By Sam Grinsell |

At this time of year, many students on UK masters programmes are being asked about their plans for next year. This can feel a bit intimidating: you’re only a couple of months into an intense postgraduate degree, possibly in a new university or city for you, and you may not know what direction you’d like to take your research in. You may not know if you want to continue studying. Despite this, if you want to apply for a PhD for 2019-20 and have a chance of funding, now is the time.

So how do you go about deciding? Today I offer some things to think about. Remember that for each person this is different, and there will be more factors at play than fit in a blogpost. That being said, here are a few things to consider…

What IS a PhD?

A PhD is the highest level of research degree. In the UK it consists of three to four years (or part-time equivalent) spent researching one topic. Exactly how you do this depends, of course, on your discipline: scientists may be in a lab Monday-Friday, social scientists might conduct surveys or fieldwork, historians will consult archives and published sources. You will probably also spend a good chunk of your time reading research by other people, so that you can work out where yours fits.

In other parts of the world, especially North America, PhDs are often longer and sometimes include a taught stage that leads to a masters degree. Some programmes will require you to do additional things during your PhD such as publish an article or teach. Look into these differences, although do remember that even if you’re not made to do these extras they will still, in many cases, be useful, so you may end up doing them anyway. Funding in different countries also works differently, so again you should research any particular place you’re considering applying to.

When applying, you may need to develop and submit your own research proposal, or you might be applying to be part of an already defined project. Bear in mind that, even in the latter case, once you get into doing the PhD much of your research will still be in your hands. In either case, your PhD is a long project you will spend years working on, that will be a significant contribution to your field.

The passion

The first thing to ask yourself is how much you love your subject. This love takes different forms for different people: for some it’s about the entire discipline, they love methods and theory courses and anything that sheds light on the big questions; for others it’s about some particular sub-discipline, methodology or theme that captures their imagination.

This isn’t, necessarily, about some profound sense of vocation. You don’t have to feel like you were born to this. But, if you’re considering three or more years of researching one topic, you need some persistent interest in it. You are already a highly educated person, and if you don’t do a PhD you will probably find some employment within the next three years that pays better than a PhD does. (This calculation varies a bit depending on your country and discipline.)

So the first question to ask yourself is whether this all sounds like something you could enjoy. If not, there may be better things out there for you.


If you do feel like a PhD could be an enjoyable thing to do, it’s worth thinking about how this will fit into your career plans. If you want to be a university lecturer then you will have to get a PhD, and it may also be directly valued in some scientific or engineering businesses. But for most other types of job you won’t need one.

This doesn’t mean that PhDs can’t be useful in other careers. There are many researchers who go on to work for governments, businesses or charities, exercising the information gathering and communication skills they learnt during their PhD. Again, a higher degree may not be the most direct route to these jobs, but it can be useful nonetheless.

Many people will assume that your goal is an academic job. If it is, you should start reading-up about academic career paths now, as it’s a highly competitive field in which getting the PhD is just a first step. If you think academia is a possibility for you, then the same advice applies. If you know that you don’t want to go into academia, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a PhD, but it does mean you should be clear about why you’re doing one. You should also start to develop some skills that will be useful outside universities. There maybe opportunities to collaborate with other organisations during your PhD, and these connections can be useful in developing your career later on.

Follow the money

If you’ve decided you want to do a PhD, the next challenge is to make it financially viable. In the first instance, you should definitely apply for funded opportunities. Plenty of people self-fund, but going through the funding application process will help you develop your project proposal and identify any serious weaknesses. Funding is competitive, if you aren’t immediately successful don’t feel that this makes you a failure! I am now funded but was unsuccessful several times.

Remember that you do need to eat. However you end up funding your studies, driving yourself to poverty in pursuit of the PhD is not going to be good for you. So if you plan on self-funding, be honest with yourself about how viable that is for you; if you are offered partial funding, really examine whether you’d be able to make enough on top of this to keep you in bed and board.

Ask people!

Most PhD students are very happy to offer their thoughts on whether PhDs are worthwhile. Of course, they may be in different situations from you, so you should take all advice with a pinch of salt. But they know better than anyone what’s involved.

Your professors will also be able to advise, and they will be the people to talk to about whether you’re working to the level needed for a PhD. Again though, they will be speaking from their particular position. In all cases, you will need to be honest with yourself about what you really want and whether this is the route to it.

I hope these suggestions offer you some food for thought. I am always happy to answer questions about these things if you have any!



Sam Grinsell is a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and Deputy Chair of Pubs and Publications. You can find him on twitter @samgrinsell

Image from flickr, CC0