7 Ways Ph.D. Research Has Changed Over the Last Few Decades

7 Ways Ph.D. Research Has Changed Over the Last Few Decades


In the academic world, earning a Ph.D. is the ultimate accomplishment. In the United States, only 1.2% of the population takes their education to this level. There’s a good reason why Ph.D. graduates are so rare. Ph.D. programs are notoriously difficult requiring major time commitments, strict deadlines, and stringent research requirements. Over the last few decades, technology and the way information is shared has transformed the traditional Ph.D. program. Here are 7 ways Ph.D. research has changed, for better or worse.

1. Some Ph.D. Programs Require More Writing

Many current students have recognized a noticeable difference in the amount of writing that is now required to complete a Ph.D. program. At one point, one or two papers were sufficient to successfully earn a doctorate. Today, universities are requiring more intensive writing which can be challenging for students. It’s not uncommon for students to be required to write 3 to 4 papers per school year.

While this can seem overwhelming, don’t become discouraged. Students have experienced a wide range of writing requirements depending on the chosen area of study, assigned advisor, or university.

2. Easy Research Topics Have Already Been Used

Probably the biggest challenge in writing doctoral theses is finding new and exciting topics to research. Over the years, the simpler, “low hanging fruit” has already been covered extensively. Modern doctorate students must research creatively to find new and compelling topics that are seemingly more difficult to study.

To be fair to older students, the fields of technology and science were less advanced several decades ago. The topics that may seem obvious today were likely cutting edge at the time. It’s probable that older Ph.D. students encountered similar challenges in finding thesis topics.

3. Technology Makes Research and Writing Faster

Older Ph.D. students didn’t have the technological resources at their fingertips like today’s students. Limited technology made the research process much slower and more painful. Minimal computing abilities made running complex simulations or calculations difficult. In this instance, the younger students have a significant advantage.

4. Today’s Theses Are Much More Complex

Whether long or short, contemporary theses must encompass a larger field of knowledge. Doctoral research and publications create a larger field of knowledge each year and the thesis writer must demonstrate understanding of existing scholarship about all aspects of the thesis being written. That will be reflected in complete references to current knowledge in order to establish the originality of the current work.

5. Students Are Expected to Be a Jack (or Jill) of all Trades

Many Ph.D. programs focus on preparing students throughout a broad range of knowledge. While laudable, many lament that they have not concentrated sufficiently on their chosen field of study to become true experts. While being well-rounded can enable discovering innovative ideas or research topics, it can be exhausting. In some cases job seekers and researchers may prefer more specialized backgrounds leaving generalist students disadvantaged in the job market.

6. More Data is Available to Students Than Ever Before

In the Information Age, data and information have become a commodity. Research databases (and even Google) allow researchers and students to instantly have access to unlimited amounts of information. In very little time, Ph.D. students can access, read, and absorb extremely complex information with minimal effort. Of course, the downside is that universities often expect students to move at a faster pace since research requires less time. Reading through copious amounts of research, students must become experts at identifying disinformation / misinformation.

7. There is Higher Competition in Research and the Job Market

Each year, about 55,000 students earn doctorate degrees. This is a significant increase from the numbers seen in past decades. For comparison, there were only about 10,000 new Ph.D. graduates in 1960. Employment has not kept pace with this growth, and institutions may increase their requirements. This is likely why many of the requirements such as longer and more detailed research projects have emerged.

Embrace the Latest Research Technology with Petal

With tougher requirements on Ph.D. students, using the right technology can be a huge advantage when it comes to research and thesis writing. At Petal, our innovative platform makes it easy to collect, organize, and share research materials with classmates. Join Petal for free today to simplify your Ph.D. journey.