The problem is that the PhD system is designed for people who intend to become researchers. For these cases, plagiarism is not at all a common problem. You are expected to published your research, and you will not have a successful career unless it is widely read and cited. That gives lots of opportunities to get caught, and the penalties for plagiarism are a huge deterrent.
To the extent you find plagiarism, it's generally people who do not want a research career, but instead view the PhD simply as an obstacle on the road to a teaching (or other) career. Probably the community should scrutinize these sorts of theses more carefully, but it can be hard to work up the energy to do so when most of them are OK, and when these theses really don't matter much for the research world.
The German politicians are pretty much the worst case scenario. In the US, the stereotypical case is educational administrators. Typically, you have a distinguished person who starts to feel the need for a PhD. Perhaps it's because they associate with academics and feel looked down upon, or perhaps it's because an academic endorsement would make the public value their expertise more. This student is very smart and accomplished, and nobody suspects them of any dishonesty. However, they are also very busy, often working on a PhD while pursuing other projects as well, and academic research is not a priority. At some point, they succumb to pressure and start taking shortcuts. Probably it starts with small things, but the shortcuts gradually grow larger. They rationalize that the thesis doesn't really matter anyway, because they have no intention of following an academic career track. After all, they have the knowledge and experience, and they deserve the PhD title, so what difference does one document make anyway? Meanwhile, the advisor probably doesn't spend that much time working with the student, and has no reason to suspect anything. The advisor really ought to be extra careful in cases like this, but that would seem like an insult to the student, so it's easiest just to trust them.
So my take on this is that plagiarism is not as widespread as news stories might suggest. It's just particularly likely to happen in cases where it would attract media attention.
Do you have a love of wisdom and a clear field of academic interest? If so, a PhD might be the right choice for you. But what is a PhD, and how can you get one? Read on for a complete guide to PhDs…
PhD is short for Doctor of Philosophy (also abbreviated to DPhil or Dr.Philos). This is an academic or professional degree that, in most countries, qualifies the degree holder to teach their chosen subject at university level or to work in a specialized position in their chosen field.
The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Ancient Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia), literally translated as ‘love of wisdom’. It originally signified an individual who had achieved a comprehensive general education in the fundamental issues of the present world. Today, the Doctor of Philosophy still requires a love of wisdom, but applies to individuals who have pursued knowledge in a much more specialized field.
If you’re a visual person, this simple but effective illustration by Matt Might can help you conceptualize your PhD.
What is a PhD?
A PhD is a globally recognized postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities and higher education institutions to a candidate who has submitted a thesis or dissertation, based on extensive and original research in their chosen field. Take another look at that last sentence, because it might possibly be the only thing that can be said about a PhD that remains true regardless of country, institution and academic field. Beyond this, the specificities of PhD degrees vary depending on where you are and what subject you’re studying.
In general, however, the PhD is the highest level of degree a student can achieve (with some exceptions, which are covered below). It usually follows a master’s degree, although some institutions also allow students to progress straight to a PhD from their bachelor’s degree. Some institutions also offer the opportunity to “upgrade” or “fast-track” your master’s degree to a PhD, provided you are deemed to possess the necessary grades, knowledge, skills and research abilities.
Traditionally, a PhD involves three to four years of full-time study (can be six years or more if studied part-time), in which the student completes a substantial piece of original research presented as a thesis or dissertation. Some PhD programs instead accept a portfolio of published papers, while some countries require coursework to be submitted as well.
Students must also complete a ‘viva voce’ or oral defense of their PhD. This can be with just a small number of examiners, or in front of a large examination panel (both usually last between one to three hours). While PhD students are traditionally expected to study on campus under close supervision, distance education and e-learning schemes have meant a growing number of universities are now accepting part-time and distance-learning PhD students.
