I know that different learning and research institutions have different rules of what a student must achieve to learn their Ph.D. But what are some general or common skills students in fact have to adopt? If we have ranks like Ph.D., docent, and professor each level probably consists of some amount of knowledge or new skills the applicants have to achieve. So I am interested in knowing what those are in general for post-graduate and how they differ from Master's or docent preparation.

I could hypothesize, that the goal is to get deeper knowledge in a specific area and get in touch with certain types of research methods. But into what depth? How it differs from higher-ranking academics, etc.?

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    This question is far too broad for a proper single answer. The skills one needs to get a PhD are the skills which convince an institution, usually by way of a doctoral thesis committee, to grant a PhD. These vary widely by subject area.
    – user137975
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 19:24
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    @AnonymousM Yes, I know it is not standardized and therefore the requirements are different for each commission. Nevertheless, I think that it can be subjectively averaged based on the knowledge of people in higher academics. Although it is different everywhere, degree holders must have some set of similar skills to be able to move between different institutions.
    – Juandev
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 19:37
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    So it would be interesting to get some paper on the topic, but from my fast literature review in the Web of Science, I came to the conclusion, that the topic was not at the center of scientific research and find just DOI 10.1037/0003-066X.49.9.806, which was cited by some consequent similar studies.
    – Juandev
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 19:45
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    I find it a bit unfortunate that the question was closed (and I thus voted to reopen). Sure, the question is broad and quite vague - after reading it first I had also gathered that it might be too broad and too vague. However, what if not the existence of several very good answers could be evidence enough that the question can be reasonably answered on this site? Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 21:45
  • @JochenGlueck I find this one rather challenging and don't entirely disagree with your point. There are multiple things going on that swayed me in the opposite direct: There is not just one vague question, but multiple ones. It has correspondingly attracted popular answers to different questions that don't even clearly answer what's posed in the original. The question posed is not: "What is the point of graduate school?" It seems to me it could be edited perhaps into something good and not a duplicate, but I'm not positive. I wish that it didn't hit HNQ, which confused the situation further.
    – user137975
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 17:21

5 Answers 5


Something that I have noticed among students is that they generally expect the "next" thing to be basically the same as the thing they are doing right now, only harder. The reality is that most transitions in education represent a change in kind. Earning a PhD is not about just studying one thing deeper, or honing a specific set of skills. It is not just "masters work, only harder".

I think that the nature of a PhD program was very well summarized by Matt Might:

enter image description here

Roughly speaking, before you start your PhD work, you are building skills. You are learning the basic language of your chosen field, and learning what has already been done. In a PhD program, you are ostensibly conducting your first semi-independent research project. It is in a PhD program that you learn to be an independent researcher. The goal of PhD research is not deeper learning of what is already known, but pushing the boundaries of what is known.

Upon completing a PhD, the expectation is that you will be able to conduct research on your own. A PhD program is about learning the skills to be an independent researcher.

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    Thanks for posting this. I was thinking of that same figure. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 18:59
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    That figure is excellent! Talk about an image being worth a thousand words!
    – terdon
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 17:55

Strictly speaking, to earn a PhD, the skill set is much smaller than it is to be a successful academic. Moreover, some will become successful without some of the nominally required skills.

But, for a PhD, the normal requirement is that you demonstrate, via a dissertation, that you can do novel research that contributes to a narrow subfield of some larger field. Along the way, and contributing to that, you generally need broad knowledge of the overall field (math, history, philosophy,...) and the ability to write effectively enough that others accept the results of your research. That also implies that you know the general research process of your field.

While a somewhat narrower set is all you need for the dissertation itself, most graduate education systems insist on the set above, at least.

However, to be an effective academic, you need more in theory, though not everyone will exhibit them in practice. You need communication skills, speaking and writing. Organizational skills (more important in some fields than others). Teaching skills (more important for some careers than others). Interpersonal skills (so that others don't try to exclude you). Ethical skills (so that you don't go off the rails).

And the broader set, above, is synergistic. They contribute to one another.

Probably a few more if I think for a bit longer. But those come mostly independently of the skills required for earning a doctorate and all can be gained and enhanced over time.

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    I wish I could upvote this answer 100 times just for the paragraph starting with "However, to be an effective academic,...". I did not expect to meet so many academics who lack at least one of these skills, especially communication skills.
    – mhdadk
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 12:37

"You demonstrate that you made a meaningful contribution to the sum of total human knowledge."

  • The PhD thesis should include genuinely novel research on a subject. (Some exceptions can be made for simultaneous discoveries, etc.)
  • That implies the knowledge of the state of the art in that field to judge where the summary of prior discoveries ends and where the own work starts.
  • To be meaningful, the thesis also needs to conform to the professional standards of the field (regarding style, presentation, citation of prior science, etc.) and be published in a professional way.
  • In addition, the candidate needs to present the results in more accessible formats than the thesis, e.g. lectures, conference talks. Just writing something is not enough if the candidate cannot give suitable lectures to a group of interested undergrad students, and different ones to a group of postdocs. (Exceptions may be made to compensate for disabilities, but they must keep sight of the fact that interaction with other researchers is essential.)

