Even before you start a PhD, you’ll have to do some research! Not your doctoral research but the what, where and who of your future degree.
From what I hear from current students, unless there is a personal reason to go to a particular university, the most important factors will be related to the project and/or the supervisor/research group. These include:
For those of you in the sciences, you may choose an advertised project but it will be important to find out a bit more about the person who is going to guide you (at the beginning) and be your research collaborator (towards the end of your PhD).
If you are not applying to do an advertised project (as is often the case in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, you’ll probably start by identifying an area you want to explore and draft a project proposal before you start looking for experts who can act as supervisors.
So all in all, whatever subject area you are in, your supervisor will feature highly in your initial search for a PhD. The supervisor- student relationship is one of the most important determinants in the success of a PhD, so do your research. The bad news: supervisors don’t grow on trees and there isn’t one place for you to look.
You’ll need to know what you want to research and probably have determined a draft research proposal. If you haven’t yet, this is a whole different conversation. Yes, it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. How can you find out what your research questions will be without having found out who has done related research on the subject? After all, unless the literature around your topic is really old, the likelihood is that these people will be on your prospective supervisors’ shortlist.
However, you can always refine your draft research proposal based on the particular expertise of a prospective supervisor (and perhaps with their help). If you’re asked for a fuller proposal later on in your studies, then provide one.
Alternatively, you can develop a ‘full’ research proposal based on your interests using a full appraisal of the existing body of knowledge and then look for supervisors but you will need to have a lot of confidence in your research proposal. Remember that if the proposal is too long it might not get read so always provide a synopsis
Prospective supervisors can be:
If you get the opportunity to meet a prospective supervisor face-to-face, then do so. Let them know that you’re interested in doing a PhD in his or her area. If you know them from a previous degree, tell them you would like to continue working with them and suggest a longer meeting to discuss common interests, any funded projects which are currently advertised or whether there is an area related to their expertise that you could pursue your PhD in.
You can also look more broadly across departments at your current university. Sometimes, a polite, yet unsolicited, encounter from students who pop round to the office is quite effective. Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t phone/email for an appointment. If you are emailing (which is absolutely fine) to discuss the possibility of doing a PhD, rather than visiting, why not copy in the postgraduate (research) person or international officer in the department or university? They may be able to give you additional information (and in some cases, nudge busy academics!).
If you are casting your net even more widely, email is the most likely way of making contact so plan carefully (see the section below on the golden rules of contacting supervisors). There are also other ways to meet prospective supervisors: Skype chats? online or Twitter chats organised by the university? Could you visit on-campus (one to one or through open days) or attend relevant conferences to meet prospective supervisors? These options can be an expensive option. Some conferences, however, have funding for postgraduate students to attend and present their work, including Masters dissertations.
One of my academic colleagues has a well-respected blog which has organically served to identify future PhD students. Why? Because some of the blog readers (and interesting ‘commenters’) are students and they are obviously engaged with the current issues in that field of research (watch out, not all blogs are written by academics or researchers). So it is worth thinking slightly outside the box these days.
Once you’ve done all this, draw up a shortlist of 2-3 supervisors and find out about their research history. What do you mean, I hear you say? Well, finding out about publications is going to be the main thing (and , if you’re in the sciences, scientific databases are going to become your best friend). Important research outputs include books, editorials, reports, press articles, exhibitions, public engagement work (Google is probably going to be a useful tool). It’s also worth looking at any past or present PhD research overseen by your supervisors (university websites are a good place to look for this).
It is also worth looking at ‘centres of excellence’ which may be in one institution or a group of institutions like Scottish Research Pools in Scotland. This way you’re not simply looking for individuals but the universities where the facilities and expertise are the best in the country where you want to live - or worldwide.
Not all academics will answer or will agree to meet up. This is not personal, it is just because they’re busy, they have too many students, they’re not sure your research topic is the right one, they’re about to retire, etc. However, if you have potential, sincere research ambitions and an interesting topic/project you want to research, this will help you greatly in your search in a supervisor.