Finding the Right PhD - A Step by Step Guide to Choosing the Best Doctorate for You
Written by Mark Bennett
If choosing the right PhD programme was as simple as searching for one, there wouldn’t be any need for the rest of this website – including our advice articles (like this one).
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.
There are also other unique factors that will influence your PhD: from the supervisor you work with to the type of doctorate you pursue (and your reasons for pursuing it).
In this guide, we'll talk you through how to choose a PhD programme, step by step.
A PhD may not seem long when you’re busy with research, results and writing up. But three years (or more!)
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.
Follow the steps in this guide, compare multiple opportunities and reflect on your decision-making process. The ability to be systematic and diligent when searching for a doctorate is great preparation for doing one.
Apply for the first project you find and eventually end up studying for a doctorate in Byzantine Politics when you actually meant to research Biochemical Polymers.
2. Choose what kind of doctorate you’re looking for
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:
- Advertised projects - these are common in Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (‘STEM’) subjects. They’re normally offered within established laboratories, research groups or other specialised academic networks whose broader goals will shape some of the boundaries for your project, though not necessarily the specific direction you pursue.
- Self-proposed projects - these are more common in Arts, Humanities and some Social Science subjects. They normally involve a student selecting their own topic and ‘proposing’ it to a university and / or supervisor. You’ll have relatively free reign to pick your own topic, but it will need to form the basis of a realistic PhD (see Step 3!) and fit within the aims and expertise of an institution’s research objectives.
- Professional doctorates - these are offered in vocational subjects such as Business and Management and tend to award specialised qualifications such as the DBA (Doctor of Business Administration). They’re usually intended for experienced candidates looking to research on their area of practice, rather than become academic researchers.
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.
- Learn about different types of PhD (as well as the differences between them) and take a look at the kind of doctorates offered in your subject area.
- Spend ages wondering why you can’t find a Doctor of Business Administration in Seventeenth-Century Computer Science. Or expect a university Chemistry department to hire you with one.
3. Pick a project that pairs passion with practicality
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.
Once you know you want to do a doctorate, how do you find the right PhD 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!).
- Look for a project with clear objectives that you care about, solving worthwhile problems that matter to you and tackling questions you actually want to know the answers to.
- Set out to re-think the fundamental principles of theoretical Physics in three years. Particularly if you’re more interested in Engineering.
4. Research your research
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.
- Investigate the work being done in your field and think about how your project will fit into that research landscape.
- Assume your PhD idea is original, only to find that six other people are working on similar topics. And two of them are just about to publish their results.
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.
- Look at some current work in your field and ask yourself, honestly, if this is the kind of material you can see yourself reading (and maybe writing) over the next three years or so.
- Sign up for three years of academic research only to discover you hate reading academic research papers.
6. Think about your research environment
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:
- How well-equipped is it for research on your topic? Appropriate laboratory or workshop facilities are a must for most STEM PhDs, but an under-stocked library can make Arts and Humanities scholarship difficult and frustrating.
- What kind of postgraduate facilities does it offer? A PGR common room may not seem like much, but it could be nirvana when you need somewhere quiet to go over your chapter draft.
- Is there much of a postgraduate community? Are other students working in your area? Is there a postgraduate society? Three years of doctoral solitude won’t do your well-being any good – and being cut off from other people’s ideas won’t help your research.
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.
- Recognise the importance of your daily routine to your happiness (and success). Think about what it might be like to live and work on this project, at this institution.
- Assume that one university is right for your PhD simply because it ranks higher, has a nicer coffee shop or a shiny new library (with none of the journals you need).
7. Talk to potential supervisors
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:
- How many students have they supervised before? How many students are they currently supervising?
- How well does their past or present research align with your topic?
- Are they involved in any significant projects that might help or hinder their involvement with your PhD?
- How do they come across personally and professionally? Are they active on appropriate social media networks like LinkedIn or Twitter? Do they maintain a personal website or blog for their research?
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.
- Think about what you’ll need from a PhD supervisor and the kind of relationship (and personalities) that might provide it.
- Add every potential supervisor you find on Facebook and message them all asking for help with your research proposal.
8. Think about your future
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?
Opportunities for PhD graduates are more diverse than you might think, with many academic and non-academic pathways that take advantage of the transferable skills developed during a doctorate.
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!
- Have a goal in mind for your PhD, reflect on what you hope to gain from the qualification, and understand the alternative options that might be available if your plans change.
- Assume that a PhD will automatically lead to a specific job (in academia or elsewhere) or ignore the opportunities to develop your skills and CV during a doctorate.
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