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How to Choose a PhD Project in STEM

Written by Jennifer Bevan

Choosing a PhD is completely different from picking an undergraduate or Masters course. You’re committing to three years (or more) of independent research that results in an original contribution to your field, so it’s best to spend some time looking for the right one.

Finding the perfect research project for a PhD in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) area is a little different to other subjects. STEM research often involves a large amount of practical and experimental work, and you’ll work closely with other members of the research team. As such, you’ll be looking for some distinct things from your prospective PhD project.

On this page we’ll cover what to consider when choosing a STEM PhD research project. From selecting a general topic to funding, these are our top tips. If you’re an Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences (AHSS) student, check out our guide to choosing a research topic in AHSS.

How to choose a STEM topic

First of all, you need to decide the general topic area (or areas) that you’ll find interesting enough to research for three years. A good place to start is by thinking back to the modules you studied during your undergraduate degree and remember which you really enjoyed. Do a little bit of research into each of these and narrow down your options a bit further.

You don’t need a super specific topic in mind, it can be fairly general for your initial searching. For example, a biologist may be interested in microbiology but not have a specific bacteria or fungi in mind they’d like to study, or an engineer may be interested in fluid dynamics but not know exactly the context in which they’d like to study it.

Once you’ve got your main topics of interest, your search can begin. If your interest covers more than one area you could look into the possibility of an interdisciplinary project spanning two topics, provided they can be linked in some way.

Advertised vs self-proposed projects

Before you can find the right project, you need to think about whether you’re looking for an advertised project or want to propose your individual research.

Advertised projects

Advertised projects are the most common option in STEM. These are projects pre-determined by the supervisor that fit well with the interests of the research group. Naturally, the projects are flexible and can be tailored slightly towards your particular interests, which can be discussed with the potential supervisor. Advertised projects often come with attached funding.

As we mentioned previously, STEM projects involve experimental work, which require additional funding known as bench fees. The project funding generally covers course fees, bench fees and a stipend paid to you monthly. You can find advertised projects by searching PhD databases.

Self-proposed projects

Students proposing their own research project in any discipline must put additional time into developing a research question and not get carried away – you have to be able to finish the project within three years. However, proposing your own research in STEM comes with some specific problems. Most notably, you’ll have to find a supervisor that runs a research team with interests that overlap with yours and have all the specialist equipment you’ll need for experiments. If you’re thinking about proposing a PhD project, have a look at our page on writing a good PhD proposal.

Research your potential research

Once you’ve found (or drafted a proposal for) a project that you like the sound of:

  • Do some digging around the area
  • Look for research in your topic to see what similar work has been done and how well researched it is to find the gap your project would fill
  • Read papers published by the supervisor and members of their research group (if you find them unengaging and dull it’s not the project for you!)

Looking into the kinds of research other members of the group do can also give you a good idea of the scope of their work and help you decide if you’d like to work on their team.

Take your time during this process. You don’t want to rush and end up on a project that bores you when you get into the technical details. A project you’re interested in at a university you like, with a research team with similar specialisms to you – these are the ingredients to a successful PhD.

Contact supervisors

When you’re happy with a project and know you could study it for three years, the next step is contacting the supervisor. Often this will result in arranging a meeting with them to discuss the project, either in person or online. This is an opportunity to see if you get on well with them and ask any questions you may have about the project or their equipment. They’ll also ask you a few questions, but at this point it’s more of a conversation than a formal interview.

STEM funding

If the projects you’re interested in come with attached funding, you don’t need to worry about this. If your project doesn’t come with financial support, you’ll need to think about how you’re going to fund your PhD. There are many options available to you including:

  • Scholarships, grants or bursaries from universities or charities.
  • Other university funding such as a fee waiver, a PhD studentship that isn’t attached to a specific project, or a graduate teaching assistantship. An assistantship is a role in which you’re paid a salary for taking on additional responsibilities to your PhD research such as teaching.
  • PhD loans from the government. This isn’t generally a popular option in STEM since the additional bench fees double the amount you pay to the university. However, with an additional part-time job, some funding from the university or a grant from a charity it’s a viable option.

Talk to your prospective supervisor about any funding opportunities available, they should know the organisations and programmes most likely to fund your project. You can read about all of the funding options in more detail on our funding pages.

Decide which is best for you

Once you’ve done your research into a few projects, the funding options and met the supervisors it’s time compare the good and bad points of each project and supervisor to decide which one’s best for you.

Applying for a STEM PhD project

Our guide to applying for a STEM PhD project has more detail on this part of the process, with information on funding options and making a successful application.

Last Updated: 19 July 2021

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