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 🙂