But the truth is, picking a PhD isn’t like choosing an undergraduate course, or even a Masters degree. For one thing, you’re not simply picking a course anymore, or just completing a degree.
Now you’re committing to something much more ambitious: a process of extended independent research that doesn’t just result in a qualification for you, but produces the original contribution to knowledge that defines a doctorate.
A PhD may not seem long when you’re busy with research, results and writing up. But three years (or more!) is a long time to spend on a project that stops interesting you after three months.
Each of the following steps requires you to take some time and be methodical (there’s a reason they’re in a particular order). A few of them ask you to do something practical and one even suggests a bit of travelling (who said the internet was for lazy people?).
It’s up to you how closely you follow our advice, but rushing towards the first PhD you see is rarely a good idea.
Before you can find the right doctorate, you need to know what kind of doctorate is right for you.
Broadly speaking, doctorates come in three general formats:
There are degrees of nuance within these categories (pun intended) but the subject you wish to research in will probably narrow down the kind of doctorate you should be looking for.
You should also begin thinking about what you want to do after your PhD. Career opportunities for doctoral graduates are more varied (and flexible) than you might assume, but there’s still a fairly clear difference between academic and professional doctorates.
It sounds like an obvious statement (or an awful tongue-twister) but this is a place where it’s easy to go wrong – particularly if you’re coming up with your own research topic.
You need to really want to do a PhD. Not just another degree. Not just another qualification. Not just another three years at university.
Three years of in-depth, mostly independent research on a topic you care enough about to spend three years researching, independently and in-depth. With a worthwhile new contribution to academic or professional knowledge in your field at the end of it.
Getting there takes real passion for your topic. But, passion alone isn’t enough to make a doctorate practical.
People have been carrying out doctoral research for around 100 years. That’s a lot of PhDs in your subject. So it isn’t enough to just decide you ‘want to study a PhD in [your subject]’, even if you are incredibly passionate about it. Chances are, other people have been passionate about this subject before.
Your topic needs to be more specific. It also has to have the right scope for a PhD.
Some academic research projects can run for extensive periods of time, taking in the work of multiple people and developing over years or even decades. A doctorate needs to be completed in around three to four years of full-time work, by one scholar (you!).
So, you’ve got a fairly good idea for a PhD on a topic you’re passionate about and it looks like an original and worthwhile idea.
The next step is to check that both of those things are true. And you can start right here.
Our search is a useful way to find a PhD (it’s in the name, after all) but it’s also a great way to compare current PhDs – and get a sense of what’s happening in your field.
Entering your research area (or interests) will bring up relevant projects and programmes, but don’t worry about picking one of them just yet.
Instead take a look at the kind of results you see. How many are there? Where are they from? How specific are they to your research interests?
This information can be a good indicator of how popular the field for your topic is and how densely (or sparsely) inhabited it might be.
If you’re seeing lots of interest in your area, your project might be timely. But you might also need to think further about how you’ll differentiate your research from others’.
If you’re not seeing many directly relevant projects, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (particularly in the Arts and Humanities, where general programmes are more common than specific projects).
It could be that your ideas are very original (and ideal for a PhD). Still, you should probably discuss them with a supervisor before you apply or submit a proposal. There might be a reason no one is currently researching (or advertising) projects on your topic.
As well as seeing how many people are researching your area, you should try and get some idea of what research in that area is actually like. You’re going to be doing a lot of it during your PhD after all.
So, take a more detailed look at some of the project descriptions you’ve found during your searches:
What do they involve doing? How interesting are the details of the science or scholarship they refer to? How familiar does it sound? Does it interest you? Would you like to read a research paper on this topic if we put one in front of you, right now?
If the answer to that last question is ‘yes’ (and it should be if you’re up for a PhD on this topic) then why not go and find a recent paper or journal article on this subject? If specific work is mentioned in the project, see if you can find it. If not, start with the supervisor’s recent publications.
We could have called this step ‘choose the right university’ but what really makes a university a good choice for a PhD is the environment it provides for doctoral research in your field.
You can get some sense of this from traditional measurements of university ‘quality’. Rankings, for example, can tell you things like how much research a university publishes and how good it might be perceived to be.
But these things probably won’t matter as much during the day-to-day of your PhD. Instead you should look at things like:
If you can, make a trip to visit any university you’re seriously considering for a PhD. Postgraduate open days are a great way to do this, but you may also be able to arrange an informal visit – particularly if you’ve made contact with a supervisor to discuss a project.
The student-supervisor relationship is a unique part of the PhD experience and, to some extent, it’s also unique to each PhD experience.
All supervisors serve as scholarly mentors and professional role models for the academic work you’ll carry out during your doctorate. But those functions are facilitated by a human relationship between two individuals, working together over three or more years.
It goes without saying that you need that relationship to succeed and, to that extent, the advice in this step is rather simple:
Before you choose a supervisor to approach with your PhD topic (or choose a PhD with an assigned supervisor) find out a little more about them.
One way to do that is to get in touch.
An informal email should do the trick. It doesn’t need to be long and it certainly shouldn’t be confused with your research proposal.
Instead, simply introduce yourself, your background and interests and your interest in working with them. You can also ask questions about the university or project (if you have any).
It may also be worth doing a little more background research on prospective supervisors:
Be respectful and polite as you consider potential supervisors, but do take your research seriously. After all, this will be the most important academic (and professional) relationship of your career so far.
You know what kind of doctorate you’re looking for. You’ve found a topic you care about and checked that the wider academic community does too. You have some idea of what to expect from day-to-day research on that project and think you’ve found a university (and supervisor) you’ll be comfortable with.
So, are you ready to apply for that PhD? Probably. But don’t do so just yet.
Instead, imagine yourself after you’ve applied, aced your interview and been accepted (of course).
Picture yourself actually researching that PhD.
Where will you live? How’s the commute? Are you still able to see friends, family and significant others? If not, is that going to be something you’ll be comfortable with?
Next, imagine yourself after you’ve submitted, aced your viva and received your doctorate.
Picture yourself holding a shiny new PhD. What will you do next?
You don’t have to know exactly which option you’ll pursue in three years or so, but you should think seriously about your options and plans before you start.
Once you’ve done that. . . you could be ready to get started with your PhD. Good luck!
Last updated - 15/01/2021