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?