Here are some ideas for how to choose a PhD programme. I am happy with the decision I made in 2005, which no doubt skews this list.
- 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 also 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 group* you are considering joining, or at least the same department (and building). Beware if they are all one-liners saying, “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. Okay… okay… 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.
- Are there regular research seminars in the dept? This is essential and correlated with the overall reputation of a university department. You need a lively academic community to be stimulated and somewhere to present your ideas. 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, do attend seminars to get a sense of the vibe: what sorts of questions to 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 people at the university, ideally in a bar or café, to get the gossip! Maybe Twitter helps these days – many academics and PhD students are there. Setup a 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.
- 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 maybe less likely that you will get a job at the end of it all.
You might also want a preview of tips on how to write up a PhD thesis.
* 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.