A PhD is an achievement, not an activity

‘What do you do?’ is a question we’re often asked when we meet someone new. How do you answer? I’m doing a PhD? I’m a researcher? I’m in academia?

Actually, you don’t really ‘do’ a PhD at all. I know we say this to our fellow researchers, as a kind of shorthand. ‘I’m doing a PhD on medieval festivals, and their influence on the balance of power in English towns in the Middle Ages’, I might have once said!

But think about it: you actually ‘do’ a whole range of highly skilled tasks in the pursuit of your research topic. You carry out research, present your work, write grant applications, publish articles and reviews, defend your arguments, conduct fieldwork, organise conferences and manage experiments. You do all of these activities in order to develop your dissertation and prepare for your viva defence.

So strictly speaking, a PhD is an achievement that you earn, not an activity that you do. Your PhD is the outcome of a sophisticated research and communication process, in the same way that a novel is the outcome of a creative writing process, or a bridge is the outcome of a complex engineering process. 

Take action now: Find a form of words for talking about yourself which avoids scholarly and academic types of language. Notice when you use expressions like doing a PhD, studying, dissertating, writing a thesis, in grad school or still in university to describe what you do. Try the following ways of talking about your profession instead:

  • I manage a grant-funded research project on behalf of [name of funding organisation]
  • I’m working on a cure for [name of disease]
  • I analyse changes in culture and society and help policy makers to make better decisions
  • I’m a conservationist who specialises in [name of specialism]
  • I help the public to understand the heritage and history of [name of country, region or culture]
  • I’m training the next generation of [name of profession e.g. chemists, engineers, English teachers] and I help them get better at [your research area]

I’d love to hear how you’ve chosen to describe your work – please leave a reply below, or a comment on the Jobs on Toast Facebook page, or tweet me (an even harder challenge, keeping it to 140 characters)!

Further reading – marketing yourself

Applying for jobs outside academia – from PhD to fellow professional, by Chris
How to tell a great story about your transition out of academia, by Chris
How to recognise and overcome the failure story after your PhD, by Chris
Feeling like a failure? 4 strategies for beating the post-PhD blues, by Chris

2 Replies to “A PhD is an achievement, not an activity”

  1. I agree with your thesis and your points about the verbiage PhD candidates may use to describe their work, namely that earning a PhD is a milestone in an academic career, rather than the culmination. I disagree, however, with your assertion that earning an PhD is akin to building a bridge or writing a novel. The purpose of building a brigde isn’t the process, it’s the product–the finished bridge. Similarly, the purpose of writing is often the product, rather than the writing process itself. When these goals are accomplished, the creator has a completed item. S/he may choose to begin again, but has to do so from scratch. Conversely, when one earns a PhD, it symbolises an “achievement unlocked” at the beginning of a career, whereupon one can now be considered an expert in a given field. Subsequent work in that field – while containing its own series of beginnings and endings – is a continuation of the process. PhD candidates may not yet be considered experts, but they should show pride in their work by valuing it as you described!

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