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Why four years?

Last evening after scanning only a few chapters of Phillips and Pugh (2000) book on ‘How to get a PhD’, I stumbled across some new ideas about doctorate level studies that I had not picked up before.

Firstly, I liked their description of the differing roles between students, supervisors and universities – and how conflicts can arise depending on differing interests.  It makes it clear for me:  I desire not be someone’s research assistant, but will look for supervision (Dr Catherine and Dr Shankar) that inspires me, that allows me to work in the areas I want to but in a way that will challenge and stretch me at the same time!


Secondly, and more importantly, my thinking has always been to earn my degree there is “the need to make a significant and unique contribution to knowledge”, but I was confused at why it needs four years, why can’t I do it in two?  Phillips and Pugh describe what the degree levels represent: a bachelor degree is regarded as general education, a masters degree is regarded as a license to practice, and the doctorate degree is regarded as a license to teach.  Perhaps this is obvious, but to gain this license to teach there is a price to pay – but the question still remains why 4 years?


The answer lies not in the end i.e. “new knowledge” but in the means by which one attains new knowledge and how one can defend it.  In other words, it takes four years to develop the deep researching and writing skills to get your license!  One might find new knowledge in the first year but have a hell of a time to establish credibility for it!  This is a major shift in thinking for me and I can now see why we even have this concept of the doctorate defense.


In one sense, it is about proving the quality of the outcome/output (thesis), but n another sense it is about do you make the grade as an academic researcher to gain your license to teach – have you paid the price to win the prize?  The price of entry into a new club – 4+ years of hard work!!


The impact of this insight has had an immediate effect.  For one thing, I can see the delicate nature of securing “new knowledge” is in part a matter of timing i.e. there is no point getting worried about it now.  In any research area there will be numerous insights and additions to knowledge during the four years that can change the direction of research, make a research direction redundant, or prove it right before one ever gets a chance to publish.


So there is now a need to settle down and begin the journey of learning to research, to try to align this to my research area, make insights along the way, and develop a new sensitivity for new knowledge possibilities.  Pleasingly, I have answered my own question recently posted on Andy Coverdale’s Blog – “why use Web 2.0 and collaboration tools and put it all out there on the web for others to steel your contribution?”  The answer is clear now i.e. the benefits from collaboration are higher than the costs of not collaborating, and the contribution to knowledge will be the accumulation of many years of hard work, and may come in the home stretch, and not to get hung up on right now.


Thank you Philips and Pugh – I get it now!


Philips, E., Pugh, D., (2000), How to Get a PhD, Emerald Publishing.

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