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Starting Your Ph.D. on the Right Track


Dear Career Doctor

I graduated with a 2.1 in biophysics earlier in the summer and after talking to my tutor decided to get ahead with my plan of doing a Ph.D.

I've been offered a position at my old department and it is tempting--?the supervisor is someone whose lectures I enjoyed, and I think staying in a familiar place will make it easier to take on the challenges of a Ph.D. (A lot of my friends are going to be doing Ph.D.s or master's there as well.)

Having said that, I've also applied for a Ph.D. with someone at a different university (one that seems to be viewed as better than the one where I am now), and I've got an interview. I'm not sure if I'll be offered it, but hopefully I'll be faced with a choice!

I'm pretty sure that a Ph.D. is the right thing for me to do, but I'm not sure about how to choose the right project or supervisor. Any tips on how to make the right decision?



Dear Robbie,

I hope this reply reaches you in time; the new academic year is only a few weeks away, so I'm sure you've been put under pressure to make your choice. I'm not going to look at your decision to do a Ph.D. per se, as I've done that previously, however, I'd encourage you to have a quick read through that column to be sure a Ph.D. is a positive choice rather than a case of just taking what is on offer.

To help you work out which Ph.D. you should actually go for, I'm going to look at the main issues--the topic, supervisor, department, and sponsor--before tackling your thoughts about institutions. I'll then identify ways in which you can find the information you need to make an informed choice. Assuming that you've decided a particular Ph.D. is right for your interests, personality, and career aims, it is important that you start your research career as you mean to go on with your research--with all the facts in hand, and taking care they are coming from reliable information sources!

The topic of a Ph.D. is the most obvious thing to consider when you are trying to choose between two offers. Have you developed a strong interest in a particular aspect of your subject as an undergraduate? Are you interested in understanding and developing knowledge for its own sake, or are you motivated by working on something with an obvious application? Try to understand why research appeals to you and make sure that the topic you choose is consistent with your interests.

Ask your potential supervisors for a few key papers related to the Ph.D.s they are offering. Although it will be challenging at first, if you can understand the context in which each project will be based, you'll find it easier to choose the one with greatest interest to you.

Also, don't feel that you can only look at biophysics projects. There is an increasing trend toward multidisciplinary research projects, and broadening your knowledge may give you a wider career choice later on. But if you are looking at a project that is a collaboration between different departments, make sure that the project structure is clear from the outset; you don't want to be pulled in different directions!

At the moment you are probably focussing on the project itself, and that is definitely important, as you are going to spend at least 3 years (most likely longer) eating, sleeping, and breathing it. However, having spoken to many Ph.D. students at universities, conferences, and grad schools, I think the critical element of any Ph.D. is the relationship between the student and supervisor. It is difficult to appreciate how important this will be at the moment, but the experience you have as a Ph.D. student is strongly dependent on your supervisor's attitudes, interests, and supervision style. It would be really helpful for you to spend some time with a potential supervisor discussing the project and talking about their group and research in general to try to get to know them a little, aside from the formal interview.

But don't stop there; ask for a chance to talk to existing members of the research group. Prepare a list of questions beforehand: How often do they see their supervisor? Are meetings regular and structured? How is their performance monitored? You might find it useful to look at the UK GRAD Web site, which outlines the role of a supervisor or the advice of former Ph.D. students (in the United States, although the advice is largely transferable to the United Kingdom) gathered by the Survey on Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.

You also need to look at each department through the eyes of a research student. Is there a broad range of research groups? Are most of the members of the academic staff active in research (i.e., do they have research students or staff, and are they still publishing)? You should also look at the results of the Research Assessment Exercise ( RAE), which is an assessment of the quality of research carried out by universities. The RAE is described on the GRAD Web site along with other information on the research community. Also look for evidence of departmental seminars or journal clubs for researchers, regular research group or section meetings, and social events, as these all suggest an active research culture.

Sponsors are often omitted while considering a Ph.D. offer. As long as they pay, do they make a real difference? Be aware that, just as research careers in academia and industry are quite different, the type of Ph.D. sponsor you are working for will have a significant influence on your project. Some sponsors will want to be more involved than others--ranging from monthly reports on your progress to simply wanting you to submit your thesis on time. Some sponsors will also have significant input into the development of your project if they hope it will produce results they can use, whereas others (such as the Research Councils) will not have a direct interest in the topic.

Sponsors are also likely to have an influence on your career. If you're thinking of working in industry later on, a Ph.D. partly or fully funded by a company, particularly if it includes a placement or opportunity to conduct part of your project in your sponsor's labs, will give you an edge. Co-operative Award in Science and Engineering (CASE) studentships, which are jointly funded by the Research Councils and industrial partners, may be worth looking into (not just because they offer a significantly higher grant!). If the project goes well, you may find that you can walk straight into a job with your sponsor, negotiate a better starting salary (because your experience and knowledge is relevant), and you have got to know your future employer without having had to make a commitment to them.

A few words of warning though: Most collaborations between industry and academia are highly successful, but if you are working on a project with a new partner, they may see you as an extra pair of hands rather than someone working on a single project. So find out if the supervisor has a history of working with the sponsor, and talk to any other students who are funded by them. Also make sure that any project outline is well developed; otherwise you may find yourself working on a series of unconnected problems that you will eventually find difficult to pull together in your thesis.

However, if you are hoping to develop an academic career, your Ph.D. will need to fit with quite different criteria--you need to work on a project with good publishing potential, as your publication record will be essential in the future. Industrially sponsored projects can be subject to confidentiality clauses that may prevent you from publishing. You need to look at the publication records of other students in the group: Are any of them managing to publish during their Ph.D.s? Does the supervisor have a publication strategy for this project if it goes according to plan? You will also need to be able to go to conferences to present your work and to meet other influential researchers: Which conferences have current students attended? Do they feel they are well positioned in their field and building their reputations?

Advice on choosing between two institutions was at the heart of your question, and I left it for the end, as to me it is much more of a personal decision. Going to a new institution for your Ph.D. will broaden your opportunities, provide evidence of your willingness to seek out development opportunities, and show more initiative than just remaining in your home institution. However, it is also more risky. You'll have to find accommodation at short notice in competition with a flood of new undergraduates. You may find it trickier to build new friendships than at the start of your undergraduate degree, as you may be in a department in which many people already know each other. And you may find yourself in an institution that has an active social programme for undergraduates but nothing for postgraduates. Look for evidence of a postgraduate culture--societies--and research student representation in university and student bodies. If possible, read the postgraduate handbook in advance to see how each institution supports its research students, and again, talk to any students you can about their perceptions.

When you finish a Ph.D., the reputation of your institution and supervisor are important, so I won't deny that a prestigious name on your CV will be a bonus. However, if you simply move to what you perceive to be a "better" university without considering all the other elements of the Ph.D. I've outlined here, you may find yourself isolated, poorly supervised, and working on a topic that simply doesn't inspire you. I feel that a well-supervised Ph.D. that offers you opportunities to build your own research profile and is completed successfully will give you a better foundation for a career, whichever institution you study at.

Completing a Ph.D. will probably be the greatest challenge you undertake, so try to look at all its elements and choose the package that best suits your interests, personality, and career goals.

All the best with your career,

The CareerDoctor