Blog post by Donald Lush, Careers Consultant
I’m a careers consultant for researchers and I’m often asked ‘as a PhD, when is the best time to seek your advice?’
The answer, which isn’t meant to be cheeky, is ‘before you apply for your PhD’. Understanding why you are taking on an intense three year research project is critical.
Do you need your PhD to open the door to a particular profession? It’s almost essential, for example, if you’re looking for a career in academic research or teaching in universities. Similarly, industrial research is nearly always conducted by PhDs as is science communication, marketing, sales and publishing. Many business and finance management consultants have PhDs and there are several specific recruitment schemes designed especially for them.
It may be that you love your subject and simply want to progress in it and learn more while advancing knowledge in your field in some way. This is also an excellent reason and great source of motivation.
However, not all employers need or even understand the skills of a PhD. You might be considerably better off going straight out to work if you’re ready. You also need to consider that universities are unable to offer academic careers to all PhDs. About fifty percent of them start their careers in academia but many choose (or have to choose) other paths later on. Being flexible and imaginative in your post-PhD thinking is essential. It helps a great deal to consider this before you begin.
Your university careers service will be happy to support you. Do ask for this help – it will save you time, help you be clear about your decision and move successfully to whatever you decide to do.
A PhD is a defined as a substantial and novel contribution to knowledge so you’ll need to be as clear as you can about your research idea. Your application will often require you to write a detailed proposal and it will be critical in deciding to admit you.
Part of this process will involve finding academics willing to supervise you and starting off a discussion about your intended project with them. This is often a challenge, unless an academic you know has already approached you, but most universities have staff directories on their websites and the entries will show research interests and contact details. Don’t be shy about getting in touch, even if your ideas are still quite general. If they’re interested they’ll help you. Very often, in science, projects are pre-defined and the discussion will be about which one is best for you to work on.
Once the ball is rolling, you’ll need to apply. The processes vary hugely. I’ve come across everything from being casually invited onto a PhD project through to a detailed CV or application form accompanied by a research proposal and personal statement. Make sure you understand the process and comply with all requirements. PhD programmes start in September or January, usually, so you’ll need to be working on your application about six months before one of those dates.
You may be invited to an interview at which your proposal and plans will be discussed. Again, these range from very informal to full panel interviews with several interviewers. You need to be prepared to advocate for your research and demonstrate you have the skills and drive to complete a PhD successfully.
Finally, you’ll need to live while you’re researching as well as pay the university’s fees. Relatively few PhDs fund themselves; most are awarded funding from a research body or a university. Ask yourself if you can afford to live on a relatively low income for three more years and research funding opportunities at the same time you are applying. You will often be asked in your application where your funding is coming from, so it’s good to be ready.
- King’s Careers and Employability has resources specially designed for you.
- Jobs.ac.uk is a mine of information for job adverts (including fully funded PhDs) and careers advice.
- FindAPhD contains detailed advice about everything I’ve mentioned.
- The UK has a specialist organisation which supports researchers which is free to join: Vitae
- And there is a YouTube channel where PhDs share their experiences.