Applying for a PhD – Accident or Design?

Many graduates undertake PhDs without giving it very much thought.  For some, it seems the natural thing to do so they simply drift into it. For others, it’s a convenient way to avoid considering alternatives. Occasionally, members of academic staff offer PhDs to promising students when it hadn’t even entered their mind. Others love student life so much that they will do anything to stay!

However, having a good reason in mind may help you to get through the more challenging times which most PhD students face at some time or another. Love for your subject is probably one of the most common reasons for considering a PhD.  Another common reason is the challenge of doing something unique. Every PhD must make an innovative contribution to knowledge and this may be very appealing. Others see it as a means to improve their employment prospects, particularly if they are hoping to follow a career in research. Whatever your reason, there are definite benefits in thinking things through rather than simply drifting. If you are unsure whether or not doing a PhD is right for you have a look at the  website, which outlines issues to think about and

Do I have the right qualities?

You would be hard pressed to find a definitive list of the sorts of qualities needed to complete a PhD. That is largely because they are all so different.  Having said that, certain qualities may improve your chances of success.

Take resilience for example.  Things don’t always go as planned. Experiments may go wrong, results may be hard to obtain, you may become disillusioned with the subject and so on.  Persistence is pretty much essential if you want to see it through. Having a creative approach to problem solving is also useful. Supervisors generally take most of the responsibility for getting you started and for steering you through the early stages. But they are likely to ease off their involvement in order to encourage you to work out solutions for yourself.

How do I choose a PhD?

You will need to think carefully about the subject of your thesis to make sure you can sustain an interest in it for at least 3 or 4 years. You also need to start practising your research skills by investigating university departments to find out about their current research and publications, you may find the Research Excellence Framework (REF) website will help you  Then you need to think about whether or not you could work well with the supervisor or principal investigator. Finding a good supervisor is vital – someone who will help you to meet your research goals. Less than half of postgraduate researchers end up with a career in academia, so it is worth thinking about where your PhD might lead you and it would be worth asking a potential supervisor what jobs their previous postgraduate researchers have gone on to do.

How do I apply?

There is no centralised system just for PhD programmes so you would apply direct to the universities which interest you.  The exception to this is for some vocational doctorate courses e.g. Clinical and Educational Psychology where separate clearing houses exist.

There are websites which advertise PhD opportunities such as:

You can also try a speculative approach to academics who are involved in areas of research which interest you.

How will I fund a PhD?

The main source of funding for UK and at time of writing EU students comes from the Research Councils and the money is usually allocated to specific university departments, so you would apply to the university rather than to the research council. This funding is described as ‘studentships’ and consists of a grant of money (not a loan), which can be used for fees, living expenses or both. A useful website for finding out more about funding is:

There are other alternative sources of funding including UK PhD/Doctorate loans, which are being introduced in Spring/summer 2018. For more information see:

If you are still unsure whether a PhD is right for you why not have a chat with one of the lecturers in your department who can tell you first-hand about their experience and/or make an appointment to discuss the pros and cons with your careers adviser. After all, it is a big commitment.

Finally for more detailed information refer to our leaflet ‘Applying for a PhD – Useful careers Resources’: