How to choose your PhD university, program and research topic

How to choose your PhD – University, Program and Research TopicWe often get readers who ask us for help in choosing their PhD program – Which school to apply for my PhD? Who should I work with to get the best output? And the often puzzled odd one, Should I do a PhD or What should I do my PhD in?

As much as we would like to jump in as caped crusaders, saving the PhD anxious one at a time, we are bound by natural limitations of not being, what should we say, well…You!

Read Is a PhD worth it?

The secret to finding the answers to PhD related application queries – where, what, and who with – are embedded in the nature of the degree. A PhD, unlike any other prior educational qualification like a Bachelor’s or Master’s, is devoid of a fixed curriculum or credit requirement towards a PhD graduation.

Well, some may argue that it is not entirely true and there are a significant number of stipulated requirements for number of credits or courses to complete a PhD. While correct, those are only part of the initial training towards the actual core of a PhD program – your Research.

The success of a PhD degree is incumbent upon the value of your research. The degree is a first step towards training an individual to gain experience in forming an in-depth understanding of a particular niche within a specialization, finding a previously unidentified or unanswered problem within that topic, and thirdly embarking on a research endeavor to find an answer to said problem.

While a PhD timeline may or may not be enough to arrive, at all the solutions, the motive of the degree is to understand what it takes to become an academic pundit, of sorts, in your area of interest.

So, how does one arrive at this enlightenment – Knowing what and where to do your PhD?

The best way to go about it is to ensure you have the intellectual, and mental, preparation leading up to the desire to pursue a much detailed and higher form of education. Here are a few checklists to help you reach your PhD application related answers.
 

How to choose the right PhD program, university, supervisor, thesis project

 

Identify your Interest

What’s common between a minor manslaughter prison sentence and a PhD degree? Both require a commitment of 5 to 10 years. Quite a grim analogy, but enough to jolt the reality of how seriously you should explore your interests before you swear allegiance to the program.

A PhD is a whole different ball game than your usual experience with course-work type degrees. You will be stepping out of the territory of objective grading, and into the lap of vague uncertain problems which may quite likely have no possible solutions. Thus, denied the gratification of knowing whether you have performed well or not, the only feeling that can keep driving you forward would be your passion and interest in the research itself.

Identifying that interest, so you can pursue it towards research, is the first step in PhD planning. And this process begins, often quite subconsciously, much before the commencement of your PhD planning. Usually, the undergraduate and post-graduate studies provide the groundwork to formulate those interests, exploring advanced topics in your subject. These are the courses most suited to understand your affinity for an area of study.

Unfortunately, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is still not enough. After realizing your subject area of interest, your next step should be to venture into a bit of unprofessed self-study, researching to find what specifically captures your attention and has the potential to do so for the next 5 to 10 years, and your career thereafter.

This is where thesis problems, in your Master’s program, help you reach your conclusions faster. This mini research aspect of a post-graduate study is a perfect stage to test the waters. If you find yourself captivated with the challenges you face in your self-study/Master’s research, you may have a good shot at happily pursuing a PhD.

And if you find yourself growling at the thought of search, rinse, research, you probably should reconsider either your subject topic or your decision to pursue a PhD altogether.

As a disclaimer, here, it is also quite common for individuals to find their calling much later during their doctoral studies. Many students go in with the intention to pursue a particular research interest and realize that it lies elsewhere, later. Even with the delayed realization, the same principle applies to them – that of the absolute necessity of a passion for research to follow the tedious path of doctoral studies and seeing the end of it.
 

Where and Who to do the PhD with

The next step is shared between finding the right match for an institute/university and looking for a potential Principal Investigator/Thesis Supervisor. There are two ways to go about this process. Each follows an intensive research into the department faculty members, their research interests, papers published, number of present doctoral and post-doctoral students, funding, etc.

Research your picks to do research, if you will, since each of these carry their weight in your decision-making. Here are some factors why.