PhD admission requirements
Generally speaking, PhD admission requirements relate to the candidate’s grades (usually at both bachelor’s level and master’s level) and their potential research capabilities. Most institutions require that candidates hold an honors degree or a master’s degree with high academic standing, along with a bachelor’s degree with at least upper second-class honors. In some cases, you can also apply for a PhD simply on the basis of your master’s degree grades. Grades-based PhD admission requirements may also be based on the type of funding you will be using – you may be able apply with lower grades if you self-fund your PhD (read more on PhD funding here).
Some institutions and subjects (such as psychology and some humanities and science subjects) stipulate that you must find a tenured professor in your chosen institution to serve as your formal advisor and supervisor throughout your PhD program before you can be formally accepted into the program. In other cases, you will be assigned a supervisor based on your research subject and methodology once you have been accepted into the PhD program.
Either way, it is a good idea to approach a faculty member in your chosen institution before applying for a PhD, in order for them to determine whether your research interests align well with the department, and perhaps even help you to brainstorm PhD research options.
PhD applications: Language proficiency
Some PhD applications require proof of proficiency in the language in which you intend to study. You can either provide the results of an approved standardized language exam taken recently, or show evidence of having completed undergraduate or postgraduate study in the relevant language.
PhD applications: Employment/academic references
Some institutions may also ask for a record of your employment such as a résumé, and/or all your academic transcripts, including details of course modules and module content as part of your PhD application. Details of other research projects you have completed and any publications you have been featured in can also help your application.
Many PhD applicants are also asked to provide references from two or three people who know them well in an academic setting, such as their undergraduate or postgraduate tutors or professors. These references must have a particular focus on your academic performance, coursework and research abilities, your research potential and your interest in your chosen field of study. For this reason, it is important to develop relationships with faculty members during your pre-PhD studies.
PhD applications: Personal statements
Many institutions ask for a personal statement - a short essay which you can use to demonstrate your passion for your chosen subject. You can outline your reasons for wanting to study a PhD, personal motivations for doing so, any extracurricular activities that are particularly relevant or should be highlighted, and any flexibility in your chosen area(s) of research. If you need help, many institutions have a guide to personal statements on their website, which can also help you tailor your personal statement to each institution.
PhD applications: PhD research proposals
Finally, in order to be considered for a place on a PhD program, applicants are expected to submit a PhD research proposal. A research proposal:
- Outlines your proposed research topics in the context of previous work,
- Highlights your awareness of current debates within the field,
- Demonstrates a suitable level of analysis,
- Identifies relevant gaps in current knowledge,
- Suggests a relevant research hypothesis to fill some of these gaps,
- Explains your intended research methodology in sufficient detail,
- Discusses the implications to real-world policy that your PhD proposal may invite.
This will help admissions tutors to assess your aptitude for PhD research, and also to determine whether your research interests align with their own research priorities and available facilities. They will also consider whether they have the relevant staff to provide you sufficient supervisory expertise.
For this reason in particular, it is important to research institutions thoroughly before applying for a PhD. Not only will you be happier if your research interests fit in with those of your chosen institution, but institutions may be forced to reject your application simply on the basis of discrepancies between their research interests and yours. Note that this initial research proposal is not necessarily binding – it is usually a starting point from which to further develop your research idea.
Some subject areas (such as science and engineering) do not ask for original research proposals. Instead, the institution presents a selection of PhD research projects which are formulated by the supervisor(s) concerned and peer-reviewed. This may be done at a certain time of year or year-round, depending on the institution. Students can then submit a statement demonstrating a clear understanding of the research to be undertaken and their suitability to undertake it.
These PhD research projects may also have been formulated in consultation with another organization that may provide funding/scholarships for the successful candidate. These pre-defined PhD projects are less common in arts, humanities and social sciences subjects, where it’s more common for students to submit their own proposals.
Applying for a PhD without relevant qualifications
If you wish to do a PhD but do not have the relevant qualifications or their equivalent, you may still be able to apply for a PhD program by fulfilling additional requirements as stipulated by your institution of choice. Some possible requirements could be to undertake specified extra study or passing a qualifying examination.
