A PhD is an achievement, not an activity

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)!