The idealistic answer is that the student must present a novel discovery in their field. This means it has to be something new - you can't just redo an experiment that was already done. However it doesn't have to be significant or impactful at the PhD level. Even higher-tier programs can be pretty forgiving with "insignificant" discoveries for a dissertation. You will also have to demonstrate sufficient technical knowledge related to your discovery and the ability to communicate it clearly. These are all subjective and decided by your dissertation committee.

Also, historically, a PhD means that you are qualified to teach at the highest levels, i.e. that you may now train other PhDs yourself. These days, the job market is tough, and it is rare to get a faculty position with "just" a PhD. But in principle, the ability to "procreate" is the essence of the PhD. In the 70s and before, it was not uncommon to start a faculty position immediately after completing a PhD.

The "real" answer is that typically it is desirable that:

  • You publish many papers
  • You publish first author papers
  • You publish high impact papers
  • You are able to secure grants
  • You are highly employable as a postdoc in the field and ideally already have tentative job offers

I said earlier that the discovery doesn't have to be impactful. That's true, but your advisor will not want you to attempt defense if you don't have good papers out. For papers, impact matters. And while technically papers are not required to defend a PhD, your advisor's blessing is, so you see how that works.

Moreover, remember that early in the PhD there will be a proposal mechanism such as the qualifying exams. This is where you present a detailed proposal of the research you are planning to do for your PhD. Your committee might not accept your proposal if it seems unlikely to yield interesting results. So if you have already passed your quals, done the research, and the results turned out uninteresting - oh well, you "can" still defend (but assuming your advisor or committee doesn't care about lack of strong papers). But they also try to prevent that very situation at the qual stage.

There may also be some trivial institutional requirements such as must have taken X courses, must have TA'd Y times, etc. These will depend on the institution, they're not universal.

So I am interested in knowing what those are in general for post-graduate and how they differ from Master's or docent preparation.

A Master's dissertation does not require the work to be novel. However, like all degrees, a Master's also requires you to satisfy whatever requirements your advisor has. Master's advisors are generally the same professors that take on PhD students, and it's not unheard of for them to have a strong bias towards novel work. So they may insist that you work on novel things or else refuse to let you defend, whether the degree technically requires the work to be novel or not. Also, not all Master's degrees require a dissertation - some just let you complete coursework. Generally, the degree indicates advanced knowledge of a field, which may be desirable for private employers seeking highly trained specialists. A Master's degree does not normally qualify you to train other Master's students, nor indicate the ability to perform independent research, in contrast to a PhD.

I'm not really familiar with docents since they are a European thing. It also varies a lot with country and isn't much of a universality. Generally, this is an expression of a fresh PhD still not being enough to become a professor straight out of school. Since the PhD is now not enough, the grads are expected to publish some more meaty papers, so that a committee can finally certify them as suitable for professorship. Professorship isn't automatic in any country - even in places like USA with no "docent" rank, you still have to first please a department sufficiently as to get hired as a junior professor, then impress them further at tenure review to become a full professor. The things they look at are the same: Do you have many important papers, and are you getting many good grants. Just some countries give you an official title, others handle it more informally.

Technically, a docent must also demonstrate research that is independent, as opposed to how a PhD student is supervised by someone. However that's sort of a given. There's not many tenure-track post doc positions, and you usually do not get to this stage without already being some sort of faculty.

In sum, I guess you can say that procedural requirements dominate the difficulty of obtaining a PhD, MS or docentship. Therefore, many important skill requirements are implicit. Those that are required explicitly paint a very incomplete picture.

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    At my institute it was also common that there were no aimed research goals, instead, after x years (usually 4-7 years) you write down what you did, try to make a big picture out of it and submit it. But I have to say the success rate was not that high but however, many professors thought this is the way to go, meaning, give them a contract, wait some years and ask them what they got. Nowadays phd programs and stuff is not research in their eyes.
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 6:39
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    @Ben If Ph.D. programs are not research in their eyes, it's also their fault, because they have formed it like that.
    – Juandev
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 6:57
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    @Ben Really? Guess you learn something new every day. I'd be pretty pissed if I spent 5 years working on something because no one told me not to, and then I fail the defense because "well you shouldn't have worked on that". Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 7:00
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    yep, this happened to some people I know. One of my best friends was or still is facing this situation.. he was one of the very best math students, got one (of the very rare) phd positions at the math institute at a rather new professor (who managed to get a permanent position meanwhile at a quite young age for a professor). After around 4-5 years this professor changed the university (to one that offered him this position) and since then he doesn't care about the phd of my friend anymore who is now pursuing his phd for 9 years, but he stopped working on it around two years ago..
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 12:55
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    p.s.: The university itself is saying "Well, the professor changed the university, we have no control over him,.." and other professors won't accept his phd as the topic doesn't touch their field. In addition, as he also had not been in a phd program and was, you could say, regularly working as a scientist (which meant he also had to hold lectures, carry out exams and stuff), there is also not any legal way to get a hold of that professor. In my eyes, he somehow abused my friend as he did really a lot of stuff alongside so the professor could dive into research and get a position, finally..
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 12:58

See "Advice for New Graduate Students", by Jennifer Rexford (September 27, 2010), on the Freedom to Tinker blog.

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