What constitutes a PhD?

I feel like I’m on a never ending quest to find out what “counts” as a PhD. And, so far, I have yet to find anyone who can really answer the question besides the vague “it has to be something new and novel” (which, I admit, I’ve used before). But what does that really mean?

know I don’t know the answer. And even after commenting to my supervisor once that I had no idea how far away I was from that mythical bar that is “enough” for a PhD, his reply was less than satisfying – “I don’t know either.” Thanks. And this is a guy who has been a professor for something like 30 years. If he doesn’t know, how am I, a lowly grad student, to know?

I’ve heard many mixed opinions/thoughts over the years. And while they don’t necessarily contradict each other, they don’t always agree. For example:

  • The new and novel group (which really doesn’t mean much). But how new and how novel?
  • The three papers worth group. Journal or conference papers? How different do the papers need to be (or, conversely, how similar)?
  • The enough group. This is one of the worst. There doesn’t appear to be a definition of enough, just that when you reach it, you’ll know (or hopefully someone will tell you).
  • The when you get fed up and decide you’ve had it group. These are the grad students I know (or know of) who pretty much tell their committee that they’re done and going to defend (sometimes this goes well, sometimes it doesn’t).
  • The you’ve been here to long, we want you to graduate group. This group seems to consist of supervisory committees who get together and decide to figure out a plan to have a student just finish. Usually by cobbling together various pieces of work done by the student that may not actually be fully connected. This is usually better than above, because they want the student to graduate, instead of vice versa.

Personally, I don’t know where I’d fall in the list. I’d like to go with the second (because that seems like the easiest one to understand). But, I know of too many people who publish lots, but each paper is the smallest increment of work possible over the previous. (I’m also not at 3 papers yet – or at least not three specifically on my PhD work :().

However, I do hope that I manage to graduate before I get to the last group. Mainly because I just don’t want to be in grad school for another crazy number of years. Let me out of here!!!


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