Four things to think about before starting a PhD

Image credit: Green chameleon on Unsplash

Everyone’s thoughts are turning towards 2022, and hopefully, how much better it’ll be than the cluster truck that was 2021. For you, thinking about 2022 could mean considering whether or not to start postgraduate studies, and more specifically, a PhD. This is a big call. A life-changing event, in fact. This blogpost covers four things to think about before starting a PhD, divided into when, where, what, and with whom.

  1. When should I start my PhD? Is now a good time? Is it too late for me to start one?

Obviously, there’s no right answer to this question: so much depends on your personal circumstances and what’s right for you. Many people go straight from undergraduate into postgraduate study. Many other people come back to postgraduate study after they’ve had a long career elsewhere and use their PhD essentially as a retraining exercise (so no, it’s not too late to start one now). Some people do a PhD full-time, while others combine it with paid work, childcare, or other commitments.

Before beginning your PhD, think carefully about your rationale for doing one. You’ll need this big-picture goal to sustain you when you’re stuck in the day-to-day tedium of research, and when you’re living off a meagre scholarship rather than a proper wage. It’s almost compulsory to have a PhD for a career in academia, and (as I understand it) for many other research positions in the sciences. Certainly, you could do one just for fun in your backyard shed (like my friend’s Dad) but consider whether you’ve got the staying power to do a 3-4 year research project simply for the joy of it.

2. Where should I do my PhD?

For many people, the answer to this question is driven by convenience: where your family’s located, where your partner’s job is, or where your children are going to school. But if you’re completely free to choose, then you’ll be considering things like where your ideal supervisor’s located (more on this below), or which universities specialise in your field of interest.

Consider, too, what you want to do after you finish your PhD: if you want to work in a law school, it makes sense to do your PhD in a law school. If you want to work in the US, your PhD could be an entrée into the US academic sector. If you want to work at a particular university (or calibre of university), it might be worth doing your PhD at that university. Keep in mind, however, that some universities can be reluctant to hire former students (at least not without a stint elsewhere first).

When considering a particular university, make sure you understand their requirements for undertaking a PhD, and try to find out how they treat their students. What processes are in place for confirmation of your candidature and for annual review? Will you need to do coursework? Are PhD students considered members of faculty (and invited to seminars, for example), or are they treated like ghosts in the machine? Is there financial support available for PhD students and what form does it take? Will you have access to a shared office or a hot desk? What are the likely opportunities for paid research and teaching work during your candidature?

3. …on what?

Before starting a PhD, your topic may look like: “Globalisation… and something.” It’s OK to only have a rough idea of what your topic looks like before you start. Knowing what specialty or topic area you want to work on is helpful, because that’s how you identify potential supervisors. But you may find that your prospective supervisor helps you refine your topic, or has a topic in mind already (or there’s a scholarship available for a project on a particular topic). It’ll change over the course of your PhD anyway: I looked at my thesis proposal the other day and it’s extremely general compared to the more specific topic I ended up doing my PhD on.

You can be pragmatic in how you identify your topic. My PhD focused on regulation of junk food marketing to kids. I chose this topic because it combines my interests in public health, law, and regulation, rather than because of any deep connection with food advertising regulation. Your PhD topic doesn’t need to be your life’s passion, but it does need to be something that can sustain your interest over three or more years.

4. With whom?

Having a good supervisor is one of the most important contributors to successful PhD completion.  I think it’s even more important than topic choice. Obviously, you’ll be looking for the person that’s an expert in your topic area. But apart from that, you also want someone who’s reliable, offers constructive feedback on your research, supports you in advancing your career, and values the relationships they have with their PhD students.

In specialised areas, there may really only be one choice of person. But it’s still worth doing some due diligence on potential supervisors. If you can, talk to their current or former PhD students and ask them about their experiences. Having at least a couple of meetings with a prospective supervisor will also help you to decide whether they’re someone you can have a good working relationship with.

While your primary supervisor will have a significant influence on your candidature, they’re not the B-all and end all. Students can appoint one or more auxiliary or secondary supervisors, offering the opportunity to appoint someone at a different university or with different expertise. You can also reach out to other academics during your candidature for input or advice on particular aspects of your research.

As you begin the journey

Starting a PhD is a bit like having a baby. Everyone’s going to tell you how hard it is, and how you just won’t understand until you’ve done it. It’s great that we discuss the emotional complexity and challenges involved in big life events. But everyone’s experience of their PhD is different. For me, certainly, there were times of immense stress (realising I’d put the page numbers in the wrong place just before printing the final version), as well as periods of tedium and repetition (hello, doing all of my own interview transcription to save money). But there were also many moments of enjoyment and personal satisfaction, and all of those experiences contributed to where I am today.

My best of luck to you as you start out on your PhD journey.

If you’ve done a PhD, feel free to add advice or links in the comments section!