What Even IS a PhD Anyway? (and a bit about the academic levels)


It has struck me numerous times that we’re not very good at telling people about what a PhD is never mind the rest of the academic stages. I noticed this most when I was an undergraduate masters (more on that in a bit) student who spent some time socialising with PhD students. I didn’t really have a clue what it meant to be one, all I know was that they seemed to know everything. Since then, I’ve spoken with numerous people both in and out of formal education and realised that this whole academic system is very mysterious to most people and that we don’t do anything to make that clearer. So, in recognition of this, I’ve decided to use what experience I have to outline the different stages in an academic career from school to professorship. Keeping in mind that this is a very UK-biased perspective and that subtle differences exist in other countries, I hope this gives you at least some clarity on the subject.

High School/Secondary School/College

Compulsory education in the UK used to stop at 16 whereby school kids could leave with GCSEs and move onward. At this stage, you do largely compulsory subjects and usually do a large range of them (I did 11, for example). These are graded A*-U and provide the standard suit of qualifications to move on to college/6th form, apprenticeships, or simply leave school. College/6th form continues schooling until age 18 and students spend 2 years studying 3-4 subjects to gain A Levels. These form the entry requirements for most university courses but are also used for the same reasons as GCSEs. More recently, education has become compulsory until age 18 so these lines have become more blurry. Scotland, also, has a slightly different system but the fundamentals remain the same: compulsory school, optional school, final grades. they also narrow down the number of subjects taken towards the end.

Undergraduate Degree

The term “undergraduate” is a little vague but encompasses everything before one has a degree from a higher education institution (such as a university). In the UK, most students take a single subject (e.g. maths, history) from the start and over 3-5 years go from a broad education in that subject to specialising in certain topics and taking on large projects in the form of dissertations or research experience. Different places allow students different amounts of optional modules both within and from out with their majors. The 3-5 year range is caused by a variety of reasons. In Scotland, all degrees are 4 years as standard. By doing this, they essentially create an addition year prior to those which count towards a students degree. Thus they are able to provide a greater range within their foundation topics before specialising. There are also a few ways in which a standard 3 year degree can be extended to 4 years. Firstly, you can continue for a fourth year and achieve an ‘undergraduate masters’ degree. This is held to the same level as a masters but without completing two separate degrees. During this option you will get additional specialised training and/or research experience during this time. Secondly, placements to study in another country exist. Students will leave for a year prior to their final year and spend time studying the subject in their chosen country. they will have language lessons throughout their degree and be expected to maintain a certain grade in them. Finally, work placement years also exist which work similar to studying aboard but instead doing full time work in industry or similar. An undergraduate degree is graded as 1st class (1), upper 2nd class (2.1), lower 2nd class (2.2), 3rd class (3), or fail. You almost exclusively require a 2.1 and above to get onto a PhD and a 2.2 or above to get into a masters.

Postgraduate Degree: Masters

Masters degrees require you to already have an undergraduate one. They come in a huge range of types and content including specialist knowledge, research training, and conversion courses (for example, to law). They are 1-2 years and 12 months a year (as opposed to the 8 months of undergraduate ones). People often take these to change career direction or gain additional experience to make them stand out in the job market. They are graded as Distinction, merit, pass, or fail.

Postgraduate Degree: Philosophical Doctorate (PhD)

Here’s where things get a little vague: what the hell is a PhD anyway? It’s taken me a lot of time and conversations to get a real sense of what one is. The trouble comes from the fact that you’re still working towards a degree (and are thus a student) but you do not have semesters and modules, barely any deadlines, and work full-time. It really blurs the line between what we think of as a “student” and something more. The simplest way I’ve learned to think about it is this: a PhD is a research apprenticeship. During a PhD, you spend 3-4 years learning to do research independently whilst under the guidance and support of somebody who has already succeeded in making a career out of it. You’re expected to work on your own interests and come up with your own ways of approaching it. Your supervisor isn’t there to give you tasks and assignments but is their to train you in developing ideas by shaping them with you. Where appropriate, they also are their to train your practical skills.

The second vagueness about a PhD is funding, so let me clarify this. PhD studentships are financial packages including money for the host institution to pay tuition fees (yes, we pay them too) and a tax-free sum for the student to live on (a stipend, paid monthly). The best of packages pay above the minimum (~£14k) in stipend and also provide some money for research costs. These studentships come from the government (via taxes) who allocate some to research and development councils, who in turn distribute them amongst specialised research bodies, who then give them to university departments. This is based, I’m sure, on a huge host of factors which we won’t go into. In the simplest way: departments in universities bid for funded studentships from relevant research councils and use them to attract and fund PhD students. Now, this isn’t the only way. A not insignificant number of PhD students are self-funded (largely in the non-sciences, sadly) and independent researchers can apply for PhD funding within their research grants too (from, for example, The British Heart Foundation). But this is the more common way.

