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What is a PhD?

The award of a PhD requires you to write a thesis which makes a ‘contribution to knowledge’ in the field. This is a vague statement but conveys the idea that you have to research a topic in Economics and produce a write-up giving an insight on the topic that no-one has had before.

The important first steps when you are enrolled on a PhD programme are to identify the topic, become immersed in the literature so that you know what others have done and what gaps there might be, and acquire the research skills and techniques required to pursue the research.

Understanding the literature and developing the research techniques are the sort of skills that are required in taught programmes. So if you have been successful in previous taught programmes, this part of PhD study should be fine. Undertaking research requires expertise in areas beyond those of a taught programme though, bringing together skills and understanding from different areas of study, critically evaluating the contributions of others, synthesising and extending previous studies and making the occasional imaginative leap. There are many academics working at the forefront of the discipline, so finding that important original insight is not always easy and undertaking research requires determination and staying power. Those who have been most successful in taught programmes are not always the most successful when it comes to undertaking research.  

The extent of the contribution to knowledge made by a PhD can be very variable. At one extreme, you could think of the minimum being a contribution that translates into two or three narrow and relatively mechanical papers covering similar or related topics that are publishable in economics journals, at least in principle. The insights are original but relatively minor and potentially in a niche topic. And the data and techniques used are relatively standard. But the work shows the abilities required of a research economist and can deliver a PhD. At the other extreme, the work might involve the development of new techniques and/or the synthesis of existing sophisticated techniques, the use of a novel dataset (perhaps one constructed by the author compiling online or historical sources or involving fieldwork), and a number of substantive and original insights on a topic, providing a comprehensive and new understanding of an important issue of the day.  It is difficult to know how a research topic will turn out at the outset, and where your PhD ends on this spectrum depends on, among other things, the time spent, funding availability, resilience, ambition, talent and luck.