Home > research, science, University > How do you choose what PhD to do?

How do you choose what PhD to do?

Or perhaps my question is, “how the hell do students choose what PhD to do?” I was having a discussion (not the first of it’s kind) with a colleague about a PhD position he had, and the bottom line was that we still really have no idea how students choose which PhDs to do and where they do them. The biggest issue I think is how do students find out about PhDs? Clearly local knowledge will help, so finding stuff in the department you are working in isn’t too hard, but beyond that?

When I was a student the web was still a bit of an infant and most departments had postgraduate research brochures, sort of like undergraduate prospectuses. You could ask for one and it would give an overview of department research and who was doing what. It gave no real indication of current PhD funding in specific projects and you tended then to email someone doing something that looked interesting and seeing where it got you. Of course many of the people listed weren’t terribly research active and even if they were they didn’t necessarily have any PhD funding that year. So it was a bit confusing. My final year project supervisor, Miles Padgett, gave me me sage advice – make sure that you go and visit everywhere and then only come back here (St. Andrews) if you’re convinced it’s the best. He suggested some people I should speak to and I went and visited a bunch of places. Looking back though, it’s clear I had a very poor overview of what was going on in most of the departments in the UK. I was also fairly uneducated in assessing the relative merits of research publications, finding out if PIs had grants, and if ,in genera,l the people I was seeing were really any good. I’m not sure undergraduates these days are any better prepared than I was. The web has a lot more info on it, but still how do you find that perfect PhD…

The nature of PhD funding is complicated in many instances and PhD positions come up at different points of the year, so it may not be possible to have some form of centralised clearing house for projects. Also funding is often nebulous – if there is department funding available and you can find someone good to take it, you may just get an award, even if others have good projects on offer. The Doctoral Training Centres act as sort of clearing houses for some areas, but these are often not the most transparent. Other approaches let students apply to a department and then they can do little rotations and choose a supervisor – like in many American Universities. This idea is more focussed on the place than the project for my liking though, and I find it a bit unsatisfactory.

It’s also not clear to me if things like advertising making any difference, or if it does where is the best place to advertise – is the best thing just to email every Academic Departmental Secretary in the UK and ask them to send an ad to all their final year students, or do any students know of the existence of jobs.ac.uk or findaphd.com? IS the time of year your ad goes out important/critical? Also is location/perceived prestige a big factor? What role do personal recommendations play? How much info on a potential project do you need? Do DTCs have a big influence? How many academic groups are you aware of going into your final year?

I’m not sure I have an ideal solution, but I’d be keen to hear the views of those who have PhDs, are doing PhDs or are thinking of doing them – how did you, or are you, choosing?

  1. Ryan Hannam
    July 23, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    This article raises some very interesting points to me as an undergraduate.
    May I start off by saying I am currently unsure on whether I should attempt to do a PhD after my degree.
    A lot of the information I have found so far on the internet tends be aimed to a very large audience and tends not to be that useful because of this. As an IoP member I did find a guide on choosing a PhD on the IoP website which was more useful than most that I have read in the past.
    However how does one go about choosing a PhD when they are not entirely convinced studying a PhD would be for them anyway?
    With the current economic climate my passion for Physics that pushes me towards a PhD is being slightly held back by the possibility that a PhD may make it harder for me to find employment after I have finished it. I read an article online in which the author explained that having a PhD may seem to some employers that you are specialized in a very specific field and that you may even be over qualified for the positions you are applying for. Thus as far as I can see at the moment if I achieved a PhD involving say Bose Einstein Condensates surely there are far fewer jobs that you may be considered for than if you had just a Bachelor of Science degree – which opens many possibilities in terms of careers.
    Another thing that often isn’t very clear when I have looked into studying a for PhD is that once you have been awarded a PhD in a specific field how easy is to switch disciplines or fields in Science. For example if I had a PhD in a field of condensed matter Physics, and suddenly a job came up in say an Astronomy lab somewhere, would the fact my PhD wasn’t in Astrophysics hinder my chance at getting the job?
    Furthermore if I were to decide to study for a PhD at the end of Bachelors Degree I think my choice of PhD would depend completely on what is being advertised at the time I will be looking a post graduate options. Often the advice on the web is that it would be much easier for a student to get PhD position at the institution which the obtained the Bachelors or Masters Degree. But if the institute doesn’t undertake any research in the majority of fields that I would be really interested in then is there much point in applying for a position in that institution anyway?
    Finally say I was in the position that I had finished my Bachelors Degree, and after vast amounts of research I decided that there wasn’t currently the PhD position out there for me, so I get a graduate job as say an engineer. Then maybe 6 months, a year or 2 years after being in my new job a PhD becomes available which I think might be worth studying for. How does one decide that they drop the career path they have chosen to study a PhD if your are currently happy or satisfied with the graduate job you have.
    Honestly it all seems very daunting to consider since the choice of which PhD, if any could dictate your career path for the future. Can one really be satisfied in a stable graduate job rather than pushing the understanding of the knowledge of the universe?

