Aims, Objectives and Guidelines for PhD Students

Tim Kovacs, 2008.


I suspect there are common misconceptions about how and even why to do a PhD. This document sets out my ideas on the subject, lists objectives a PhD student should work toward and suggests guidelines for activities PhD students should undertake in order to get the most out of their studies. I have also made a form to help you reflect on your progress toward various objectives.

One of the main benefits of a PhD, or an academic career, is the freedom you have to follow your interests. As a PhD student you have a remarkable amount of freedom. Very few people ever have so much time and freedom to follow their interests, and you probably never will again during your working life. (Your retirement is another matter and some academics continue to do research after their official retirement.)

On the other hand a PhD is pretty much guaranteed to be deeply frustrating at times. This is little wonder, since a PhD is an intrinsically big and difficult undertaking. There will be setbacks and aspects of the work you just don't enjoy. In fact it can be difficult just to get used to the nature of the work and having so much freedom. Many new PhD students also get a bit of shock when they find they are no longer the most clever person in the room, and that results are not as easy as they were on taught courses.

Perhaps worst of all there can be a lot of uncertainty about all sorts of things: how to proceed, whether there's a flaw in your work, whether you know enough about an area to make decisions, whether your results are significant enough to merit a PhD, whether it has all been done before, and so on. The trick is to deal with such uncertainty rationally and then avoid unhelpful worrying. In other words, split your problem into two sub-problems: the underlying problem and your counterproductive emotional response to it. Then deal with each in turn. If you're worried that your new algorithm may not be new after all, decide how much time to spend on a literature search, then accept that you've dealt with it in the way that seemed best at the time, and then move on. It may later turn out that you were wrong, but that is the nature of research.

In addition to uncertainty, I suspect the other big source of misery for PhD students is misguided objectives, which I will deal with later. If you have the right objectives, and if you can focus on what you enjoy about your work and leave the worrying aside, you'll be much happier. It can help to remember why you wanted to do a PhD in the first place.

Incidentally, a bad reason to do a PhD is to prove how clever you are. That motivation doesn't make the work intrinsically rewarding and spending years proving such a point doesn't seem very healthy.

Misleading objectives

It's less common to leave school and go straight into unskilled work than it was a generation or two ago and, partly as a consequence, formal qualifications are more and more important. As well as an an emphasis on qualifications there's an emphasis on explicit quantification of achievements. More and more emphasis has been put on marks, from a young age, as the government has sought to raise standards, and schools are judged by their pupils' success.

Clearly it's useful to be able to compare students and schools. Students are also generally motivated to achieve good marks and feel satisfied when they do. Nonetheless there's a serious downside to the increased testing which many writers have noted in recent years. Students feel stressed by constant testing. Teachers are constrained by highly regulated course specifications, the need to test frequently, and the pressure to "teach to the test" in order to maximise results.

In these circumstances it's easy to confuse getting high marks with successful learning. If your objective is to pass a course so you can get a qualification and a well-paid job in an unrelated area, then high marks are a reasonable measure of success. But if you define successful learning as gaining understanding of the subject then high marks and success are not the same, the reason being that tests are often poor measures of understanding. My computer, for example, can perform many mathematical calculations better than I can, but it understands nothing about maths. Similarly, you can teach people to carry out calculations with little or no understanding of the underlying maths. (In fact many scientists will use statistical tests without much thought about how well their data fits the assumptions of the test, or about what the results really mean.) Because it's easier to teach and measure procedures than to teach and measure understanding, students end up with a counterfeit education.

As a PhD student you suddenly escape constant explicit testing; you won't receive marks on your work and in the end you will either pass or fail your PhD -- there's no such thing as a 2.1 at PhD level. Without marks, what should you try to optimise? That is, what should your objectives be? An obvious answer is to publish papers and produce an impressive thesis. You will definitely get positive feedback for doing so, but I think making this your criterion for a successful PhD is just as misguided as making high marks your objective in earlier studies. Such misleading objectives are everywhere. You might be tempted into a higher-paying job only to realise the long hours, the commute, or the work itself make you unhappy. So be careful what you wish for! In the next section I argue against over-emphasising the thesis and in the section after that I list the objectives I think a PhD student should have.

