Choosing a PhD programme

Here are some ideas for how to choose a PhD programme. I am happy with the decision I made in 2004, which no doubt skews this list. The world has also changed significantly since then, e.g., tuition fees have skyrocketed and we have had a pandemic, so read critically.

Read papers by potential supervisors – especially papers coauthored with their recent PhD students. Although the reputation of a university is important, much more important is who you will be spending the next three or more years of your life working with. Know their stuff! Obviously you are looking for stuff that makes you think, “That’s fab.” Think about the kind of work that went into producing that output (interviewing people and transcribing what they say, developing mathematical proofs, statistical analysis, visiting archives, etc.). See also helpful advice by Tara Brabazon on choosing a supervisor.

Meet your candidate supervisor before signing up, ideally outside the context of a formal interview. This does not seem obvious to all applicants, given how different PhD research is to taught programmes.

Read the acknowledgements sections of doctoral theses (they will be online), ideally from the research group you are considering joining, or at least the same department (and building). By “group” I mean any kind of formal or informal gathering of researchers. This may be a named “lab” with a shiny website and social media presence – common in biology and psychology – or simply postdocs and PhD students who tend to work together, perhaps brought together by a well-known prof. Beware if acknowledgements sections are all one-liners saying something like, “Thanks to Prof X for being so kind as to talk to me.” You have spent three years with them and still don’t use their first name and you don’t have anything else to say after all that time? Better: paragraphs of prose on having an enriching time with a mention or two of the inevitable ups and downs. Not everybody likes to write this stuff, but there should be one or two in the department or research group.

Find out what graduates went on to do, for example are they still in academia and publishing anything interesting? They will have a paper or two coauthored with the supervisor. See what else they published afterwards. If you already definitely know that you don’t want a career in academia, then have a hard think about whether a PhD will actually enrich your life. It might, for instance if you want to work in social research outside academia, but think hard and consult widely. Disclaimer: I spent about a decade in universities, includingΒ  nearly four years as a senior lecturer (associate professor), for the 12 years after graduating. In 2021 I escaped to an independent social research organisation. I do think having a PhD is helpful for my current role and lots of my colleagues have one too; however, this belief could be a defence mechanism πŸ˜‰

Are there regular research seminars in the dept? This is essential and associated with the overall reputation of a university department. You need a lively academic community to be stimulated and somewhere to present your ideas – this is not optional. Are there a few well known people around? Do you recognise the names of invited speakers? If you are considering applying to the university you are currently studying at, attend seminars to get a sense of the vibe: what sorts of questions do people ask; are academics happy to be there?

If possible (and for a 3+ year commitment, potentially involving relocating, it really should be possible): talk to current PhD students at the university to get the gossip, ideally in a bar or cafΓ©. Maybe X, Bluesky, or Mastodon helps these days – many academics and PhD students are there. LinkedIn? Setup a Teams or Zoom call.

Check whether you will have any office space. Your own desk and computer or hot desking? Shared with 5 or 50 other students…? There is a lot of variation even within universities, depending on discipline (biology, psychology, and arts are quite different), so it will be worth getting a sense of norms by asking about more than one institution. I have no idea what Covid-19 and its aftermath has done to norms.

Finally, and controversially: if you can’t get funding, don’t do it. Academia is competitive. If you can’t manage to get funding to do a PhD then it’s less likely that you will get a job at the end of it all. I do know of two exceptions to this claim, though – one in 2023.

You might also want a preview of tips on how to write up a PhD thesis.

Last tweaked 23 November 2023.