Choosing Where to Do a PhD
Written by Mike Davies
Finding the best university for a PhD can seem daunting. After all, your choice of university will determine not only where you will be living and studying for the next three to five years, but also what that experience is going to be like.
There are many factors to consider when deciding where to study a PhD. A university that can provide good facilities and an enthusiastic supervisor is going to be a great boon to your research, while one lacking useful resources or holding a poor reputation in your field of interest may be best avoided. And, of course, some universities also have access to more PhD funding than others.
This guide will highlight some of the most important things to consider when choosing a university for your PhD – helping you research where you’d like to research.
The university you choose for a PhD will determine the supervisors available for your project – and vice versa. This means it’s often worth starting your search by seeking out a researcher whose interests overlap with your own. How you do this may depend on your subject area.
If you are planning to propose your own research topic you’ll want to find a university with a supervisor who is as passionate about your project as you are.
The simplest way to do this is to look at the bio pages on university websites. Researchers will typically list their field of expertise as well as any previous publications, both of which can be used to assess whether you think they would be a good fit for your project.
Don’t be put off if your initial choice isn’t currently requesting applications from prospective students. They may still be interested in discussing your project if you contact them; or they may be able to point you in the direction of someone more appropriate (the world of academia can be smaller than it seems).
Of course, you may already be familiar a supervisor at your current university. If so, it is well worth finding out whether they would be interested in your PhD proposal. Once again, even if this is not possible, they will likely be more than happy to help you find someone who is.
Some PhDs will be advertised with a supervisor or principle investigator (PI) already attached to the project. If a university lists one of these that fits your interests then it’s likely that this is a good university for your PhD. Still, you may want to check their background and expertise in your area, using the steps above.
It can be tempting to judge a potential supervisor’s expertise by the size of their research group. However, this can be misleading. A smaller group is likely to have a greater focus on a single topic, whereas the PI of a larger group may be juggling many different areas of research. Consequently, the leader of the smaller research group may be more invested in your project than the supervisor of a larger group.
Having identified a shortlist of potential project supervisors you can then look in more detail at the university you might wish to study at.
Choosing a supervisor
Just because their academic interests align with your own doesn’t mean that they will make a good supervisor. If you’re interested in how to identify a good supervisor why not take a look at our guide on choosing a PhD supervisor.
Most people will want to study their PhD at a ‘good’ university (and the fact that you’re reading this suggests you’re one of them). But how do you know how ‘good’ a university is? One way to check is to use university rankings.
Several companies produce annual league tables that examine and rank the performance of universities around the world. However, these overall ‘global’ rankings typically focus on undergraduate studies. This means they are of limited use to PhD students.
Rankings can tell you something about a university’s general reputation but, as a PhD graduate, you will be judged primarily on the quality of your research. You should therefore use rankings as a tool for identifying universities with high quality research outputs (and opportunities) rather than just thinking how they might look on your CV.
In order to do this, you’ll need to understand the metrics that the organisations use to rank universities. The most important of these metrics will be research output, which measures the publication output of the university.
Measurement of an institution’s research output includes looking at the impact of their research (how many people cite it) and their academic reputation (an assessment of the faculty’s standing by others in the field).
The ranking organisations also publish rankings by subject. These are typically far more useful than overall rankings when looking for a PhD. The reason for this is that although the university you are looking at may not score highly overall, it may still score very highly in a specific field.
Rankings for PhD study
Looking at rankings when evaluating a university for PhD study can be a challenge. That’s why we’ve put together a guide on rankings for PhD study, looking in detail at the various metrics used as well as the various companies that publish them.
Finally, for a more detailed look at a universities research performance, you can take a look at government research assessments.
Most countries award public funding to universities and, rather than rely on league tables, most will carry out their own assessments.
These can act as a very useful guides for prospective PhD students trying to assess the quality of a university. Furthermore, the reports are usually subdivided by subject, ensuring that you are not mislead by an overall score.
If you’re looking at a university in the UK then these results are published in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) report. We have developed an interactive tool to make it easy to view the results by university and area of study.
