PhD Milestones | Lex Academic Blog

The words ‘Everest Base Camp’ suggest a camp somewhere at the start of the climb to Mount Everest. But it’s actually 5360m above sea level and ten days from Kathmandu. Starting a PhD is a bit like reaching the Everest Base Camp. You’ll have made sacrifices and fought (at least existentially) to be there. And, if you want to reach that metaphorical summit, trekking across a stage in a Tudor bonnet, you’ll need to pass several milestones of challenges and tests – the equivalent of Everest’s four camps. On Everest, these are literal camps, offering tea and apple pie to weary, oxygen-deprived climbers. Budding summiteers stay in each of them for a few days, returning occasionally to the base camp while their bodies acclimatise to the altitude. On a doctoral programme, the camps are metaphorical, yet each presents its own difficulties and similarly requires acclimatisation. And you’ll be responsible for your own tea and apple pie.

PhD Camp I: Registration

As you set out from your PhD Base Camp, you’ll face a plateau. Your first week or two as a PhD student shouldn’t be particularly taxing, not in comparison to the journey you’ve already made. Forms must be filled in. Fire safety information must be absorbed. Welcome talks must be attended. These initial stages are all about paperwork and orientation. You’ll need things like your identification documents and bank details (so you can receive stipends, or pay fees). Visit the library, get your university email address and logins. You’ll have a supervisor, of course, to guide you through your academic journey, but your departmental administrative staff will be incredibly useful guides as you prioritise the formal bits and pieces, gearing for the steps ahead.

In these early stages, you should make sure you have your own workspace. In post-pandemic times, it’s likely you’ll be used to working from home. You’ll likely already have a set-up, even if it’s a small desk and chair at the foot of your bed. Depending upon your institution, you might have access to an office space with hot desks, exclusively for postgraduates. But it isn’t always a given. Some institutions simply won’t have the space for this and will send you to the library. It’s always worth asking explicitly if your institution has such a space – supervisors and departmental staff won’t necessarily know what’s available at faculty level.

If you’re studying in the US, or are on an integrated PhD course in another country, your early months or years might be occupied by classes. Otherwise, PhDs are mostly self-directed, guided only by a supervisor or two. In most cases, the first meeting with your supervisor should come fairly soon after registration. It’s a meeting you might approach passively, letting your supervisor guide your first steps into independent research, but to get the most out of your first meeting, make sure you’re up to date on the conversations happening in your field. You’ll probably already have a master’s and bachelor’s degree, or equivalent professional experience, so should have the fundamentals, but perhaps choose a few new papers to read. If you really want to get off to a flying start, read your supervisor’s work.

Your supervisor will present you with the task ahead, preparing you for the rest of your journey to the summit (to continue our Everest metaphor). A PhD can involve writing as many as 100,000 words, which feels daunting if the longest piece you’ve written previously was a 10,000-word master’s thesis. A colleague at Birkbeck College once said that 100,000 words sounds formidable, but it’s just 91 words per day for three years. Once you realise this, he insisted, writing a PhD becomes far more manageable. It doesn’t quite work out like that, of course, but the principle of writing early and often does make the load lighter. You can start right away: a literature review will likely come first, and this is something you’ll need to start on anyway before you can possibly understand your own contribution to knowledge. And you’ll have to keep it up to date as new work emerges in your field. It’s worth mentioning, too, that even where your research itself is not primarily written (if you’re submitting a portfolio for a practice-led PhD, for instance), you’ll still need to perform the equivalent of a literature review, and it’s a good idea to start this as early as possible.

PhD Camp II: Progression, or Upgrade

From this point onwards, you’ll have regular progress reviews with your supervisor, and you’ll conduct your work in negotiation with them. You’re aiming for a mid-stage ‘progression’ or ‘upgrade’ exam. You might see this as a kind of mock viva. In the UK, this ‘upgrade’ formally marks the transition from MPhil to PhD, and takes the form of a viva. Candidates in the USA transition between a taught ‘coursework’ stage and a research-led ‘dissertation’ stage, so don’t have the formal distinction of two separate degree classifications, but there are still upgrade-like exams and presentations marking an official transition.

