Monthly Archives: November 2011

“I want to do a PhD. What shall I do next?”

Recently, I attended the Post-graduate Open Day at the School of Physics and Astronomy here in Edinburgh. I enjoyed the event: I found it informative and very well run and it was great to hear about what colleagues in other areas are currently working on. If you were one of the thirty-odd students attending the event, I guess you will have been impressed by the variety and breadth of the research carried out within the School.

The day also offered the opportunity for prospective PhD students to talk directly to some academics to find out more about their projects. Interestingly, one of the most frequent questions I got asked was “I want to do a PhD, but what shall I do next?”. Or, more specifically: How do I apply for a PhD? Where do I get the funding from? How do I get assigned to a project? If these are also your questions, the following gives you some specific advice in case you are interested in applying for a PhD in Physics at the University of Edinburgh. But similar procedures may apply elsewhere.

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In my previous post, I started sharing with you five good reasons for doing a PhD. These are: 1) Drive for research; 2) Becoming an expert in your area; 3) Enjoying the academic environment; 4) Available opportunity; and 5) Developing important transferable skills. But I had promised you ten good reasons, so here are the other five:

6) Better prospects for later job. If you wonder how acquiring important transferrable skills can give you a better prospect at finding a job, you may want to have a look at two recent publications by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (career paths and 14-years on) to find out about possible employment destinations of successful PhD students.

7) Passion for your subject. You can go along a long way with this one. I have seen several people keeping through against all the odds, just because of the huge passion and enthusiasm for their projects. If this is you, then you are off to a great start!

8) Freedom. I guess this is my favourite! A 9-to-5 job would simply kill me and there is nothing I valued more about my PhD (and indeed about being an academic) than the freedom to manage my own time. Don’t get me wrong! This does not mean less work. In fact, I cannot count the number of weekends I have spent making sure I would meet the next deadline or the number of night shifts I have taken during experiments. But it has always been my choice and I simply can’t value this enough.

9) Good academic grades. Sure you need to have reasonably good grades! In the UK System this means at least an upper-second degree classification. However, academic grades are only part of the equation. I have seen students with excellent first degree classifications failing to successfully complete a PhD, while others with barely average grades shine through. This should not come as a surprise, though, as the set of skills and attitude required to be a successful undergraduate are very different from those needed for a PhD (more on this topic in a future post in this series).

10) Zest for the challenge. I just came across an estimate that only about 1% of the population in the UK holds a PhD. I guess, if you get that far, it is something you can be proud of.

So, now, does any of these reasons resonate with you? If so, then my advice would be exactly the same I received when I had to decide whether to do a PhD or not: Just invest in yourself and go for it!


PS Did you find this post useful to make up your mind about starting a PhD? Do you have some other good reason you want to share? Then please leave a comment below. I’ll be happy to hear form you.

PPS This is the first in a series of posts about doing a PhD. If you are interested in reading more, you can subscribe by email to this blog, just to make sure you will not miss any. Simply leave your email address in the box and press the “Follow” button. See you around next week.


Two students came to my office last week to ask me about potential PhD projects. They have already decided to do a PhD, but most students often wonder whether a PhD is the right choice for them. Are you also approaching the end of your studies with no idea about what to do next? Do you doubt whether you have good enough grades to be accepted for a PhD? Or do you think that it may just be wiser to look for a job, especially in a time of financial uncertainties? If so, then read on.

Being at a crossroads is not really much fun. I know because I have been there myself. At the end of my studies I also did not know what to do next, though my problem was not a lack of interests. If anything, I had too many. A writer, an actress, a teacher, an interpreter, a traveller, a scientist, an artist… these are just a few of the things I wanted to become. Now, looking from my present perspective, I realise that having become an academic has allowed me to be all of the above. When I put together a scientific proposal, a paper, or a grant application, I am a writer. When I present talks at international conferences, I feel like an actress on stage. When I give lectures or seminars, I am a teacher. And then, travelling extensively and learning three other languages have simply followed as a welcome by-product of all these activities.

I like to think that the seed of all this was planted when I started my PhD. Yet, when I had to decide whether to do one or not, I was scared that I may not be up for it, or that I would waste three years of my life, or worse that I would quit half way through disappointing all the people involved. Luckily, a dear friend of mine came up with a great piece of advice. Continue reading