“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.

Register your interest

If you already have a clear idea on what project/area you want to work on, the process is fairly straightforward: put in an on-line application with EUCLID to get yourself into the system. (You will find full details here: How to apply | School of Physics and Astronomy). You will then be invited to visit the group in which you want to work. This will be a very good opportunity to find out more about the projects on offer, to ask questions to your prospective supervisor(s), but also – perhaps more importantly – to make a good impression on the people you will meet. If the group has available funds through a Research Council, and if you have succeeded in making a good impression, you may be offered a studentship in due time. If so, you do not have to worry about anything else until next September. Congratulations!

Look for alternative funding

More likely, however, you will be competing against other equally strong candidates. Remember that in a time of financial crisis competition gets tougher: the funding available is less and the number of people applying – perhaps simply to put off looking for a real job – gets higher. So, what if the available studentships are offered to other students? Is it all lost for you? Probably not. There are still a number of opportunities to apply for alternative sources of funding, depending on your circumstances. Here are some useful links: SUPA PhD Prize Studentships, Carnegie Trust, Principal’s Career Development PhD Scholarships (you can find more details and further links at the Funding Opportunity page of my website). Again, the various sources will be different for different departments, but there will be alternative solutions available pretty much anywhere. Just browse around. Once you get the funding and secure yourself a PhD studentship, it’s time to choose your project!

Choose a project

This is a tricky one. Clearly you want to choose a project that sparks your interest. There is nothing worse than working on something that you find dull, uninspiring or boring. Remember, you will work at this topic for three to four years and chances are you will end up bored of it even if you started with the greatest enthusiasm. Also, if you plan to stay in research/academia, the project you choose may potentially set your future career path  (although one can always change at a later stage) and so it deserves careful consideration. Although it is unlikely that you will design the project yourself, selecting one from those on offer can still be challenging.

In general, the best thing to do at this stage is to go around and talk to as many people as you can. Find out about the research they are doing. Ask questions about the actual work involved; about the skills required and the new ones that you will acquire.

Once you have a clearer idea of the potential project you may choose, find out whether it is a hot topic in its field and what are the chances that you may make a significant contribution. In other words, is the project feasible in the timescale of your PhD? Is there enough expertise readily available in your immediate surroundings?  Is there any risk that the project may not work out (as may be the case sometimes with experimental work) and if so, would there be a backup plan? Also, what are the chances of getting post-doctoral positions in this area in the near future? If your project requires that you spend time away from home, what are the implications on the people around you? And what about your funding running out before completion of your project? Would you be able to support yourself until you submit your thesis?

It may not be easy to find an answer to all of these questions, but it is worth keeping them in mind to avoid potential disappointment later on.

Finally, the choice of your project may entirely depend on your choice of supervisor. In this case, there are other considerations that can help you make up your mind, but this… is a topic for next week. See you around.


PS This is the second of a series of posts about doing a PhD. Subscribe to this blog by email and you will receive a notification every time a new post is published.

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

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