    (I know some of the questions in this comment are very ‘big’ questions and I don’t expect anyone to have the answer to them).

    • July 24, 2012 at 7:53 am

      Thanks for the comment Ryan. I think you need to have a good reason for doing a PhD – if your are passionate about the subject area, want to do new research and have the necessary skill set going into a PhD then you shouldn’t be too worried, in my opinion, about employment afterwards. What you need to make sure, though, is that you go in with your eyes open. A phd is unlikely to lead to a permanent academic job (such as a Lecturer etc) simply by the laws of probability – there loads more PhDs than permanent academic positions. However if that is what you want to do, it’s pretty much the only route open to you. PhD programs now have a much greater emphasis on transferable skills, so that you come out the end with a broad set of useful skills that employers will value. From my own personal experience having a PhD did little to harm my job prospects when I left academia, and indeed enhanced it in many cases – with a PhD in physics you should present as a highly numerate graduate with key problem solving skills, a hands-on attitude, able to deal confidently with data, have experience of technical writing, presentations, self-management, project management and possibly even some budgetary responsibility. if you go straight from a PhD onto a graduate training scheme I think there would be no issue.

      If you take a PhD in a niche, fairly pure topic (like BECs for example), you just need to make sure that you develop appropriate skills – you need to push yourself to develop high level modelling skills, learn instrumentation control, and of course become world class in the topic at hand.

      You should not do a PhD if you can’t find a job, or aren’t really sure what to do with your life – this is just a waste of everyone’s time, and you will ultimately have a poor experience.

      Completing a PhD in a given topic will clearly make you more attractive to employers (be it a postdoc position or industrial position) in that general area. So if you have a condensed matter PhD, if you want a postdoc in Astronomy, this may well be a hard sell – bear in mind your CV will be compared with others with significant experience in Astronomy. But such is life – you develop expertise and this makes it easier for you to work in the area of that expertise.

      In terms of location of PhD – I think it’s true that it’s easier to stay in the place of your undergraduate degree to take up a PhD – and it is maybe easier to get one, just because you have a closer ‘network’ within that institution. You can talk to the staff in your department (obviously you can come and see me whenever you like!) and get a feel for who might be doing the types of things you are interested in elsewhere – use your local network to your advantage. A good degree, with good references and a good project should open the door to positions in most places. Bottom line is to apply for things you are interested in and can see yourself doing for the next few years – consider the group you will be working in (dynamics, publication record, equipment etc) – and don’t be swayed by location or reputation. Make up your own mind after doing your homework. Often labs are almost desperate to get good students in (especially UK ones, for funding reasons), and you may find yourself in demand.

      If you don’t find a place that suits you and you take up a job, then see something of interest, well that’s just one of those big decisions life throws at you. If you love the job and can see where you want to get to from there, then a PhD will likely offer you little in terms of career advancement, but it may offer you something more intangible, personal to you. It will almost certainly offer you less money 🙂 but money isn’t everything.

      I hope that answers some of your questions – and as I said feel free to come see me whenever you like to chat about PhDs, or just about physics.

  2. Ryan Hannam
    July 24, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Thanks for the reply. It is very useful to hear first hand from someone who has experience both inside and outside the academic world of science.
    It is quite a relief to hear that you think having a PhD would improve a persons job prospects. Given that I currently don’t have an interest in an academic career path but one that does involve research (and development) a PhD could surely help my scientific career in the future. So long as I chose a suitable PhD in a field that I would be happy spending quite a few years in.
    It is also good to know that your office is open to me if I need a chat about future prospects and about Physics. I must warn you though that this may be a decision that you may come to regret as like I mentioned in previous post I am quite the enthusiast for Physics – and not just a specific field in Physics. Thus you may come inundated with emails filled with questions on any area of the subject that particular takes my fancy in any given week :). However I will try to refrain from filling your inbox on a regular basis.
    I have already done some homework on a lot of the members of staff (inc. yourself) at the University of Dundee on past and current projects/publications/qualifications and interests.
    I am also sure their will be a time in the future you will receive an email from me asking to look around your lab again; have a discussion about your research and any projects that you and your team are currently undertaking, and a talk about the possibility of collaborating with yourself. Either for a project outside of my degree or for my final year project.
    Another career opportunity I am currently looking into is a work placement/experience for next summer. My ideal placement would be one of the Summer Student Work Placements at CERN. The application process opens in October and I was wondering if you may have any advice on how to ‘stand out’ from other applicants as I imagine places will be very competitive. This advice would also probably be applicable to one applying for a competitive PhD.

    • July 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

      I think it would be really sad if someone employed to try and teach and enthuse students about my subject wasn’t approachable to students, and it would be criminal to turn one who was already keen and enthusiastic away, so fire any questions you may have my way, via email or in person.

      As for the CERN placements – I’m not sure – I guess good grades and probably some example of related work experience/research might help you stand out – but I’d have to look at the scheme to get a better idea. Will look at it when I’m back from holiday.

  3. Ryan Hannam
    July 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    OK I’ll keep all that in mind. If I don’t hear from you in due course I am sure I will see you in September.

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