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.