A PhD FAQ

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By Miles Thompson and Alex Saunders*

Embarking on a PhD can be one of the most rewarding, frustrating, liberating, challenging and exciting adventures of your professional life. However, it isn’t for everyone and should not be undertaken lightly. If it works for you, it can be incredible. If it doesn’t, it can be painful.

Within PSRG at UWE Bristol we are helping to grow the next generation of researchers and academics. As a result, we often have conversations with our students, our graduates and graduates from other universities about the whys and wherefores of PhDs. To help shape these conversations, we’ve put together the following blog as a repository of frequently asked questions and links to other sources of information that might be helpful to those considering embarking on a PhD journey either with us or elsewhere.

So, if you’re thinking about studying for a PhD in the UK (my colleagues from the US tell me things are very different over there), read our blog below for some honest truths and links to even more information about topic areas you should be chewing over. Namely we will cover:

1. Can I do a PhD? Eligibility and Suitability.

Eligibility

In terms of eligibility, on paper the answer is often “yes” for many people. At UWE for example, many PhD programmes only require a 2:1 at undergraduate level or a Masters at merit level or higher (see UWE’s criteria here). If you have undertaken a Masters, this grade will often supersede the importance of your undergraduate degree result (see also here).

But, although you can go straight from your undergraduate degree to a PhD, the step up is a big one. This is why a Masters, or a Masters by Research (which focuses more on research and independent study; read more here) can be a sensible in-between step. There are multiple benefits from both including:

  • gaining more research skills
  • seeing if more independent learning with less structure is for you
  • learning more about building and managing working relationships with a supervisor(s)

While many institutions do not require you to already have a Masters, some funded PhDs include an entire Masters as part of your studies (e.g., the SWDTP). And at many institutions, like UWE, you will take Masters / higher level modules as part of your doctoral studies.

Importantly, if you are considering studying for a PhD without a Masters do carefully compare the differences between undergraduate and PhD study before you begin. Resources like the following can be useful when contemplating which route to take (1 and 2).

Importantly for international students, many institutions require a recognised English language qualification such as the International English Language Testing System test for students that do not have English as their first language. Also, if you are a non-resident of the UK and looking to study a PhD here, you may also require a visa, for which you will have to meet a number of requirements (see here). And please note, these guidelines may change during the Brexit transition period and beyond).

Suitability

Perhaps even more important than thinking about your “eligibility” to study for a PhD, is the question of “suitability.” In short, it is important to ask yourself if you can be self-directed, independent, and focused enough to study one thing for at least 3 years, possibly longer. Do you have the passion and commitment to work on one subject area for that length of time?

A PhD is a big commitment, it can take over large swathes of your life for the duration of study. It will also, inevitably involve some downs as well as ups (see here for more on the “turbulent nature of doctoral research.” So, it is important that you are studying something that you feel committed to and will see through.

It is highly likely that prospective PhD students anywhere will only be accepted onto PhD programmes if they can show that they are: i. likely to complete their PhD and ii. will do so within the time limits of the institution. Further questions to ask yourself can be found here.

2. Funding and what that might mean for what I do or don’t study

Getting funding for your tuition fees and even a stipend to live on is both a very appealing and a very competitive process. In this section, we discuss funding and how being funded or not can influence the focus of your PhD topic.

Tuition fees for standard postgraduate research programmes in the UK are set by “UK Research and Innovation.” They are often lower than taught undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes, although fees for International students will be higher. More information about PhDs fees at UWE can be found here.

But remember, tuition fees are not your sole expense. Accommodation and other living costs will often end up being much more than the cost of tuition fees alone. As a result, some self-funded students combine working in another job with their PhD studies and complete some or all their PhD on a part-time basis.

If you secure a funded post that has been advertised, it is likely that you will work on a programme of study that has been somewhat pre-determined by your supervisor. And of course, many students are very happy to do this due to the security of the funding and getting a PhD.

If you self-fund, or get a doctoral loan (see below), you should take the opportunity to “shop around” to find a supervisor who is interested in exactly the research topic you wish to study. After all, you are paying to study yourself – so your topic of study should reflect more of your passion.

And, of course, it is also possible that you approach a supervisor – work up a funding proposal together, and then both apply for funding. In terms of this pathway, UWE is part of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership, where exactly this process happens. But again, remember, securing any form of funding is a competitive and demanding process.

Listed below are some of the funding routes available to prospective PhD students:

National Research Councils

Funding for PhDs can be awarded by the different research councils in the UK, each covering a specific academic sector. Research councils post research opportunities on their websites so keep an eye out for research topics and calls that interest you.

Funding from universities

Universities can offer scholarships, studentships and other PhD funding opportunities which can cover tuition fees and stipends. See for example here.

Self-Funding

There are pros and cons to self-funding, even now it is easier to get a doctoral loan (below). Some interesting perspectives from self-funding PhD students can be found here and here.

Doctoral Loans

These loans are provided by the UK Government and can be used to cover both fees and living costs. The amount you get is divided equally across each year of study, and you will not have to start paying it back until your income is over a threshold amount. Eligibility for this loan depends on a number of factors, a list of which can be found here.

Funding for International students

There are several funding options specifically for International students. These can be important as tuition fees for International students are considerably higher than for home students. More information can be found here.

