Choosing a University for PhD Study - 6 Simple Steps
Deciding to undertake a postgraduate research degree after the end of your undergraduate studies is a huge step. It’s a very important decision that will affect you socially and financially and dramatically alter your career prospects.
You’ve been through that. You’ve looked carefully at your options and thought about the pros and cons – and have come away with a renewed determination to do a PhD. Congratulations – you’re in for four years of discovery and excitement!
But, now that you know what you want to do, the next question is – where?
Choosing where to do your PhD can be as complicated as deciding whether to do a PhD at all. Here are a few tips on how to navigate your options.
#1 Work out where you can go
While academia knows no borders, the real world unfortunately does. Your nationality almost certainly affects where in the world you can go and study.
While most countries will grant a visa to PhD students, funding for international postgraduates can be difficult to find in several countries, including the UK.
But you shouldn’t let this fact discourage you: there are still many great funding opportunities out there for international students.
Studying abroad should also mean expanding your horizons beyond the obvious. The US and UK may dominate university rankings, but you should be more concerned with finding the best department, lab or supervisor for your project.
There’s some exceptional work being done in universities in other countries – for example, consider looking into the Netherlands, Germany and Canada.
#2 Think about where the work you admire is from
If you are looking to do a PhD, you presumably feel inspired by some work academics are doing in your field. Well, the best strategy to find an environment where you will fit in is to try to work under the supervision of those who inspire you.
Take the time to go through the literature. Identify the work you find most interesting and start noting down where the academics who have done it are based.
Keep in mind that for this exercise you need to be on the lookout not just for exciting results but also for research techniques that you are interested in. This work will be your bread-and-butter for the next half-decade, so you need to make sure you are passionate about it.
As you take note of who is doing the work that excites you, a few names, universities or departments should keep popping up on your list. Focus on those – you already know they will be the best place for you to do your work!
#3 Think about where you want to go
Yes, the next four-to-five years are all about your PhD. But as well as working, you are going to need a life outside of your studies – so you need to make sure that you move somewhere where you are going to be able to thrive as a person as well as an academic.
Is moving far away from home going to be an exciting adventure or a heavy burden on your mind? Do you enjoy living in big cities or do you need the quiet of the countryside to focus?
Can you drive – and is driving around essential where you are thinking of moving to?
If at all possible, see if you can visit before you make a firm commitment to moving to a new place – try to imagine how your life would be while living there and whether you would enjoy it!
#4 Consider realistic options
PhD projects and programmes often have entrance requirements. These could involve academic grades, or they could be based on existing experience and technical proficiency.
Make sure you are realistic about where you apply. If you have always dreamed of attending a certain prestigious institution – make sure you have the grades for it.
If you don’t, look into other ways of gaining experience – like working as a technician for a few years and accumulating a publication record, or getting a Masters to improve your academic CV (and your subject expertise).
Applying to programmes where you don’t meet the requirements is not only going to waste your time, but is going to get you down. Rejection is never fun – so avoid it when it’s inevitable!
At the same time, make sure you don’t sell yourself too short. If you have always dreamed of working at a world-class university and you think you do meet their requirements, apply! You will never find out if you have what it takes to get in unless you try.
And everyone who has ever attended a prestigious institute can tell you – they felt just the same as you do before they applied.
As an undergraduate you are going to be surrounded by teaching faculty at your university. They know you, they know about PhD study and they’ll be more than happy to offer advice on pursuing a successful academic career.
So, if you are unsure as to where it would be best to apply for a PhD, ask someone! Your lecturers and your tutors will be delighted to assist you and offer their expertise as well as their personal experiences.
Remember too that academia is a relatively small world. Researchers in the same field tend to know what their peers are working on – and what sort of PhD students they might have opportunities for.
Whatever you need to know, your professors will often have a great deal to add to your list of pros and cons.
#6 Do some in-person sleuthing
Once you narrow down your search to a handful of options, it might be a good idea to do some hands-on research.
Try to visit universities or laboratories in person if you can. You could also consider arranging Skype calls - not just with the head of the lab, but with other PhD students who work there as well.
Getting in touch with current students is a good idea, however you do it. Away from the prying ears of senior faculty, you might get some really great insights on what life in that particular research group is really like. How easy is it to get time off? Is the boss reasonable in expecting results? Are the PhD students happy or stressed? Are they happy about their work? Do they get to present at international conferences? These are all worth keeping in mind when making your choice.
Editor's note: This blog was first published on 08/06/2017. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
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How I chose my PhD
Would hearing how one student chose her university and PhD project help you pick yours? Kirsty shares her story in this post.