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Deciding Where to Study for Your PhD

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Research performance

In the UK, the research rating of a department or school is known as its Research Assessment Exercise rating (although from 2014, this will change to the Research Excellence Framework, or REF). Most departments will publish their score on their web sites or you can see the results of the whole RAE on the RAE web site.

These assessments take place once or twice in a decade and the latest for which results are published is the 2008 RAE. The results can be hard to interpret and each university may choose to display them in a different light. In general, any department or school with 50% or more of their staff rated 4* or 3* is doing very well for itself and studying there will make you look good. This does not however mean that every research group in that department is at the top of their game. Universities have a degree of flexibility in how they are assessed. They sometimes group departments together, so if they've got two outstanding life science departments and one not so good they may submit all three as one unit, hiding the bad department. They can, and do, choose not to submit some of their academics for inclusion in the assessment (sometimes because they are young and haven't had time to build up a publication record or sometimes because they're not very good). The reason they go to so much effort is that a large amount of funding for the five years following the RAE or REF is based on its result.

Some students look at rankings but these tend to be for a whole institution and won’t tell you much about specific areas of research so take them with a pinch of salt.

The Research Group

Some of the criteria upon which the RAE and REF are graded include research publications, industrial collaborations, grant income, and numbers of research students. You can get an idea of this yourself by looking up the publications of your potential new supervisor. It is unlikely that you will know which journals are more prestigious, but you can always ask around. A pretty good measure of grant income is to count the number of students, postdocs and technicians (if relevant) in the group. Postdocs are an invaluable source of help and inspiration, particularly in larger groups where time with your supervisor may be limited.

Having said all this, work with a younger academic at the start of their career can have many advantages. They are likely to have much more time to give to you and will be very pleased to have you on the team. For more information see our article ‘Choosing a PhD Supervisor.’

Visiting before starting your PhD

There will be opportunities to visit the university and/or specific department you are considering for your PhD happen during Open Days (especially Postgrad ones) and you may also wish to organise one-to-one meetings. In addition, you may be asked to attend an interview during your selection process. This may be face-to-face or via tele-/videoconference and is especially likely if you are applying for a studentship. At most PhD interviews you will have the opportunity to see where you are going to be working and will probably be given a tour by a current PhD student.

Whatever the purpose of your visit, take the opportunity to ask about the working experience at the institution. If the project is team-based, how do they operate? How often do fellow researchers present group seminars? Is the supervisor often absent (and does it make a difference when they are)? Even if yours is an individual research project (as is common in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) the culture of your department is still important. Are there other PhD students working in your field? Do they participate in any regular shared activities such as internal discussion groups or presentations? It helps a lot during a PhD if you like, or at least respect, your supervisor and other colleagues, so bear this in mind when getting to know them and making your choice.

The Training

Supervisors will be your main source of advice and support but do not overlook what is available in your department and the wider university. As well as your primary supervisor, the department should provide a second supervisor and / or other advisors. These will be academics from the same department; their job is to check that your project is on track to get you a PhD and, if necessary, to help manage any issues you may encounter with your primary supervisor. Many departments also run seminar programmes covering research methodologies, thesis writing and other relevant subjects.

Most information on support and training for PhD students should be available on the department's web site. If not, you can ask during the application process or before starting your PhD. To find out more about doing a PhD, read our article ‘What is it like to do a PhD’.

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