Postdoctoral Research Assistant/Associate (postdocs)

So you’ve done your degree, you’ve done your apprenticeship, you’re ready right? Not yet. Postdocs are finite research positions working under a researcher and their grants on a specific project. They are 1-5 years long though 1-2 is very common. During this time, you are expected to be independently working on a project and whereas a PhD is learning to be a research a postdoc is more akin to putting it into practice. Postdocs may be expected to do more lab management as well as training of younger students as well but usually are given no formal teaching. A hugely variable number of postdoc positions are taken by researchers until they get a permanent job and thus a long time can be spent applying for jobs whilst doing others whilst dealing with uncertainty.


The first step on the ladder in academia (at universities) as lecturer. You are employed by the university to do a combination of research, teaching, and administration but the balance of those depends on the particular position and the number of research grants you attract. Ironically, a “lecturer” can actually be a position where you don’t lecture which seems a bit odd, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day. As a lecturer, you are expected to build your own research lab and network and contribute to the department. We’re beyond my own experience here so I can’t talk too much more about the fine details. After this, it’s all about promotion.

Senior Lecturer/Reader

The next step on the hierarchy is senior lecture/reader. From my understanding, these are equivalent positions and on the same pay level though Reader is considered higher at some universities. The distinguishing factor seems to be the significance of teaching with a heavier commitment expected from senior lecturers than readers. More admin may be expected but otherwise this is a continuation of the lecturer position.


At the top of this hierarchy (excluding taking roles such as heads of school and higher) is Professor. This is often awarded in recognition of a long and/or significant career contributing to their field and is highly regarded. The recently promoted will also often give an ‘inaugural lecture’ as professor where they will present a history of their key work. The status of prof in the UK is distinguished here from that in northern america where it is used to denote one who teaches at a university.

There are other job roles in this system including technicians, various administrators, outreach officers etc but what has been presented is more akin to the primary or classical route. I hope this makes some things more clear. I welcome more questions and especially clarifications where I’ve made some wrong calls about the things I am less well versed in!

Thanks for reading 🙂


Why Miles Morales should have been the MCU’s Spider-Man


Miles Morales is a Hispanic-African American high-schooler who becomes enhanced when his uncle steals a formula design to reproduce Peter Parker’s abilities. A rogue experimental spider hitchhikes a ride and ends u biting Miles, causing him to transform and gain superhuman strength, precognition, the ability to cling to walls, and camouflage. Miles is fearful of superheroes due to his upbringing, and resents his new-found abilities, but after certain events decides to use them where he can do something he deems is good. I feel Miles would have provided a stronger alternative for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)’s Spider-Man on grounds of storytelling, professional rights, and (inevitably) diversity.

Ultimately, including Miles rather than Peter would…

…introduce the audience to new stories with the same glamour

We know Peter Parker, we’ve seen him 5 times prior to his return to Marvel. We know that he was raised by his aunt and uncle, the latter of which died at the hands of a street-criminal. We also know that he’s a troubled, nerdy kid straddling the lives of a high schooler trying to nail his algebra homework and deal with bullies whilst having the guts to talk to the pretty girl but also trying to save his neighbourhood with his abilities and tech. Good story but we know it by now. Using Miles Morales in the role of the web-slinger would have given us the opportunity to learn a whole new suit of stories and their associated nuances but under the same flash and dazzle as the Spidey we love. Miles would have brought tales from his past, his high school, his troubles, and his life in general to the big screen. So, we’d get utterly new content to chew on and delve into. He would then suit up and be the swinging hero we love and create some utterly iconic moments as he did in Civil War and Homecoming. Speaking of which…

…do utterly no damage to Captain America: Civil War

Critics to the idea may point out that Tom Holland’s Peter Parker and his role in Civil War was nothing short of fantastic and changing that would have hampered the movie. However, from a viewer’s perspective, it didn’t matter that it was specifically Peter in that role. We were introduced to a character which surprised the rest of the team by merely existing and then going on to demonstrate some pretty kick ass abilities. The wonder of his moments in that film was not Peter, it was his youth, his novelty, and the change-up in brought to the action which could have been accomplished by anybody new. Furthermore, in terms of storytelling, Tony Stark was the only character who had any knowledge about the Parker and thus it would’ve played out the same were it to have been Miles swinging around in a homemade suit catching cars.