The significance of the thesis

It might seem that getting a PhD is a matter of producing one big deliverable: the thesis. It's true that this is what you submit and if it's not up to the required standard you won't get a PhD. It's much more appropriate, however, to think of a PhD as a journey, not a destination, and in fact only part of a journey as you will do something after you finish. After getting your PhD you may, among other things, get a research position in industry or academia, or a lectureship. All of these require a range of skills and abilities; not just technical knowledge, but initiative, independence, people skills, communication skills and so on. By the time you graduate you should possess all of these, especially since these are the things employers look for.

Furthermore, few people continue to work on exactly the same thing after graduating -- it's rather unlikely you'll find a postdoctoral position on a project which is effectively an extension of your PhD. Many people have a substantial change of direction in their research after graduating, or even a major change of direction in their career. As a result much of the most specialised technical knowledge you gained during your PhD is not likely to be of much use, but luckily the transferable skills you've learned can serve you well no matter what you end up doing.

Students sometimes start a PhD thinking that they'll solve a substantial problem and have the last word on it. This is not likely, to say the least. It's much more realistic to expect your work to add modestly to the body of knowledge on a subject, building on what was done before and being built on by later work. This is all that's required or expected. So the scope of your contribution is expected to be modest, and so too is its impact. Have you ever thought about how many people are likely to ever read your thesis? In most cases it will be less than ten. How relevant do you think it will be in ten or twenty years? In most cases it will only be of historical interest, if that (although foundational and theoretical work tends to have more staying power). So, given the modest scope and impact of most PhDs, what is their value? It's that by the time you complete your PhD you should have become a competent, independent, mature researcher. Having a PhD means that you can be expected to carry out good quality research on your own and that you have all the associated skills. The thesis is just the tangible evidence that you've acquired these abilities. Again, your PhD is just part of your journey. This is partly why you must pass a viva, and do so without input from your advisor.

Suppose you are able to write well but don't have the other qualities described above. If your advisor gives you detailed instructions throughout your PhD you could generate a good thesis in the end, but it would be your advisor, not you, who deserves a PhD and who has shown him or herself to be a mature researcher. (Incidentally, not many advisors are willing to put this much thought into a student's thesis.) During the viva the examiners will want to evaluate you as a thinker. They will want to satisfy themselves that you are a competent, independent, mature researcher. If your advisor has supplied all the ideas and insights, you can expect difficulties during the viva. Conversely, if you have fallen short of your objectives, or your results are disappointing, you should still be awarded a PhD if you can convince the examiners that you are a mature researcher.

Once again, a PhD is just part of the journey. If you apply for an RA position, everyone else applying for it will also have a PhD. Most of them will have a couple of good references. What will set you apart?

Aims and Objectives

I think your overall aims in doing a PhD should be: Working toward the following more specific objectives will help you develop into a well-rounded researcher: If you don't value the objectives above, and you don't enjoy doing a PhD, then perhaps PhD study is not for you.


Most of the objectives above are skills or personal qualities, both of which are hard to learn and hard to teach. Both need time and practice; we learn skills by using them. Thus if you want to be a well-rounded scientist or academic by the time you graduate you must practise all the things they do, including lecturing and setting coursework. The following guidelines and the associated form are designed to help make your development explicit to you, your advisor and your reviewer. Bear in mind that everyone has different needs so these really are guidelines and should not be applied rigidly.

A word of warning about filling in the form, and for that matter about any summary of your work, such as a CV. As mentioned earlier it's easier to pursue misleading objectives, and one example is to make adding to your CV an objective in itself. This can result in "CV pumping" which, in the worst case, involves things like publishing low-quality work just so you can add it to your CV. Don't sleep through seminars just so you can list them on the form.

Each item in the following list should contribute to one or more of the objectives listed earlier. As a PhD student you should normally aim to:

When I'm hiring I look for these sorts of things on CVs. Incidentally all this applies to RAs and lecturers too.

The PhD progress review form

This form is not required by our deparment but you may find it useful nonetheless. Here are three reasons to fill out the progress review form. Each focuses on one person, in order of importance to your PhD and in order of how much they should get out of the process.


If there's anything new to you here I hope it has served to inspired you. Pursuing a PhD, especially the broader objectives I have attempted to outline here, is a privilege, and one I hope you will find very rewarding.

I'm sure this document can be improved. If you have any feedback I'd like to hear it.


Thanks to Nigel Smart, Elisabeth Oswald and Simon Rawles for their input.