Your PhD Questions Answered (?)

As I mentioned last week, one of the main items on the agenda at the moment is recruitment of new PhD students. As usual, this finds me having to operate on both sides of the fence,  playing a role in selecting students whilst also trying to advise students on how to target their applications, prepare for interview, and choose between offers (for those who manage to get a place).

In my field (astrophysics), the primary route for funding a PhD comes through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which operates a national deadline (31st March) before which candidates can not be required to make a decision. This deadline sets the timescale for departments to decide too, as we clearly want to make sure all our first choice applicants get their offers before the cutoff date.

The national deadline prevents students from being pressured into making decisions before they have heard back from all the institutions to which they have applied, so in that sense it’s a good idea. On the other hand, it does mean that there’s often frantic activity on deadline day as offers are accepted or declined. Reserves have to be contacted quickly when a favoured candidate withdraws to go somewhere else and not all of them may still be available. A student who has been waiting anxiously without a first-choice offer may suddenly receive a lifeline on deadline day.

Getting offers is one thing, but deciding between them is quite another. There are many things to take into account, and the criteria are by no means clear. I’m not the only person to have been thinking about this. There are personal matters, of course. Is it a nice place? Are the people friendly? Do you think you can get on with your potential supervisor? That sort of thing. But there’s also the actual research. Is the project really what you want to do? Is is likely to open up a future career in research, or just be a dead end? Is the mixture of theory and experiment (or observation) what you would like?

One of the issues that often arises when I discuss research with potential PhD students is how structured the project  is. Some projects are  mapped out by the supervisor in great detail, with specific things to be done in a specific order with well-defined milestones against which progress can be measured. Others, especially but not exclusively theoretical ones, are much more of the nature of “here’s an interesting idea – let’s study it and see where it leads”. Most PhDs are somewhere between these two extremes, but it’s probably true that experimental PhDs are more like the former, whereas theoretical ones are more like the latter. Mine, in theoretical astrophysics, ended up evolving quite considerably from its starting point.

I’ve always been grateful to my supervisor for allowing me the freedom to follow my own curiosity. But I think it was essential to be given an initial focus, in the form of a specific project to cut my teeth on. Getting a calculation finished, written up and published gave me the confidence to start out on my own, but I did need a lot of guidance during that initial phase. We a;ll need to learn how to walk before we can run.

Another aspect of this is what the final thesis should look like. Should it be a monolithic work, focussed on one very specific topic, or can it be an anthology of contributions across a wider area?  Again, it’s a question of balance. I think that a PhD thesis should be seen as a kind of brochure advertising the skills and knowledge of the student that produced it. Versatility is a good quality, so if you can do lots of different things then your thesis should represent that. On the other hand, you also need to demonstrate the ability to carry out a sustained and coherent piece of research. Someone who flits around knocking out lots of cutesy “ideas papers” may get a reputation for being a bit of a dabbler who is unable or unwilling to tackle problems in depth. The opposite extreme would be a person who is incapable of generating new ideas, but excellent once pointed in a specific direction. The best scientists, in my opinion, have creative imagination as well as technical skill and stamina.  It’s a matter of balance, and some scientists are more balanced than others. There are some (scary) individuals who are brilliant at everything, of course., but us mere mortals have to make the most of our limited potential.

The postdoc market that lies beyond your PhD is extremely tough. To survive you need to maximize the chances of getting a job, and that means being able to demonstrate a suitability for as many opportunities as possible that come up. So if you want to do theory, make sure that you know at least something about observations and data analysis. Even if you prefer analytic work, don’t be too proud to use a computer occasionally. Research problems often require  you to learn new things before you can tackle them. Get into the habit of doing that while you’re a student, and you’re set to continue for the rest of your career. But you have to do all this without spreading yourself too thin, so don’t shy away from the chunky calculations that keep you at your desk for days on end. It’s the hard yards that win you the match.

When it comes to choosing supervisors, my advice would be to look for one who has a reputation for supporting their students, but avoid those who want to exert excessive control. I think it’s a supervisor’s duty to ensure that PhD student becomes as independent as possible as quickly as possible, but to be there with help and advice if things go wrong. Sadly there are some who treat PhD students simply as assistants, and give little thought to their career development.

But if all this sounds a bit scary, I’ll add just one thing. A PhD offers a unique challenge. It’s hard work, but stimulating and highly rewarding. If you find a project that appeals to you, go for it. You won’t regret it.

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7 Responses to “Your PhD Questions Answered (?)”

  1. Good post. Interestingly I did a completely experimental project but had almost a free reign on my research towards a broad overall goal.

    Some other points to consider:
    -at what stage of their career is your potential supervisor? Working with an ECR might mean you are the only student they have whereas in the group of established professor there may be 10+ students and PDRAs.
    -will you be the only student on the project or will there be several?
    -is it applied v basic? The former may mean the project will have an industrial sponsor and by significantly stage-gated. You may also be moved from one topic to another if doesn’t show too much potential for further application.
    -should you move to another University? In the UK its quite common that students “stay-on” whereas in the US this is sometimes discouraged.
    -is the project a large collaboration? This might mean there are multiple supervisors on the project (both academic and sometimes industrial) which has a great influence on the dynamic of project management.

    Nowadays, its also important to consider the Doctorial Training Centres (soon to be known as CDTs), which have a considerable taught element.

    I don’t argue that any type of PhD is better, but applicants should be aware of these factors when decided and consider what will interest and motivate them, particularly during the slower and darker periods of study!

    I’ve written about my own experiences during my PhD here (and will blog more in the future)

    http://attheinterface.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/what-a-ph-d-in-chemistry-gave-me/

    http://attheinterface.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/to-publish-or-not-to-publish-during-a-ph-d/

    and I read another interesting blog today on how PhDs are changing

    http://educationandstuff.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/the-road-to-the-structured-phd/

  2. telescoper Says:

    Some interesting comments there, thank you.

    It is important that there are other people (students, PDRAs and Staff) that work in your general area as well as your supervisor. You will certainly benefit from talking to them, both in terms of helping with your project but also in generating new ideas. During my PhD I did two projects with other PhD students, actually.

    You should also find out whether (a) your intended supervisor is publishing papers that anybody reads and (b) whether previous PhD students have tended to get jobs afterwards.

    • The collaborative projects I worked on were led in many ways by the PhDs involved rather than the academics specifically. Depends on the students and supervisors obviously but we had quite a good creative and dynamic approach amongst us.

      Meeting the group (and not just the supervisor) if possible is ideal as it can give you a flavour of what working in the lab will be like. Any good PhD interview should include a tour of the facilities anyhow, often led by a student or post-doc. Of course, if you are staying in the same department, you may well have friends who have done their Masters research project in the lab, so mine them for information as well.

  3. Personalities are really important and I’d advise that any prospective student should ask if the Institution has a robust system in place to help the student that is floundering . It may not be their fault , and the Institution should be able to help in redirecting them so their future career isn’t harmed . Some students are more naive than others and wouldn’t seek out help thinking that they must be at fault.

  4. James McCullen Says:

    Thanks for this post and the comments afterwards, they have been very helpful and given some good points to think about in my decision making process.

  5. [...] Your PhD Questions Answered (?) (telescoper.wordpress.com) [...]

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