Things I wish I’d known when deciding if I should start a PhD.

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It was the second term of the second year of my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and the dreaded question was beginning to be asked by friends, family and the careers adviser, “So, what next?!”

I loved science and studying for a PhD, a higher degree seemed like a reasonable suggestion. The only problem was that I’d never heard of a PhD before. I had no real idea what they were or what they were about. In fact, advice on PhD study is probably one of the most common topics the undergraduates that I teach today ask me about.

So, here are the things that I wish I’d known before deciding to embark on my PhD. As a side note, it was a while ago now that I started a PhD, but broadly, I hope that this helps those of you who are, as I was, totally confused about what to do next.

Do you need a Master’s qualification before applying for PhD?

After spending a significant amount of time completing an undergraduate degree, often more than three years, many people ask me if they should study a Master’s degree before they apply for a PhD. There is no magical answer to this question, and it will very much be an individual decision. For me, I simply could not afford to study for a Master’s, they tend to be very expensive and because of this it was not an option for me. However, it should be said that some people fund their Master’s qualifications through working alongside, obtaining additional student loans, or through generous parents.

That being said, Master’s degrees are postgraduate qualifications, and they are shorter than PhD’s. If you are really unsure, it might be a good approach to consider a Master’s degree because it may give you a better idea about what research could be like. Furthermore, Master’s degrees can be more specific than undergraduate degrees, so if you are considering specialising in a particular topic a Master’s degree might be a good option.

I still do not have a Master’s degree, and although it is unusual to be accepted on to a PhD programme without a Master’s degree, it is certainly not impossible in the United Kingdom. Those of you who regularly read my blog posts will be familiar with my general life philosophy “if you don’t try you’ll never know” so I decided to try my luck and apply for PhD positions in the final year of my undergraduate degree. I managed to get accepted onto a PhD without a Master’s degree, but that was a while ago now and I know that PhD applications are probably even more competitive now than when I applied. Nevertheless, I would also say, it is worth a shot.

Are you paid to do a PhD?

In the United Kingdom, the majority of PhD students receive something called a “stipend”, this effectively means that you are paid to study during your PhD. Although PhD stipends aren’t typically generously paid, they do mean that you are earning money rather than paying for your education. Because you are a student there are some other benefits in that you will typically be exempt from council tax and you will be eligible for student discounts.

Some PhD students choose to take on teaching or demonstrating responsibilities to earn additional money during their PhDs, they can also be incredibly useful experience for future career options. There are some people who undertake part-time work in addition, but this can sometimes be tricky to manage while juggling the demands of a full-time PhD qualification too.

It is possible to complete a self-funded PhD. Although people who self fund agree to fund both their stipend fees and bench fees so self-funding a PhD can be incredibly incredibly expensive.

How do you start to find a PhD?

Deciding where to start in terms of finding a PhD is really tricky. The now infamous is a great place to start as lots of opportunities are advertised there. The search filters can really help you to consider some key questions about the type of PhD that you want to study.

Here are some key questions to get you started:

– Where do you want to study?

You might want to stay in the same place that you did your undergraduate degree in or your might want to move. If you are considering studying for a PhD outside of the United Kingdom, ensure that you are familiar with the way that the degree is assessed and the benchmarks that you will have to meet to obtain the qualification as these can vary across the world.

– What do you want to study?

Has there been a particular topic that you have enjoyed in your studies for far? Do you have a particular reason or passion to explore a subject? Remember you will be studying this topic for a long time, so it is important that the topic is interesting and drives you.

– How do you want to study?

PhDs can be completed either full-time or part-time. If you are completing a PhD part-time the overall length of study will typically increase. Remember even if you enroll full-time initially there are likely to be options to change this during your studies if needed. Always remember you can change the type of study if needed, do not be afraid to ask about this.

– What type of work do you want to do?

You might also what to consider the type of work involved in different PhD opportunities. Some will be entirely laboratory based. Other might involve more interactions with people through interviews and surveys. Thinking about the type of work as well as the topic can really help you pinpoint the options available to you.

How do you know if a PhD is right for you?

Sometimes students receive offers to study a PhD and they come to me for advice about whether they should accept the offer. They often ask “how do I know if this is the right PhD for me.” The reality is that only you can really know this, and even then, there are likely a range of unknowns which we can’t really factor into the decision. But, here are a few things to consider which might help you make the decision about whether the PhD is right for you.

Ask about supervisors, these people will be the main people advising you and helping you during your PhD. The relationship that you have with a supervisor or supervisors is really important. If they never answer their emails or you don’t feel like you can approach them to ask for help, then that is probably not a good sign. Different research groups work in different ways. Some supervisors might be more junior than others, some might have a big lab group who will all help during your studies. Don’t be afraid to do some research on the supervisors. Be honest with them, ask how they like to work and how they will support you. Ask about any other students that they have supervised. The real sign of how good a supervisor might be is to ask their students. So if you are able to, ask existing students about their experiences and if they are willing to share them with you.

I believe that the culture and environment of the place where you complete your PhD is probably more important than the overall topic. But, that being said, the overall topic is important. The topic of the PhD needs to be something that you find interesting. Something that lights a fire in your belly and fascinates you even when your experiments go wrong. Although I hadn’t studied Neuroscience before, I decided to undertake a PhD in Huntington’s disease. I will admit the first few months were particularly hard as I began to learn the basics, but changing discipline is also possible.

So, that’s my whistle stop tour of things that I wish I had known when deciding if I should start a PhD. The reality is that you can never be one hundred percent sure, but I hope that this blog post has helped, a bit! Good luck on your journey’s whatever you decided to do and please remember alongside PhD’s there are loads of different career options for science graduates. You are all highly employable people with a range of transferable skills as well as scientific knowledge. I am wishing you all the best for your next steps, go and make a positive change in the world.

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