What is a PhD

In this article, I will describe what a PhD is. The goal is to shed light on this certification for people who are interested in getting one and for those would simply like to understand what it is all about. I am doing a PhD in Natural Language Processing in HEC Liège and I will explain what I know about it. 

The basics

A PhD is the highest university degree that one can earn in most countries. It differs from the other degrees such as master or bachelor as it is a research degree. A PhD is there to prepare the student to become a researcher. It is also a necessary degree if one wishes to become a professor. 

Another big difference between a PhD and a master is that a PhD is basically a job. It is often paid and time is mostly spent in an office. While the student has to follow a few courses, most of the time is spent learning to do research. For this purpose, the PhD student is under the supervision of a professor who is there to guide him. 

The PhD can last 3-6 years. In my faculty, a PhD lasts 4 years unless you also work as a teaching assistant, in this case it lasts 6 years. You could take longer than the prescribed amount of time but in that case there is the risk of losing funding and having to continue without pay which can be challenging.

A PhD is centered around a long-term research project. This project can be proposed by the student or can be decided by the professor. In some cases, a company can fund a PhD and therefore decide the project. This project often needs to be divided into smaller goals that can be solved during the PhD and then put together to provide a solution. 

A PhD is an adventure in the sense that every student will have a different project with its own particularities. Hence, it can be difficult to get used to it at first. Even if your supervisor works in the same field as you, he might not be knowledgeable about the particularities of your project. Thus, the first part of a PhD is often to read a lot about what others researchers have done on the subject. The goal is first to understand and define the concepts relevant to the project, how they came about, and how they are related. Then considering the problem to be solved, one needs to learn the current state-of-the-art to understand what has already been achieved and what has yet to be solved.

Key points

A PhD student is not expected to revolutionize the world, the goal is to learn the art of research first and foremost. Nonetheless you are expected to contribute to the state of science. Research in general is not revolutionary in nature. There are only so many Einsteins in a century and that’s a good thing otherwise no one could keep up with the state of things. In reality most scientists contribute a little bit every year but there are a few millions of them and that’s how science evolves. Even Einstein needed other scientists to check his work.

Speaking of Einstein, high level of intelligence is not necessarily the most important ability for a PhD student. While being somewhat intelligent is needed, perseverance, discipline and creativity can arguably be more important. A PhD is a few long years of working on something only a few people around you can understand. Hence, a good tolerance to stress and a dedicated passion can be much more important than intelligence.

One last misconception is about the supervisor. His job is not to tell you what to do but to guide you. I am lucky to have a supervisor that checks up on me every two weeks but some students see their supervisor every few months. Ultimately, you can decide what to research, when and how with the obvious constraint that it should all converge to a final coherent thesis in accordance with the initial long term research.

A typical day for me

A typical day does not really exist, every day there is something different to do. Yet there are tasks that I do or try to do every day. My first task of the day is often to read. It can be scientific papers or courses and the reasons are many. I may be trying to learn a concept, see what methods were developed to solve a particular problem or look out for research opportunities. Reading itself is a complex task, there are more scientific papers published every day than can be read by someone. Hence, I need to strategize what to read and what not to read.  

After reading, I write. Usually, there is always something to write between scientific papers, courses and administrative stuff. The afternoon, I tend to do other things like programming and working on experiments. Other tasks are more punctual : I am part of a jury for a master thesis and I also helped my professor with one project for one of his courses.

Final note

A PhD is an experience like no other. If you have the opportunity to start one and you love learning, don’t hesitate. It can be lonely at times and there will be many challenges but it’s an incredibly valuable experience. 

Judicael Poumay (Ph.D.)