As well as the formal progression, the middle period of your study should be a moment to reflect once more on what you want to do with your PhD when you have it. If you want to continue on the academic career path, you might think about what is required of candidates in an increasingly competitive job market. If you choose this path, now is the time to start making yourself as competitive as possible. Talk to your supervisor about turning some of your early work into a journal article. They might work with you to co-write an article, or you may work with other PhD students and colleagues. It’s a good idea to work collaboratively during a PhD for all kinds of reasons (not least because PhDs are notoriously lonely pursuits). You might also take steps to present the same work at a conference, searching for a relevant Call for Papers, and submitting an abstract. Postdoctoral programmes often require students to be freshly qualified – within three years of their viva – while simultaneously expecting publications and conference presentations. Having an article or two under your belt, and experience presenting at a conference, will help enormously with your postdoctoral ambitions.

If you decide, on the other hand, to use your PhD in other ways, you might start searching for what those might be. If you’re in the sciences, going into industry might be a clear alternative. If you’re in the arts or humanities, you might wonder what the equivalent of ‘industry’ is. It’s a good question. Perhaps you might return to your artistic practice, start a business, or find another role in the academic, publishing, heritage, or arts sectors. Booking an appointment with the university careers service can help to clarify your options.

PhD Camp III: Submission

With the mid-point passed, your supervisor will guide you towards submitting your PhD for examination. But it isn’t as simple as emailing a finished document. Before you submit, you’ll have to give notice of your submission. In most institutions, this amounts to filling in and submitting a form, confirming that you’ve done all the administrative and intellectual work required of you. Your supervisor can advise and help you with this, but it’s the responsibility of the candidate to submit the document. And you should submit it several months – at least three – before you intend to submit your actual thesis.

Another task at this stage is to choose your examiners – someone external to your institution and someone internal. They should know about your area of research, be sympathetic to your work, and not have an agenda of their own to push. It’s more difficult than it sounds to find examiners who meet this brief. Our blog on preparing for your PhD viva includes some tips on choosing the right examiners.

When it comes to finally submitting your thesis, it can feel like you’ve already reached the summit. Months and years of work have been marshalled into a single document, and now it’s time to finally attach and send it. You may also be required to submit hard copies. But once those are in, it’s time to celebrate. But only briefly. You’re about to gear up for a final push. As you wait for your examiners to read your work and set your viva date, you should be thinking about your defence or viva. That is, the oral exam that comes towards the very end of your studies. Although we have a dedicated blog on preparing for your PhD viva, suffice it to say that one productive way to prepare might be to use the time to compose a journal article – perhaps your second, if you prepared one earlier. Even if you don’t get to submit it before the big day, going through the process ensures you’re up to date on your field’s literature, and encourages you to see your work in the wider landscape. Also, nothing is more impressive to an examiner than if you kick off by talking about your forthcoming article.

PhD Camp IV: The Viva and Beyond

On Everest, Camp IV is in what is known as ‘the death zone’. The area is so inhospitable that climbers can still see the corpses of exhausted climbers, whose remains can’t safely be recovered. In academia, the stakes aren’t quite that high, but in some countries – the UK included – real damage can be done at this stage; failure is a distinct possibility (though far from a probability). (In most other countries, the oral defence is now a toothless formality – you’ll have been examined and unofficially passed well before this point.) We have a series of blog posts on the PhD viva to help you understand and navigate this treacherous part of the PhD journey: How to prepare for your viva; How to pass your viva with no corrections; How to avoid major corrections; and How to avoid minor corrections.

As far as milestones go, you’re reaching the end of your journey. Once you pass your viva, even if that’s with major corrections, you’ve reached the equivalent of the summit. Congratulations! You’ll have earned those selfies and cakes. You can spend a little time here, but sooner or later you have to start your descent (and, as the guidebooks tell us, more accidents occur on the way down). For a PhD, the descent will most likely include your corrections, minor or major. Either way, any revision to the substance of your thesis will involve a lot of backtracking that may be challenging. You may have to revisit your literature review, adjust your theories, perhaps even conduct another experiment, or write an additional chapter from another theoretical perspective. The descent can also offer you valuable time to reflect on your journey and make sense of it. But finishing a PhD can feel like a descent in more senses than one. You’ve achieved something incredible, but a big part of your life is ending, the structure of your life will change once more, and this can be discombobulating. Like after a perilous, 60-day mountain climb, you need a new period of acclimatisation to emerge into your new life – however you choose to live.