I have supervised three PhD students to completion and am currently supervising three others at various stages. Many people have spoken to me in the past about thinking about doing a PhD. Here I want to consolidate some of my thoughts on why anyone would do a PhD.
Being a PhD researcher is a great opportunity. But it’s also a significant burden. It’s important that anyone considering applying for a PhD gives it some serious thought. As a minimum it is a three year, full time, commitment. Much more so than undergraduate or other postgraduate study it is all consuming. So it can feel, though doesn’t have to be the case, that you’re life is put on hold for at least three years. At the end you may graduate with a PhD or indeed you may not. It may lead to an academic career or it may not. OK – but it’s not all bad! DON’T STOP READING YET!
So why would anyone choose to do a PhD? I think there are three things to consider: the PhD as an academic apprenticeship; choosing a research topic; and choosing a supervisor.
An academic apprenticeship
The PhD, along with the Professional Doctorate, is the highest award of degree. Unlike the Professional Doctorate (such as the DPA) the PhD is seen to a significant degree as a route towards an academic career.
Alongside your research you may also have the opportunity, or even be required, to teach. You may also have a dedicated desk or office alongside academic staff, you may be invited to take part in other aspects of university administration, you will be expected to present at academic conferences and even publish research papers. It is, typically, more than the individual dedicated study of a research topic as a lone researcher.
The end result of a PhD is that you are recognised as a peer amongst fellow academics. You are “one of us”. As such it is seen as a way to developing an academic career. At the same time you may be perceived by others as over qualified or “too academic” for other jobs. So you have to enjoy academic life and want to develop a career in academia in order to consider applying.
A research topic
The next stage in choosing to do a PhD is to consider the research topic. It has to be something that grabs your interest and sparks your intellectual curiosity. This is a topic that you will be immersed in for at least three years so you have to be really interested in the topic.
Other things to consider here are the nature of the topic. Is it located within a clearly defined subject area or discipline. Is it multi- or inter-disciplinary? Do you see yourself developing a career in that area (back to my first point). Also what links are there between the university / Director of Studies and the discipline? For example, out university is an institutional member of the UK society for public administration – the JUC Public Administration Committee. This brings with it many networking and development opportunities (again back to point one).
It’s also worth considering how any topic has been framed. Naturally most PhD students want to make a topic their own so you may want to ensure that it is not too narrowly defined and that there is scope to put your own mark on it. That is really important as again you may want to consider the type of career you want to have and ensure that the PhD topic will take you in that direction. For example my own PhD included some economics, some strategy and some public administration (and I have taught all three since). In the PhD topic I currently have advertised (see here for details) I have deliberately crafted the topic (on Leading Change in a Public Service Context) fairly broad so that any prospective student can make it their own.
Not only are you choosing a research topic but also a supervisor. It’s vitally important that students and supervisors have a positive relationship. So, as a student, it’s important to do your research!
I remember on my first day as a PhD student all the other students (who were already at least one year through their research) saying how lucky I was to have Prof Stephen J. Bailey as my supervisor.
In many respects the choice of supervisor is much more significant than the institution within which you conduct your research. Just because someone is based in a so-called ‘good’ university does not make them a ‘good’ supervisor! You should find out a little bit about their approach to teaching and research. Their views on students. Their perspective on the nature of the PhD. How many non-completions they have had – and why. Their links to industry and throughout academia. Ultimately upon meeting a prospective supervisor you’ll be able to make a judgement as to whether this is someone you want to work with for the next three years or not! All of these factors may have an impact on both your progress and even your potential career prospects.
I can only speak from my own experience – every PhD is different. I never expected to do a PhD (or even go to university for that matter). But I was fortunate to be given the opportunity of a bursary at Glasgow Caledonian. I was given a desk in a PhD office with some really amazing PhD students who I learned a huge amount from and many of whom are still close friends. I had a fantastic, challenging and yet supportive, supervisor. The PhD was really tough – and got tougher as time went on – but I learnt a huge amount from it that has underpinned my approach to teaching and research ever since. Since completing the PhD I’ve been fortunate to establish an academic career and I love what I do.
So, if you’re thinking of doing a PhD – and you’ve managed to get to the end of this blog post – GO FOR IT!