…have improved Spiderman: Homecoming, albeit subtly

Spider-Man’s first leading film back at Marvel is nothing short of fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the film from start to finish and it gave us one of if not THE best villain in an MCU villain to date. My point regarding the inclusion of Miles instead of Peter is not that what Peter had let the movie down, but that a subtle within world detail could have been developed in ways more than an Easter-egg for the eager reader. During the film, Peter finds and “threatens” a guy, played by Donald Glover, for information. He takes no shit but eventually agrees to talk and this scene provides a nice example of Peter learning to shake people down for info as well as moving the plot along. Since its release, top dog at Marvel Movies Cap Kev Feige has confirmed that the character Peter shook down was none other than Miles Morales’ uncle (Aaron Davis, “The Prowler”). Glover, incidentally also voices Miles in the animated tv show. The simple switch of including Miles instead of Peter in the scene would have added a level of familial tension with Miles shaking down his criminal uncle for info. The history of the two could then be explored in future films including how they separately delved into crime and heroism and what effects this had on their family.

…go some way to solve the Sony-Marvel Spiderverse issues

Sony have been holding on to the Spiderman property for a while now and whilst they gave us two great Spiderman films they also gave us three ok to terrible ones. Sony doing a deal with Marvel to bring Spidey home seems like a sure win for both companies but since then Sony have announced a Venom (a canonically Spiderverse character) movie and there’s currently no telling when they’ll close the deal and take Peter back. If Marvel had, however, chosen Miles to do the deal with then this would have been less messy for both the companies as well as the audience. Firstly, whilst “Spider-Man” as a title would either be bargained for or shared, the protagonist would have simply been split. Sony could keep exploring Peter whilst Marvel focussed on Miles. A similar agreement about the sharing of villains and other secondary characters could have been made as well and the two companies could have parted ways to do their own thing with their properties. Secondly, the right pitch could have not left the audience going “ANOTHER Spiderman movie.!?” This would have been more difficult for Marvel as they may have had to rebrand the character. Their focus on character-driven storytelling makes me believe they’d find a way to pitch Spiderman in a fresh way and using Miles as a new protagonist would have only aided that. Lastly, the split would have untethered Marvel from prior expectations of the character and allowed them to venture into completely new territories of storytelling but with a character fulfilling the same role in the universe as Peter would have.

…have increased representation

Any discussion of character swapping is going to incite questions of representation. Marvel have taken heat at multiple levels lately on this topic. Be it for ‘whitewashing’ characters such as the Ancient One in Dr Strange (to avoid an outdated racial stereotype), maintaining a character as white in Iron Fist, or increasing diversity with their non-white inheritors of roles such as Iron Man and Captain America, or simply by diversifying the supporting cast as in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Whether these arguments stand on good grounds or not, they won’t be discussed here. But diversity is not a bad thing; we are a diverse world and there’s no reason that should not be reflected in our media, including our heroes. So, in that regard, using Miles in place of Peter ups the ante for diversity by providing a mixed-race leading hero for a film already populated by non-white characters amongst his school friends and the antagonist’s team. Further, it would produce a film where the white guy is the villain overcome by the non-white hero which would flip a few tropes on its head.

Overall, whilst taking a small risk, I feel using Miles Morales in the role of Spider-Man within the MCU would have only strengthened the character and the films. I hope to have convinced you also across the five points I’ve made and welcome any comments you have.

Thanks for reading 😊


Personal qualities you need to be successful in graduate school


Inspired by this tweet:

I had a think and decided that from my experience the following are important (but not all the) personal qualities which you really need to be successful in graduate school. Now these aren’t isolated traits, they definitely interrelate and support each other, but I’m going to outline here why I think they’re important and how they benefit you.


The first one is so obvious that it probably wouldn’t even be considered by most people: you need to be enthusiastic. Wrapped up in enthusiasm is a passion for learning and a fascination with your discipline/topic but you ultimately have to find what you are doing genuinely interesting. As a starting point this is a must. It’s no good trying to dedicate a significant proportion of your life to something you do not find intrinsically interesting because you won’t put the time in, you’ll be less determined, and ultimately less likely to be successful. It’s the interest in the first place which brings us to want to learn more. Now this interest could be in a ‘pure’ sense (just a basic interest in the way something works) or in an ‘applied’ one (looking to solve particular medical, economic, or technological issues) but the driver has to start with interest and enthusiasm for the subject. At this point I’ll say that this doesn’t mean that you’re up and ready to go to do your work and talk about your topic at any given moment. We all have hard days/weeks/months and sometimes that interest wains. But it’s important that it’s there in the first place to get you through. On the topic of getting you through…


Resilience is a life-lesson. You learn it by pushing further than you did before and using that to understand your limits next time. Resilience is a key aspect of any working environment and academia is no exception. Firstly, a lot of things don’t work. In fact, most things don’t work. There’s that quote out there about finding 99 ways to not make a lightbulb. Refining ideas and testing hypotheses is a lot like that. We test and test and test until eventually we’re left with the few results which tell a story. To push through that seemingly relentless series of obstacles or defeats you have to develop resilience. It enables you to take a set-back, work with it, and push on to find another way to achieve. It’s not something you have best refined before you start but it is certainly one you need to have developing and are willing to continue to during graduate school.


