A successful, enjoyable PhD experience will not just be about the PhD. As it will last at least three years (or more, depending on where you choose to go, and whether you do your PhD full-time or part-time), the PhD will form a significant part of your life and career.
It is therefore very important to look for a university that will not only promote your success as an academic, but also contribute to enriching your life in a holistic way. We outline below the key factors to consider when you’re looking for places to pursue a PhD programme.
Don’t be dazzled by prestige
It is helpful to understand that a university may top academic league tables, but the research of a particular department within that university may be relatively unknown – or be stronger in their taught programmes than their research. In other cases, a department may be recognised for producing high-profile, impactful research, and that department and its academics may be very well known within their field, but the university itself may feature lower down in overall rankings.
Try not to be too influenced by the reputation of a university alone. These rankings are sometimes more helpful for undergraduate study. For postgraduate research, it is more meaningful to consider the reputation and research impact of a specific department, institute or centre, or to find out if the department has the right facilities and resources to support the research you intend to do.
How can this department and university support your research goals?
At the level of postgraduate research, it is very useful to find out what kind of research is being done in your intended department(s). Ask what subjects are a particular focus of research within the department, or what areas the lecturers and researchers specialise in.
You should be looking for places that have experienced researchers in the topic that you wish to pursue in your research – this will affirm that the department has the right academic, technical and practical support for you to do your research effectively too. Having an understanding of the specialisms of the department’s faculty will also be helpful in your search for a suitable supervisor.[J1]
Additionally, enquire what physical facilities the department has (for example, specific lab equipment or access to certain technology). Ask what training they offer to their doctoral students, whether you can join undergraduate or Masters seminars and modules where relevant to your research, and whether they provide any funding support for you to conduct off-site fieldwork or attend conferences and academic events.
Are there extra opportunities and good postgraduate student communities?
Apart from the thesis itself, a successful, healthy PhD experience should foster a good sense of wellbeing and balance throughout your research. It should include opportunities for networking, potential collaborations with fellow research students, and participation in activities and events (e.g. teaching, workshops, trainings, conferences). This side of PhD life helps you strengthen diverse skills and a healthy, balanced social life.
So, as well as ensuring that a supervisor and university can meet your academic needs and help you achieve your research goals, make sure you find out what other opportunities and support are available at the institution you intend to join.
Because a substantial part of the PhD is done alone and students can sometimes feel quite isolated, it is also important to find out what community and pastoral support is available. For example, is there a strong graduate students union? What kind of social and networking events are organised throughout the academic year for postgraduate researchers? Are there opportunities to partake in activities and events that will further your personal and career development, and provide you with social interaction and community support?
It is also worth enquiring about what kind of welfare and wellbeing support is offered at the university – for example, whether there is provision for counseling or professional help for addressing any mental health concerns. Some students can find PhD study mentally or emotionally demanding; having some ready support on hand can be very reassuring.
Where in the world will you end up?
Unless you are choosing to do your PhD in your home town, this period of study will likely require that you move to a new city or country for a substantial period of time. Do not underestimate the importance of finding out as much as you can about the location itself – this will be your home for a number of years and you want to be somewhere that will comfortably meet your needs.
It is common for people to overlook this aspect, since they are more focused upon the PhD programme and university itself. They then find themselves ‘stuck’ in a part of the world that they cannot adjust to or strongly dislike; in the long term, this unease can have a really detrimental effect on how you work and your PhD experience.
Find out additional details like the climate of that location, how big it is, whether the university is based in a very metropolitan area or further away in a quieter area, and how international the location is. Look at the transport links the university has – how easy is it to travel to, or to travel out to other parts of the country? If you have specific hobbies, like fitness and sport, theatre and the arts, hiking, or eating out, find out what the social scene is like in that location, and whether you will be able to maintain those interests during your time there.