perspectives on the PhD experience. Several of her contributors sought careers outside of academia as well, so it's a good way of seeing the scope that the PhD can give you.

Hope that helps! :smile:

Amy Louise
PhD Candidate & Student Ambassador, Keele University
Reply 3
Original post by Cranfield University
Hi there 😊

I’m a 3rd year PhD student in Plant Science (mainly biochemistry) at Cranfield University. While my experience isn’t universal, I will share my experiences and what I have seen with my peers!

do you have to come up with your own project title?
I didn’t come up with my own project title/content. I applied for a project designed by my supervisors, with general aims and objectives (and a title) already set out.
I did get to change (in many cases quite significantly) the aims/objectives, but the overall goal has remained the same. This isn’t because I didn’t like/want to do those pieces of the project, but as I searched the literature and looked at initial results, it made more sense for me to amend the project that way. I proposed these changes and agreed them with both my supervisors and my company sponsor.
You should check out findaphd.com for ideas of what is out there, and what kind of things are being studied.

What exams do you take whilst doing it if any?
I don’t have any formal exams, although I know many do. I have sat in on MSc classes and done trainings, but none of these for me had an exam attached.

Is the overall goal always to produce a research paper/thesis? Is this something you write yourself?
You do have to write a thesis for your PhD (at least I have never heard of one without!). You can do this the ‘traditional’ route, or by publication. By publication just means that you include your published papers in the thesis rather than writing the chapter ‘from scratch’.
It’s something you write yourself, but not alone. I have had great support and guidance from my supervisors through my thesis writing. As co-authors on my papers, they can also write some sections there which is incredibly valuable too.
In almost every case it is expected that you publish along the way is expected, but technically not required of a PhD student. You would also likely be expected to present (either orally or a poster) in conferences.

Is there a lot of lab work involved or is it mostly like reading books/computer research?
The goal of a PhD is to contribute to knowledge. While I’m not an expert in how this may work for something like a PhD in history, for biology that generally means collecting your own data, analysing, and interpreting it.
Some projects will have more computational aspects, which will reduce the ‘lab’ work you do, but it’s not reading either, it’s just computer-based.
Having said that, there is still a huge amount of reading and online research to do in a PhD. You need to identify a knowledge gap, something we don’t know, create a hypothesis around that, and design experiments to test that. To do this you need a good working knowledge of that area of science.

Are there lectures and seminars involved?
I have attended lectures, seminars, and conferences as a part of my PhD. You’ll be expected to identify the most valuable learning opportunities for you, and go to them. Also identifying the areas you need to strengthen (e.g. stats, public speaking, etc) and making sure you learn those skills is vital. Your supervisors might also be able to suggest good resources for those too!

Are there any benefits other than academia jobs of doing one?
I know many people doing PhDs who do not intend to stay in academia. Some jobs in industry require a PhD, others are just *very* difficult to get without one. A PhD teaches independence, perseverance, team and independent work, and a plethora of other skills highly valued by almost any employer.


I hope this helps, and good luck with your applications!
Ciara O'Brien
3rd year Agrifood PhD student
Cranfield Student Ambassador


Thank you for answering these questions it really helped!
Reply 4
Original post by Keele Postgraduate
Hi @Spelunker,

My PhD is in English Literature so I've not got the STEM perspective. But I think the PhD experience has commonalities across disciplines so hopefully this response will still be helpful.

Firstly, it doesn't surprise me that you might have come away with mixed impressions of the PhD experience from the talk you went too. Like many PhD students, I love my research but there's no getting away from the fact it's hard. I'd be lying if I said there weren't days when I wanted to walk away from it - and from academia all together - or times when I haven't cried at the sheer challenge and isolation of the whole enterprise, especially during Covid (which was a very isolating experience for many PhD students) and with the current financial challenges of the cost-of-living crisis.

I've stuck with it because I do love my subject, I genuinely believe my research will add to knowledge in my field, and I've been supported by amazing supervisors and peers. So whilst I'd definitely encourage someone who has genuine passion and interest in pursuing a particular course of study to pursue a PhD, I would also want them to be aware of the challenges along the way and to go into it knowing that it can, at times, be a long, lonely, and difficult thing to pursue, especially if you're also juggling your PhD with working, or caring/family responsibilities.

It's worth saying, however that there's support out there to overcome those challenges - and on the whole I genuinely do think universities are getting better at both providing and signposting this to PGR students. Having supportive supervisors and building a good peer support network is also key. At Keele, we have a separate postgraduate students union - the KPA - and their social events have been an absolute gift at times.

Given that many PhD students are, in essence, their own boss, learning to manage your time and to balance work and social life is a really valuable part of the PhD experience - and probably one of the most difficult things to master as you move from the more structured timetabling of Undergraduate and Masters programmes to the more freeform and independent experience of studying for a PhD. But it's an important balance as sometimes having a coffee with your fellow research students is really all that's needed to revitalise your energy and get your PhD back on track.

I think @Cranfield University has provided some really good answers to your specific questions but I wrote a blog post for Keele called 'What does a PhD student actually do?' that might give you another perspective: https://link.unibuddy.co/unibuddy/9kZGaJ5S6FmNjBga7. I'd also recommend a book by Rebecca Peabody called 'The Unruly PhD' which contains several case studies of PhD students that give real-world perspectives on the PhD experience. Several of her contributors sought careers outside of academia as well, so it's a good way of seeing the scope that the PhD can give you.

Hope that helps! :smile:

Amy Louise
PhD Candidate & Student Ambassador, Keele University

Thanks for directing me to your blog post I'll definitely check it out :smile:

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