Ten things I wish I’d thought about more before I applied for my PhDPosted: January 9, 2018
I recently submitted my PhD thesis, nearly five years after I started my studies. To say it was a challenge to reach this point – and that, frankly, it was a point I often thought I would never reach – is an understatement. Whilst I’ve loved my research, and spending a considerable amount of time immersed in my subject, it’s made me realise how unprepared I was in many ways to start a PhD. This is something I’ve thought about a lot and, as the 31 January deadline approaches for applications from prospective PhD candidates, I’ve written a list of reflections on my experiences for anyone who is currently considering applying for a PhD.
- Choose your university carefully
Think very carefully about the university and department you are applying for. Is it an environment where you feel comfortable, both academically and socially? Is it somewhere you can imagine spending a considerable amount of time over the next few years? Is there a strong research culture, and postgraduate support network, and are there students working in similar areas to you? Don’t get into the situation I did; I lived in a different city, and spent the train journey to each supervisory meeting trying to ward off feelings of having a panic attack, as everything about visiting the university, department and city in question filled me with such dread.
- Be aware of the financial commitment
Make sure you are fully aware of the financial commitment a PhD involves, and think very carefully about accepting a studentship that is only partially funded, or funded below the levels granted by research councils. My studentship was just £4,000 a year, meaning I felt obliged to continue working alongside my studies (outside of academia, in an unrelated field). Ultimately, spending three years working for an amount that represented less than minimum wage didn’t just present a financial challenge but a psychological one, as it made me doubt the value of my work.
- Be clear about why you are doing a PhD
A PhD is not something to be entered into lightly. Like any other kind of study, never embark on one just because you don’t know what else to do, or want to defer looking for a job.
- Make sure you are prepared academically
Having a Masters degree isn’t necessarily a requirement for being accepted for a PhD. I didn’t have one and spent the first year catching up – getting my brain back into the mode of reading academic articles, and producing academic writing.
- Don’t expect to finish in three years
Make sure you plan for the possibility of failing to complete your PhD in three years (mine took nearly five years, for various reasons). Although this varies from university to university, you could get hit by fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds per term.
- Understand the conditions of your studentship offer
Make sure any promises of financial support are set out in writing at the start. When I accepted my studentship I was told I would have a £1,000 annual allowance to travel to conferences, undertake fieldwork and pay for training. Once I started my PhD I was informed it was in fact £500 per year, and that only £250 of this was guaranteed – the other £250 came from elsewhere in the university and was discretionary. Although this might sound like a lot, all of these activities are expensive, particularly when conference fees and accommodation are factored in.
- Ask about extra-curricular opportunities
Make sure there is encouragement and support for the other academic activities that go alongside your research – will you have opportunities for teaching, to present at conferences and to submit to journals? All of these are essential for finding a job afterwards.
- Understand your limitations
Be realistic about your expectations of yourself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to finish in three years, at the same time as working and undergoing several major life changes. The result was that I burned out and had to take a year out to get my life back on track – supported by my university. It made me realise that I needed to go at my own pace, both for the sake of my research and the sake of my health.
- Most people won’t understand what you are doing
Most people outside of academia don’t understand what a PhD is or what it entails. Get used to deflecting questions about how your ‘course’ is going and when you will be finishing (I used to confuse people by answering ‘how long is a piece of string?’).
- Love your subject
You are in a PhD for the long haul. Believe in what you are doing, and that you will get there eventually if it is worth doing. At the same time, don’t be offended when you find that very few other people are really interested in your research – family and friends are usually more concerned about what you’ll do afterwards, if they ask anything at all!