Research Excellence Framework
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) report may be one of the best tools for evaluating a university for a PhD in the UK. For a detailed look at exactly what the assessment measures as well as what the results mean, take a look at our guide on the latest REF report.
The facilities a university has available for you to use in the course of your PhD are not necessarily the be all and end all of a successful research project, but a well-funded and well-equipped university will certainly make your life easier.
Additionally, some projects will require access to facilities that may only be accessible at a few universities in the world. This is perhaps most obvious when dealing with projects in scientific fields where the equipment required may be very expensive. In these cases, it would simply not be possible for many universities to own such equipment.
Humanities projects are not exempt from this however, as you may also find that certain resources such as archives or manuscripts are physically present at only one location and may not yet have been digitised (even they have, not all universities will subscribe).
Identifying and assessing available resources
If you want to know what facilities a university has available, you will often be able to find a list on the faculty pages of their website. Here you will also be able to discover the contact information of the facility manager should you need more information. You can find key facilities and resources available to potential applicants when looking at PhD projects listed on our website.
Alternatively, can get an idea of the facilities a university has to offer by looking at the research it publishes. Such articles will detail the resources used in the research and that will therefore be available for you to use.
Don’t worry if the university doesn’t appear to have direct access to the facility you need as many faculties have agreements to use other groups facilities when necessary.
Regardless of what information you are able to find out on your own, it’s worth talking with your potential supervisors about access to any facilities you think your project might require. Even if some resources aren’t available, they may well be able to suggest a workable alternative.
It’s all very well identifying a great university with an enthusiastic supervisor and great resources, but you will still need to pay for the research that you intend to undertake there. You may also feel the need to keep a roof over your head while you do so!
Fees don’t always vary significantly between universities in the same country (unless you’re choosing between public and private institutions). However, the availability of funding does.
This is especially true if you are moving to another country where international students may not have access to the same support as local students.
Finding out how much funding a university has
The first thing to do is to see if there is a project advertised by your prospective supervisor that already has funding attached. This is often the case with PhD projects in the STEM fields. These will often include a maintenance stipend.
If a funded project does not exist, you can look to see if the university that you’re applying to offers scholarships, as most do. In the UK these are often provided by the Research Councils, which allocate different ‘pots’ of PhD funding to different groups of universities. Some universities also have their own scholarships in addition to government funding.
The size of a scholarship should not necessarily be the deciding factor for the university that you choose, but it is something you should carefully consider. After all, the more funds you have available the easier your research (and your life) is going to be.
Looking for PhD funding?
There are many options availible when looking at PhD funding and we’ve put together a series of guides exploring what you need to know about each one. From scholarships to loans and even advice on working while studying, you’ll find all the essential information on our funding pages.
You are likely to spend the next three to five years living close to the university you intend to complete your PhD at. This being the case, you probably want to put some consideration into whether you’re likely to enjoy it there.
Focusing all your energy on your study and leaving yourself no free time might seem like the mindset a PhD student should have but, in reality, this isn’t good for your wellbeing (or the long-term success of your doctorate). You want to make sure that wherever you end up, you’ll have something of a personal life.
Think about whether you would prefer to study in the peacefulness of the countryside or the excitement of the inner city. Also think about any hobbies you have and whether the location you’re looking at has the opportunities to pursue them.
If you are thinking of studying at university that is further away from major cities, you may need to think about how you are going to get to and from it. Public transport may be unreliable or more expensive and if you need to drive you need to decide whether this is practical for you.
You should also take some time looking into the costs of living in the local area. You may well find that your stipend doesn’t cover as much as you thought it might if you’re living in a major city. On the other hand, you may discover that what you thought was a comparatively low value scholarship, is actually worth considerably more in real terms due to a relatively low cost of living.
Advice on studying abroad
If you’re looking at international universities, make sure you have a good idea about any additional difficulties you may face applying for a PhD, such as visas or additional exams. We have a whole section dedicated to studying abroad if you’d like more information.
Once you’ve looked at several universities, and considered the above points for each one, you should have the information necessary to compile a shortlist of possible options for your PhD.
A good next step is to visit these universities at an open day or meet with them at a PhD study fair. Alternatively, you can get on with your PhD application. Good luck!
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