I am a first year undergraduate student pursuing a B.S. in Chemistry (I'm very much interested in Biology too), and I am new to this world of Academia. It would be very helpful if someone could answer my questions.

What exactly does one do in a PhD? I know that in the first year, you take a lot of advanced courses on your specific field of study, and then you decide on a topic and start researching. But when do you stop? I see that there is no definite time limit for completing a PhD. It can be anywhere from two years to... is there an upper limit? Do you complete a PhD when you have discovered something new and published a paper on it?

I realise a lot of what I'm saying might be my own ideas of what happens. Please feel free to correct me.

  • 2
    This is a good question, as it is prudent to think ahead to be informed.
    – user7130
    Dec 25 '13 at 6:24
  • 2
    The Ph.D. Grind, a 122-page e-book, is the first known detailed account of an entire Ph.D. experience.pgbovine.net/PhD-memoir.htm Dec 26 '13 at 14:40
  • 7
    But when do you stop? - About a year after you're completely sick of your thesis.
    – JeffE
    Dec 27 '13 at 16:00
  • @J.A.F that was a good read, thank you for posting the link! Dec 27 '13 at 19:23
  • 3
    Why hasn't somebody posted the The illustrated guide to a Ph.D. yet? :-) Enjoy.
    – user7112
    Dec 28 '13 at 14:13

To answer some of your questions, a lot of this will vary from university to university, and vary by location.

One major aspect is to determine your research focus as early as possible and plan long and medium term objectives, and how these objectives are to be met at the beginning, in consultation with your advisors (that is the advice I was given).


There is usually an upper limit of how long a student can take to complete the dissertation, and it is generally expected that the research, experiments, dissertation write up is performed within the time frame dictated by the university. Note, the length of time taken to complete the PhD is not necessarily a measure of how credible it is. (I completed my PhD in Physics in 2.5 years).

Papers are often published in consultation between you and your advisor(s). But, during my PhD I was advised that it is a good idea to get some publications completed while you are studying (I completed 4 while completing the research).


This varies between universities and places, for example, I was not required to take any courses whatsoever - just pure research. That is something you will need to check with any university you apply to.

I did my PhD while working full time in an unrelated field, so I arranged regular (fortnightly) Skype meetings with my advisors, where short term goals were set and the medium and long term goals checked up on.

As you are doing sciences by the looks of it, it will involve a considerable amount of experimentation (potentially) - some of it can be tedious, make sure you plan and get into that as soon as possible, while ensuring you get the most accurate possible data in a safe and efficient manner.


You complete your research when you have met your objectives and have, through research and experimentation, 'answered' your research focus.

What happens then varies between universities, some you will be expected to defend your thesis, and some, as in my case, your thesis is peer-reviewed. Once all that is done and your advisors and the university are satisfied, you will be told that you have passed (in my case, I received a letter stating as such).

But, the research never really ends, once you have that passion for that topic - you may find that the research continues, but now to be published as papers (this also has been my experience). Find a topic that ignites the fire in you and you'll find that the PhD is just the start of the journey.

Finally and critically, make sure what you are doing is something that you find fascinating, something that you won't mind putting in many hours of research and work into. Choose something that is either your passion or something related to it. Get ready to challenge yourself on a regular basis.

I hope this helps.

  • Thank you, but when do you know that you are done with the PhD and when is one awarded to you? Dec 25 '13 at 6:10
  • I'll edit something specific about that into my answer
    – user7130
    Dec 25 '13 at 6:11
  • @user95319 I have added a bit about completing the PhD as well - once again, a lot of this is based on my own experience - I just got the letter stating I have completed the PhD literally a week ago, so it is all fresh in my mind.
    – user7130
    Dec 25 '13 at 6:17
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    @user95319 I believe it is where you defend your thesis in front of an academic panel, verbally.
    – user7130
    Dec 25 '13 at 6:32
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    In general, US PhD students have coursework requirements, because it is the "replacement" for the master's phase that most other countries have before the PhD program starts.
    – aeismail
    Dec 25 '13 at 6:49

First, it may be important to remember the purpose of graduate school and a research education. When you receive a PhD, it signifies that you have reached the pinnacle of the education system (some compare this to a pyramid where the Phd education is at the top; there is no higher way of organized education). You have reached a level where you should be able to learn on your own without supervision or advise. More specifically, you should also have reached a level of critical and creative thinking where you can successfully function as a researcher, coming up with new ideas, applying and receiving research grants, be considered an expert in your field, able to teach and advise PhD students. These are all overarching goals with a PhD education. As you can see it is partly a deep understanding of your field but also deep understanding of general academic skills.

Phd programs are different in terms of length and content. Some will have up to two years of courses (such as math programs in my country) and some may not have any course requirements (sometimes defined by an individual study plan defined by the student and his/her advisor). The course work is there to provide necessary background for the project done within a PhD. In most cases, I would argue that the exact courses taken during a PhD are of little formal value, the PhD thesis is what counts in the end. In general, the course work should provide you with whatever basic skills you need. My own experience in graduate school was, however, that I found that I did not need all the courses I planned for when I started. I simply felt that courses became inefficient ways of learning, that I could do it on my own faster. This, for me was a revelation, but, I believe, a natural development. So the amount of course work is individual and depends on the field/topic you are studying.

The length of a PhD project will vary from, for example, 3 year as is the case in the UK to maybe 6-7 years in other academic cultures. Around four years seems to be a fairly normal period. What is achieved within this period is defined by the results but not in terms of excellence of the results. There is of course nothing wrong if you come up with ground-breaking results, but that is not something that can be ordered. Instead the importance lies in the skills you display in terms of the scientific investigations (techniques, analysis) through the conclusions you draw from your work and to how well you write up your findings in a thesis (be it a monograph or a collection of papers). Your advisor should be there to coach you to take the necessary steps towards reaching these goals.

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