Well, that's the theory. In reality PhDs - also known as DPhils or doctorates - often involve more slog than challenge. Experiments often don't produce the expected results, lines of research inevitably lead to dead ends. Nor are you guaranteed a good job at the end of it. Whilst valuable for any position requiring research skills, for most occupations a PhD won't take you any further than your first degree. And if your doctorate bears no relation to the job you apply for, it can even be counterproductive, making it hard to convince a prospective employer that your career path has clear direction.
So with PhDs involving a huge investment of time and energy, you really do need to be clear about why you want to do one. A lot of people thinking about research just don't have a real idea of what else they might do, says Barbara Graham, director of University of Strathclyde careers service, and chair of the AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services) postgraduate students working party:
"It's something they consider slightly by default. They don't think enough about where it is going to lead them, or if they've got the commitment." In essence, if you find the prospect of individual research exhilarating, go ahead; if not, don't bother.
So what exactly is involved? You can research virtually any area you like, although you must find someone to supervise your work, and it should make a worthwhile contribution to the subject. Then, unless you're on a taught doctorate (usually offered in vocational subjects), you'll be working for three to four years, mainly on your own. You can expect to take around a year writing up a lengthy thesis, topped by a lengthy oral exam where you'll have to defend your ideas and convince examiners of your findings.
It sounds tough, and it is, says Professor Terence Daintith, dean at London University's School of Advanced Studies. "You need to understand that you're going to spend three to four very lonely years researching an area, then write a book-length project at the end of it. Motivation is absolutely crucial."
As is a good degree. Generally, you'll need at least a 2:1 or a first to be accepted for a doctorate, although even that may not be enough - many institutions now prefer PhD candidates to have a masters degree before embarking on full-time research.
Where you do your PhD depends on your subject area and personal circumstances. Although it can be tempting to stick with the familiar territory of your first degree, you may find other departments have a better track record in your chosen area. A different institution can also bring you into contact with new ideas and methods.
As there is no equivalent to the UCAS system for postgraduate qualifications, you have to apply direct to the institution, providing documentary evidence of your academic achievements and at least two references. Universities vary as to whether they require an interview or detailed outline of the research project.
Sometimes these application procedures can seem deceptively casual, warns Graham. Although you may be invited for a chat - giving you a good opportunity to look round and discuss your ideas with potential supervisors - don't be deceived by the informality. "It would be imprudent just to turn up for coffee. Make sure you go along with at least a few thoughts on paper, as they want to see how organised your thoughts are."
Being accepted is just the first hurdle, however. It is almost always easier to get a place than obtain funding, especially in humanities and social sciences. In England, you may receive a grant from one of the six research councils or British Academy; in Scotland and Northern Ireland, government education departments fulfil the same role. Unfortunately, applications from well-qualified candidates exceed funds, especially in the arts.
If you can't get a grant, you may be able to attract industrial sponsorship although, again, this is much more feasible in the sciences. "Companies will support someone to solve some technical problem, but it's not so likely for someone to get money for studying Dante's Inferno," says Graham. Alternatively, some institutions, especially the older ones, have scholarships of their own, or you can apply to the numerous independent trust funds and charities for money, although this is very time-consuming and unlikely to cover all your costs.
And those can be considerable, especially if you've already accumulated debts from your first degree. The standard maintenance grant awarded by research councils is pounds 6,500 a year, with an additional allowance of pounds 1,500 for mature students over 26. But even that money only lasts three years, points out Phil Sooben, director of postgraduate training at the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC): "People are required to submit a thesis within four years. The last year they have to fund themselves, or write it up while they're in a job."
Increasingly, PhD students are having to pay their own way, but this is difficult to do on a full-time basis. Most opt to register part-time, combining research with work. Ideally you may find a job as a tutorial or research assistant. In the latter case, it often makes sense to research an area related to your work. Working your way through a PhD may mean less of the rarefied scholarliness you'd hoped for, but it does prepare you for the shock of nine-to-five thereafter.
The AGCAS booklet `Postgraduate Study and Research' costs pounds 2.65 from CSU Ltd (0161-277 5240)Reuse content