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I have been offered a place as a PhD student in an English-speaking university, however, I'm a little concerned that the department may be a bit broad and generic (not the project though; it appeals to me greatly and is specific to my interests). It's not a big university, and as a consequence doesn't really have a granular department/group structure.

When it comes to the concept of the work a PhD entails, I understand it well; however, (rather ashamedly) I am questioning my understanding of the relationship between the University name, the school, and the research topic in the formulation of the PhD title, as well as how one might refer to the degree in official situations. It was my understanding that, technically, a PhD should be a standalone demonstration of novel research, and can stand on its own merits without further qualification of which group/department you did your research under, rather than the department forming the basis of the answer to the standard sort of, "What's your PhD in?" questions.

For example, a quite specific biology-related project might be attached to a Biology Department, Computer Science department, or to Engineering etc. depending on the disciplines involved.

Would that individual refer to their study as a "PhD in Biology Department"/"PhD in CS Department" etc. on record, e.g. a faculty page/LinkedIn or would they more likely use "PhD in A quite specific biology discipline" based on the content of their PhD, e.g. viral microbiology or cancer bioinformatics?

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  • How people refer to their PhDs is up to them. Officially, your diploma will likely say “PhD in [name of discipline]”, usually without using the word “department”. It is true that for interdisciplinary work, the name of the discipline could be somewhat arbitrary and depend on which specific department you were formally associated with during your studies, even if the same research could have equally well been done in another department.
    – Dan Romik
    May 21 at 3:33
  • @DanRomik It varies by country/university whether you get a PhD "in" a field, cf. my answer below.
    – Sverre
    May 22 at 16:03
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For formal purposes, a university will make a specific designation, but it might be pretty general: mathematics, or humanities (terrifically broad, that last one).

But informally you can almost always say what you like. My degree is in mathematics according to the university, but my preferred designation is (mathematical) real analysis. Actually, I studied a lot of math just to pass prelims and I took quite a few topology courses as well. But my dissertation was in real analysis and that is what I'll say when asked. Even if it is fairly formal, such as a job application.

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    Yep. Mine is officially "Biomedical Engineering" but that can mean almost anything, and I haven't actually worked in biomed since 2006. So in a job application I'll usually describe it as something like "a computation-modelling-oriented PhD" and leave the formal title for my CV. May 21 at 2:57
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Most departments I am aware of award one PhD (as opposed to some that might award BAs and BSes, etc). So the math department will award a Phd in math, but the applied math department - if it exists - will award a PhD in applied math.

So formally, your PhD is in a broad topic, but any place it matters will give you space to elaborate.

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In my experience, almost every time someone asks that question, the question that they actually want an answer to is "give me an abstract of your thesis, in a form which is understandable with my level of familiarity with the subject".

On paper, it's almost always "PhD, [broad subject]". Mine is "PhD, Mathematics" on my CV, for example.

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I think this might vary across countries, but in Germany, you have to register as a PhD candidate in a specific department, with the department being more (or often less) related to the research topic of the PhD, but mainly being the department that your supervisor is in.

People then mostly say I did my PhD in specialty of the department about topic of your research.

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My Ph.D. isn't officially "in" any subject. Unlike my undergraduate degree from the same institution, there is no subject area on my diploma, and at my doctoral commencement, all doctorates in the school were awarded together, regardless of the departmental affiliations of the new graduates. However (especially earlier in my academic career), it was sometimes important to answer questions about what subject my Ph.D. was in. I was located in the mathematics department, in the applied math program. (The doctoral programs in pure and applied math had separate admissions processes and somewhat different requirements.) However, my advisor was in a different department (which was not uncommon for applied math grad students). When I was looking for jobs, I applied to positions in both applied mathematics and physics, and a explained that I had earned a "Ph.D. in applied mathematics," although my advisor has been in the physics department and my dissertation work was in theoretical physics.

For somebody doing computational biology (or whatever else), the appropriate answer to a query about the subject of the Ph.D. would be analogous. For example, they might say, "My Ph.D. is in biology, although my thesis research was on programming predator-prey models of parasitoidy, and my advisor was...," etc. This gives the official answer and also provides what is really the most important information that another academic might be interested in: What was their thesis work about?

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This varies by country (and perhaps by university), so there is no general rule. In the US, for instance, where I did my PhD, you're typically admitted as a PhD student to an academic program, and your PhD is "in" whatever that program is. In my case, I literally have a PhD "in linguistics", and this is written on all diplomas and transcripts issued by the university.

But in Norway, for instance, where I am now, you're not admitted to any program to do a PhD, you're hired by a department to complete a PhD, and that's it. Technically speaking, you don't get a PhD "in" anything here, you're simply getting a PhD degree from the school/university. Informally, of course, people say they're doing a PhD "in [name of field]", and many also put that on their CV, even though it's technically incorrect.

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