At first, humility may seem like a counter-intuitive quality to need. Think about it: you’re going to convince people to let you spend 3 or more years of your life egotistically studying something you find interesting which, in all honesty, probably won’t have any significant impact on most people bar those you tell the story to. That was a long sentence…That sounds like you certainly need a great sense of self-worth and great view of your own importance in the world. But I’d argue that in fact you need to develop a great sense of humility for exactly those reasons: you are seeking to study an immensely small part of a massive picture for which it will take a long time for anybody to appreciate. You cannot treat it and yourself as if they are the greatest and most important things in the world because they’re not. You are not the most capable or brilliant individual whose had the greatest ideas. You are one of a lot of very capable and determined individuals who are looking to add their own small piece to the puzzle of the world. Humility grants you the ability to be ok with failure and to look upon your colleagues not with envy but with understanding.

These traits work together, of course. Enthusiasm with resilience builds determination,  whilst with humility  enables you to be better at communication, and resilience with humility helps soften the blow of defeat as well as to learn from what’s past. Taken together, I would deem these the three pillars on which success in grad school lay.

Thanks for reading 🙂


Does it matter how I define myself?


During the last year and a half or so, I’ve noticed differences in how PhD students refer to themselves and the staff they work with. I didn’t think much about it at first, it was perhaps just a cultural (American v British perhaps?) thing but my secondary/pastoral (or which ever word you choose) supervisor pointed a few things out to me about what a PhD actually is. This made me think a lot about how your actual choice of words may effect your attitude towards your studies (or job, or roles in general). I thought a bit of reflection on the matter would be good and as such what follows is what I’ve concluded.


When I was really struggling to keep up with my workload, a PhD was described in a very different way to how i’ve thought about it before: as an apprenticeship. Typically the word ‘student’ conjures images of exams, all-nighters, drunken antics until the early hours, and a general sense of being told what to learn and for what reason. It also suggests something quite dissimilar from a job and this is supported by the typical semesterly student year (at least up until undergrad). A PhD is very different. It’s more of a job in that you work full time, hopefully receiving a stipend which is comparable to a decent take home salary from a first job, and in absence of semesters you have time off when you can afford to or are permitted by the work you’re doing. Sound familiar?

Doesn’t sound like being a ‘student’ does it? (As a side note, I frequently have to explain this picture because a ‘PhD student’ isn’t a well-defined idea and most people tend to assume I’m book-learning and taking exams). This all sounds much more like an apprenticeship: you are spending time training to do research with the guidance of somebody who has been doing it longer than you. The distinction may seem trivial but I think it’s an important one. Firstly, shifting to consider yourself an apprentice transfers a lot more of the onus and responsibility of learning onto you. Rather than giving you answers and telling you what to do, you look to your mentor for guidance instead. You really start to look at the work as your own, with support from somebody more experienced, rather than your doing of somebody else’s interests. The focus is on your development and learning which is great because nobody wants you to finish unable to think and drive things for yourself. Secondly, it allows you to go easier on yourself when you struggle. PhD students are renowned for exhaustively working as well as comparing themselves to their colleagues (inevitably concluding their inferiority; the dreaded ‘impostor syndrome’). Considering yourself an apprentice means it’s already more understandable when you struggle because you are learning as you are doing. There is no practice for a PhD because it is the practice time. Now I’m not saying that these points do or will alleviate all of the anxiety and troubles that a PhD can bring but they can at least go somewhere to improving your outlook and resilience across your training and ultimately leave you more confident in your own abilities.

Supervisor or Adviser?

The other word describes that person whom guides you during your training: your ‘supervisor’ or ‘adviser’. I think this distinction is less important because it’s really a case of how you interpret each word but I feel that the latter is more constructive in the same way that considering yourself an apprentice is. To me, ‘supervisor’ carries connotations of somebody who is guiding you through something pre-determined. Much akin to the supervisor role in a retail environment, it sounds like it could be describing somebody there to keep you in check and ultimately take the heat if you mess up. Ultimately this is accurate I suppose as, at least in lab-based research, if you cause any significant issues it is them on whom it will also fall. But I think that considering their role as supervisory, much like considering yourself a student, removes the onus from the one who is learning. Contrary to this the word ‘adviser’ suggests to me, at least, a sense of somebody who is providing support, mentorship, and training for something you want to do. The distinction here again being that the work is yours and not theirs. So whilst their experience and support are integral to your training, it is really in the position of guidance both intellectually and practically that the role brings to you.

Overall I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as you get on with it all, ask for help when needed, and come out better trained and prepared from your future whilst having learned interesting things about your topic. But what’s interesting for me is that I feel a shift in my motivation, self-accountability, and attitude towards my struggles by considering myself an apprentice of the academic process which seems to only be positive for my well being.

Thanks for reading ☺