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What Do Students Think of PhD Study?

You may be the first person to tackle your research topic, but you’re certainly not the first person to do a PhD. One way to help with your decision-making process as a prospective postgraduate is to look at the choices other students have made and consider the experiences they’ve had.

And, thanks to the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) you can do just that. The PRES is carried out every year by Advance HE (you can read more about how it works below). We’ve highlighted some of the 2018 results here, together with our tips for using this information in your own PhD search.

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How do students feel about their PhDs?

The good news is that most students have a satisfying experience during a PhD or similar postgraduate research degree. Specifically, eight out of ten students say that they are satisfied with their degrees.

What are students happiest about?

The PRES survey looks at seven different ‘themes’ for the postgraduate research experience and asks students if they are satisfied with each:


Satisfaction with postgraduate research experiences

Table gives the % of postgraduate research students who indicated that they were satisfied with these aspects of their courses.


As you can see, students are most satisfied with the research skills they gain during their degree and the supervision they receive during it. This shows that students are getting the training they need to be effective researchers (which is fairly important during a PhD!) and that they feel well supported and guided by the supervisors who are helping provide it.

Students are also very satisfied with the resources available for their research, the way they progress through their programmes, the wider professional development they achieve and the responsibilities they have as researchers at their institutions.

The least satisfying aspect of postgraduate research for students in the 2018 survey was the research culture at their universities – though even here over 60% of participants are happy with their experiences.

Try to get a sense of the research culture and working environment at a university when considering it for your PhD – and make sure you’ll be happy there. One way to do this is to chat with universities at a study fair or visit them on an open day.

What other skills and experience do students get from a PhD?

The work you do towards your thesis will always be the most important part of a PhD (or other postgraduate research degree), but there’s a lot more involved in the advanced academic work you’ll be doing.

The PRES measures some of these other activities by asking students about the development opportunities they’ve had:


Postgraduate development opportunities

Table gives the % of postgraduate research students who indicated that they had these opportunities during their courses.


As you can see, participating in academic conferences is a common feature of the postgraduate research experience. This makes sense, as these events allow you to keep in touch with the cutting-edge research being carried out in your field. More importantly, they also give you the chance to highlight your own contribution to it!

Other development activities such as presenting to non-academic audiences, publishing work or taking part in external placements or internships are less common, but still important.

Be prepared to seek out the opportunities that matter to you. Experience of presenting research to wider audiences or working professionally can enhance your employability after a PhD, but you can’t assume that every programme will incorporate them by default.

What do students think of their supervisors?

The relationship between students and supervisors is one of the most unique features of a PhD: unique because you’ll be working closely with one or two academic mentors to an extent that you won’t have done before and unique because, well, every student-supervisor relationship is unique!

As you can imagine then, the PRES asks how satisfied students are with various aspects of their supervision:


Supervisor satisfaction

Table gives the % of postgraduate research students who indicated that they were satisfied with these aspects of their supervision.


It’s good to see that, in most cases, students are happy with the mentoring and support they get for their research. This is especially true when it comes to supervisor expertise, together with the feedback they get on their work and the contact time they have to discuss it. All of these will be an integral part of your PhD experience.

The supervisor you work with will have a big impact on your PhD experience. If you have the opportunity to choose, do so carefully. Spend some time researching their publications and, if possible, their supervisory style. It may also be a good idea to contact prospective supervisors before you formally apply for a PhD.

Why do students choose PhD study?

You’ll have your own reasons for considering a PhD: scholarly curiosity, preparation for an academic career, seeking to boost your employability, the desire to one day call yourself ‘doctor’. . . Comparing those reasons with other students’ can help you reflect on them and evaluate your priorities.

The PRES provides a useful way of doing that by measuring how important different motivations for study are to research students:


Reasons for doing a postgraduate research degree

Table gives the % of postgraduate research students who indicated that these were their motivations for studying.


The results here probably won’t surprise you (it makes sense that passion for a topic or research area is – and should be – a big motivation for advanced postgraduate study). But it’s worth looking at this list and asking if some of the other factors there are worth considering in your case.

How do motivations link to experiences?

So, you know why other students choose a research degree. But which factors should you focus on?

At the end of the day, this is a personal choice, but the PRES can give you some insight into how satisfied different students ended up being with their degrees, according to their main reasons for choosing it. This can give you a sense of which factors to possibly consider if you want the most positive PhD experience:


Satisfaction by study motivation

Table gives the % of postgraduate research students who indicated that they were satisfied with their postgraduate study experiences, for each study motivation.


The results here are actually very interesting. Even though the desire to work with a particular academic is only a key motivation for a small number of students, those are actually the happiest with their overall experiences. On the other hand, the availability of funding, whilst obviously an important factor in making PhD study possible, isn’t necessarily going to make a doctorate enjoyable.

Think carefully about your reasons for wanting to do a PhD. A topic you’re passionate about and committed to is likely to be much more enjoyable than something you’re researching because you feel you ‘have to’ for career or funding reasons. That seems obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of.

What matters most to PhD students?

We’ve seen that your reasons for pursuing a PhD or other postgraduate research degree can have an impact on how satisfying your experience is and whether or not it meets your expectations. But what’s most important once you’ve started?

The PRES also identifies those aspects of a postgraduate research degree that link most strongly to overall student satisfaction. The following were the top five factors for student satisfaction in the 2018 survey:


Top factors for student satisfaction


  1. Supervisor feedback
  2. Supervisor help with training and development
  3. Being inspired by the department's research ambience
  4. Regular contact with supervisors
  5. Developing confidence to be creative and innovative

Unsurprisingly, these results reveal that supervisors are an important (and positive) factor. On the other hand, factors associated with the wider research environment a student works within (and the opportunities they have there) are important, but are areas some students would like to see improvement in.

The supervisory relationship is one of the most important and rewarding parts of a PhD, but the relationship with your university can be broader than this. Don’t overlook your training needs or forget to look beyond your supervisor for support with other aspects of university life. If possible, look for a university with a supportive programme designed to help you develop.

How happy are PhD students?

Last, but certainly not least, the PRES does very important work in gathering information on the wellbeing of postgraduate research students. This is an optional part of the survey, giving the following results for 2018:


Satisfaction with wellbeing

Table gives the % of postgraduate research students who indicated they were satisfied with these aspects of their wellbeing.


These results show that most students do feel completing a PhD or other research programme is worthwhile. However, fewer students feel they have a good work / life balance during their degrees.

The supervisory relationship is one of the most important and rewarding parts of a PhD, but the relationship with your university can be broader than this. Don’t overlook your training needs or forget to look beyond your supervisor for help with other aspects of university life. If possible, look for a university with a supportive programme designed to help you develop.

We’ll update this guide as new PRES data is released, making sure you’re able to see recent and reliable information about other students’ PhD experiences. You can also read more about the PRES methodology below, or on the PRES website.


About the PRES

The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey is carried out each year by Advance HE. In 2018 it included responses from over 16,000 students at 63 UK universities plus three other institutions in Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. Participants are current postgraduate research students on MRes (Master of Research), MPhil (Master of Philosophy) and PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) programmes.


Last updated - 19/11/2018

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