3. Supervisor selection

When deciding on studying a PhD you will likely have strong ideas on what you want to study and even where you want to study – but make sure you also feel very secure with who you are going to be studying with/under. Your supervisor or supervisors (see below) will be among the most significant people in your life during your PhD. They will guide and support you throughout the process, so it is vital that you find people who meet your needs.

Obviously, the process will differ between funded versus a self-funded PhD, but for both, before you commit, try and work out how you will differentiate between:

  1. a supervisor that will really help you get your PhD
  2. a supervisor who may end up hindering your progress

You need to be as sure as you can be that you are a good working match with each other. So do some research around their research passions, check they align with yours. Make sure, before you commit, that you ask some probing questions. You may wish to ask about the amount of contact time you will get or about students they have supervised before and their success rate as a supervisor. You may want to try and speak to their current or past students. If, when you are asking any of these questions, you are not happy with the answers you get, or you feel you already know more about a topic area than your supervisor: that could be a red flag and a sign for you to investigate other options.

Unfortunately, the supervisor-student relationship is not always cohesive and effective and can lead to issues. Unanswered emails, unannounced absences and unsuitable replacement supervisors are just a few examples of how it can go wrong and leave the student feeling confused, losing confidence in their abilities and their research. The following articles delve further into these issues (1 and 2).

The bottom line is simple, your relationship with your PhD supervisor really matters. Make sure you choose someone that will meet your needs both in terms of taking you on and when your studies get into difficulty.

One further thing. As hinted at earlier, generally speaking you will have more than one supervisor. A director of studies (lead / principal supervisor [n.b. different unis use different terms) and a secondary supervisor. The role and structure of secondary supervision can vary from PhD to PhD and place to place. Often secondary supervisors can bring complementary expertise or provide different viewpoints. Read more about their possible roles here. So just to complicate things, you don’t just need to be thinking about one supervisor – you need to be thinking about a supervision team!

Further guidance on how to choose a supervisor and supervision relationships can be found at the following links (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7).

4. Where to study?

This is an interesting topic because there are pros and cons to both staying at an institution you know and moving somewhere else. Some of the pros to staying at a familiar institution include established relationships with staff and processes. It may also be beneficial to stay in the same area if you have family or friends you do not wish to move away from. In some cases, your current institution may also be a leading centre for your research.

However, it might also be the case that the leading centres are somewhere else. Or even though it would be comfortable to stay within a geographical area or institution you know it might be better to look elsewhere. It might, for example, be useful to experience different research cultures and new locations. Some even suggest that staying at the same place for UG, PG and PhD study suggests a lack of willingness to move out of your comfort zone. Just to confuse things even more, some students live in one place but are registered for their part time PhD hundreds of miles away.

In short, you need to weigh up the pros and cons to determine which option is right for you. There are no firmly right or wrong answers. But there are several important points to think through when considering where you should study and live for the next few years of your life.

There is an interesting thread debating both options here. And further advice on where to study here.

5. Life after your PhD

It may sound strange to start thinking about your life after a PhD before you even start your doctoral research – but it is an important subject for now. Ask yourself: “Both, why do you want a PhD AND where do you want it to take you?”

Once you have a PhD there will be many routes open to you: continuing as a researcher, in academia or with a research-based organisations, teaching, or using your PhD skills in a non-research / learning setting. But now is also the time for some truth telling. Just so you have your eyes open from the outset.

“Continuing in academia” is a very natural aspiration for many after completing a PhD. However, for many years now, there have been many more people with PhDs than there are academic jobs in UK universities. The academic job market is both oversaturated and very competitive. That is not to say that academia is no longer an option for PhD students – it is the vital first step. But you might need to prepare yourself for a longer and more uncertain road than you were expecting.

This blog, is a sobering but important read. It notes that 70% of UK PhD holders have left the academic sector 3.5 years after graduating. And, of the 30% still within universities, it is unclear how many are employed on “teaching only” or “fixed term contracts.”. As with elsewhere in the UK workforce, casualisation and precarious working is an issue in academia too.

Of course, many people either always planned to move away from research after their PhD or decide to do so during or after they complete their doctorate. Your PhD gives you many valuable skills for a multitude of roles in many fields. Many doors open with a PhD. An interesting case study of living your values post a PhD can be found here.

Conclusion

We hope that this blog has been a useful read and gives you some more information on issues you were already aware of and some new questions to think through and consider. Importantly, none of the information above is designed to put anyone off studying for a PhD – but is offered instead to enable you to go into this exciting process aware and with your eyes fully open. Indeed, in a 2019 survey, across 50,000 postgraduate researchers at 107 institutions, satisfaction levels were at 81%.

Come and be part of that.

Thanks

This blog was co-written by an amazing graduate student from another university who already had their MRes and was working with members of PSRG to further their research skills. Alex, thank you for all your time and effort in helping put this blog together. And to everyone else, we welcome contact from anyone near or far who wants to work with us and help us with our work. Please contact: PSRG@uwe.ac.uk.

Useful websites for more information:

FindaPhD.com: https://www.findaphd.com

Postgrad.com: https://www.postgrad.com

Prospects: https://www.prospects.ac.uk

PhD Portal: https://www.phdportal.com

Jobs.ac.uk – blogs: https://blog.jobs.ac.uk/

Advance HE – Knowledge Hub: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub

Jobs on Toast: http://jobsontoast.com

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