You may also be able to make a special case to your chosen institution, either on the basis of a non-degree professional qualification and considerable practical experience, or on the basis of foreign qualifications. Special case PhD applications will require the strong backing of your potential supervisor, so you will need to seek his/her advice and support before applying in this manner.
PhDs through MPhil
Another option available for potential PhD candidates is to apply as a general research student or for an MPhil degree. This is a common path taken by PhD candidates. The MPhil is an advanced master’s degree awarded for research and can be suitable for students who do not have a strong research background. You will be required to take some taught courses to get you up to speed with things like research methods.
The successful completion of a one-year taught program may lead to the award of the MRes degree, which includes more taught components than the MPhil and can be awarded in lieu of a PhD for students who have not completed the required period of study for a PhD. Alternatively, the successful completion of original research may lead to the award of the MPhil degree, which can be awarded without the candidate having to present a defense of their dissertation (a requirement to achieve a PhD).
If, after the first or second year of your research (i.e. during your MPhil), the institution is satisfied with the progress of your work, you may then be able to apply for full PhD registration. Usually, your supervisor or tutor will be in charge of determining whether you are ready to progress to a PhD. If you’re deemed to be ready, you will then need to develop a title for your thesis and choose your PhD program.
Starting a PhD
When registration has been completed you should be formally informed of: your supervisor(s) and their area(s) of expertise; the topic or field of PhD research for which you have been accepted; the minimum length of time required before submission of your thesis; the formal assessment methods preferred by the institution.
Most institutions will also provide you with a comprehensive list of provisions and available facilities for PhD and research students at the university. They will also include a detailed outline of the milestones you must reach on your journey to achieve a PhD. Your supervisor will be in charge of going through these milestones with you, making reports on your progress, and advising you on your next steps. You will need to make adequate progress each year in order to continue your PhD studies.
Alternatives to a PhD
When looking for PhD programs, keep in mind that there are several types of degrees which have the term “doctor” in their title, such as the Juris Doctor (common in the US, Canada, Australia, Mexico and parts of Asia), the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) or the Doctor of Pharmacy (DPharm) and the US and Canada version of the Doctor of Medicine (MD).
These degrees are generally not classified as PhDs as they lack that vital component that really defines the PhD: academic research. These other types of doctorate degrees are instead referred to as ‘entry-level doctorate degrees’. Candidates who wish to pursue a PhD may do so afterwards, and this may be known as a ‘post-professional doctorate’.
Neither the JD nor the US/Canada MD programs universally require students to complete a specified academic research component in order to be awarded the degree title. However, there are also many research degrees such as the MD, which conduct scholarly research (medical in the case of the MD) which is published in peer-reviewed journals. This makes them very similar to PhDs, and some countries consider them equivalent. Some institutions therefore offer combined professional and research training degrees, such as the MD-PhD dual program, which is useful for medical professionals looking to pursue a research career.
Degrees higher than a PhD
In addition to various degrees which may be considered equivalent to a PhD, there are also some ‘higher doctorate’ courses considered to be a step above the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). These are most common in UK universities and in some European countries, although they are increasingly awarded as honorary degrees. The US does not have a system of higher doctorates, and offer the titles solely as honorary degrees. Honorary degrees are sometimes signified by adding ‘hc’ (for honoris causa) to the end of the degree title.
Some higher doctorate degrees include:
- Doctor of Science (DS/SD): Awarded in recognition of a substantial and sustained contribution to scientific knowledge beyond that required for a PhD.
- Doctor of Literature/Letters (DLit/DLitt/LitD): Awarded in recognition of achievement in the humanities or for original contribution to the creative arts.
- Doctor of Divinity (DD): Awarded above the Doctor of Theology (DTh), usually to recognize the recipient’s ministry-oriented accomplishments.
- Doctor of Music (DMus): Awarded in the UK, Ireland and some Commonwealth countries on the basis of a substantial portfolio of compositions and/or scholarly publications on music.
- Doctor of Civil Law (DCL): Highest doctorate excepting the DD, offered on the basis of exceptionally insightful and distinctive publications that contain significant and original contributions to the study of law or politics in general.
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