  • Faculty Research Interests: How are they aligned with your interests? Chances are you may not understand the details of the research itself. However, the quality, and often the quantity, of published papers indicate the momentum and value of research in the Research Group (a small body of a supervisor and his/her students pursuing research in a particular field). It is best to familiarize yourself with those metrics to bring objectivity to the decision-making process. Paper citations are also a good indicator of the research quality.
  • Reputation and Personality of the Supervisor: A healthy working relationship requires the supervisor to have a mentoring quality. His/her academic reputation is important to ensure that you receive guidance from the right source.
  • Number of Doctoral and Post-Doctoral Students: How big is the research group? Too few may indicate advisor student compatibility issues while too many may be a sign that the advisor doesn’t have time to spend mentoring you.
  • Research Funding: Lack of research funding can easily cause a halt in progress.

 
Researching the details of a group may involve communication with the following,

  • The potential supervising faculty members for their interest in recruiting more doctoral students. Direct communication also often reveals a lot about the personality of the faculty member – How will he be as a thesis advisor?
  • What may also be crucial is the communication with existing doctoral students, associated with a research group, for off-the-recordinformation about their doctoral experiences – How compatible are they with their advisor/mentor? What do they feel about their research quality and overall satisfaction? What kind of challenges do they encounter in the process of doing their research – facilities, funding, etc?
  • And finally, with your current professors who will have a better understanding of research trends and demands and can recommend you to groups that align with them.

 
So, to go about this excavation, you may follow one of two application strategies, as mentioned before.
 

  • Choosing your School First: Creating a list of schools that are well-recognized in the field of your interest. What follows, then, is exploring the corresponding faculty members for their research work and following the above recipe to narrow down the list of potential “doctoral pursuits” to a manageable few. Read How to get into PhD Programs Abroad – Admission Process
  • Choosing your Research Group First:Acquainting yourself with the research groups or Professors who are working in the field of your interest. One of the means to do that is to stay connected with the present research community, following their publications, possibly attending conferences and poster presentations to familiarize and stay up to date.Once the group is determined, all you have to do is apply to the school they are associated with.

 

Understand what a PhD entails

Regardless of your approach, it is clear that once you are in the program, your PhD degree develops critical thinking abilities, an in-depth knowledge of your subject, and it demands a respect by virtue of its persevering quality. Graduates are often involved in academia, taking on post-doctoral positions and subsequently venturing into faculty jobs.

There is also a significant number who find their skills applied in the industry, often in positions that may not be directly related to their PhD field but rather somewhat field-adjacent. Take for instance, STEM graduates in industry research positions, manufacturing industries, banking, analyst jobs, etc.

While job rewards are aplenty, they do arrive at a much later time as compared to graduates who join the workforce after their Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees. Unless you are prepared to happily relinquish the opportunity costs in exchange for this highly specialized training to be an independent researcher, you should reconsider your decision to pursue a PhD.

You should also be prepared to face the disappointments that are associated with the uncertainties in this study form (Read How to manage PhD stress, anxiety and disillusionment). In essence, as long as you are dedicated for the end goal, the process will merely seem like an on-the-job training towards a final recognition of your tremendous efforts.

In conclusion, there is no straight jacketed response to the question – How to choose a PhD program. The decision is based on weighing the pros and cons of doing a PhD, the time investment, the research for finding the best match for your research interest, the research for finding the best match in a research group for your research interest, and finally on your very own research instinct.

Ultimately the optimum response is – It’s personal!
 
Good luck!
 
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2 Comments

  1. Rohit Abraham John says:

    Motivation to do a PhD need not be to pursue an academic career, although that is the most common notion. Like all fields, there are a lot of advantages and disadvantages that come with pursuing a PhD. Finally as mentioned in the post, it’s a personal decision. For the question, “where should I do a PhD”- the research group always trumps the university. Again, working in an established group although brings its on advantages like reputation etc, working with a good ambitious young professor might result in a better learning curve. Every PhD graduate will have a unique experience to share, unique set of strengths, unique difficulties faced, etc. The best advise for someone pondering over this question would be to get in touch with the respective research group and have a discussion on the proposed topic of interest, prior to taking up the admission.

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