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Posted on 2 Jun '16

Inspiring Future PhD Students - Professor Gavin Schaffer, University of Birmingham

Considering a PhD, but wondering what you'll actually get out of it? We've sat down with some of the UK's top academics to hear their experiences and thoughts on postgraduate study. Gavin Schaffer is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Birmingham. Here he shares some advice for new students.

Video transcript:

My name is Gavin Schaffer, I’m the university’s director of graduate studies.

Why did you choose to do a PhD?

I think the main reason I chose to do a PhD is because I had a hunger to do a particular type of research and I knew that only the research period of a PhD would enable me to get that research done.

I think the second reason and the more practical reason is because I knew that I wanted a career in academia and nowadays if you want a career in academia you really need that level of training.

What did you get out of doing a PhD?

The first thing you get out of doing a PhD is a new level of subject knowledge. So you may learn a lot with a masters or an undergraduate degree but when you are doing the research yourself, you can take your knowledge to a completely different level.

The second thing you get out of doing a PhD is an outstanding set of transferable skills. You learn how to operate in a range of terrains, you learn to operate across a range of different fields and across a lot of different skill sets. And it makes you a completely different kind of potential employee than you would be before doing it.

What was the biggest challenge during your PhD?

I think the biggest challenge during PhD study is you’ve got to motivate yourself. At the end of the day it’s your project, you have to own it.

Sometimes it can feel quite isolated and it can be hard to keep going and I think that’s probably the biggest challenge.

Why should people do a PhD?

The first reason to do a PhD is if you are thinking about a career in academia or in science. If you want to have a job in a top university or in a top company having a PhD separates you from other candidates and demonstrates that you have the kind of research expertise that you are going to need to have a career in one of those areas.

The second and perhaps the most important of all reasons to do a PhD is because you have a curiosity, a hunger to take on a particular type of research, if you want to do it, it can be a good reason to do a PhD in and of itself.

And finally a PhD gives a fantastic set of transferable skills, that you can take into pretty much any field that you can imagine.

What’s your top PhD tip?

My top PhD tip is to really scope out before you start a project the supervisor and the supervisory team that you’re gonna be working with and the research team in the institution that you are going to.

A PhD is a big commitment and a long project and you’ve gotta make sure that everything is right for you before you start.

Interested in pursuing a PhD with Professor Schaffer and his team? Why not take a look at current PhD opportunities at the University of Birmingham. You can also check our our advice section for more information about studying a PhD.