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Should I apply for a PhD?

This is the $64,000 question that many grad students will be asking themselves about now – you enjoyed your first degree, maybe you’ve gotten interested in a particular topic in a postgrad course, and you’re wondering if the PhD route is for you. I’m currently an Arts & Humanities PhD student in the UK system (the system in Europe and North America is a little different, as is the process for science and social science). This post is a collection of the most helpful advice I got, and the things I wish I’d known when I was considering whether to apply.

It’s good to talk

Talk to your supervisor. The person already supervising your work can be really helpful because they know you and know your ability. When it comes to applying, they might be able to help you to write a research proposal, and you will certainly need them to write you a reference. Talk your options over with them. Talk to PhD students in your department and ask them what studying a PhD is really like. They really won’t mind you asking, and don’t be surprised if they turn out to be shy. A university trying to ‘sell’ itself to you will tell you one thing, but it’s really helpful to get a view from the ground from someone who’s there doing it already. If you’re not currently studying, email your previous supervisor and ask politely if they could put you in touch with some of their recent research students so you can ask them what it was like. And use your network! – if you can, talk to PhD students at other universities too. This helps you to build up a picture of what experiences are common, and what little quirks universities can sometimes have. All of this can help you to decide if it’s for you.

Be prepared

Read chapters three and four of this book: How to Get a PhD – 4th edition: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors (Study Skills) by Estelle Phillips and Derek S. Pugh.
Actually, you’re likely to find this book recommended a lot, so you might want to read the whole book. But these chapters covers what PhD study is and isn’t, and the right and the wrong reasons for applying. A PhD is a full-time, hands-on, practical apprenticeship for academic research, and in some fields necessary for particular work (for example if you want to work in commercial research and development). It’s designed to enable you to develop independent research skills, and to produce some assessable work that demonstrates that your research is methodical, rigorous, and relevant to your field as well as original. It’s about not writing the perfect monograph, it’s about demonstrating you are able to do academic research. Doing a PhD because you need the qualification for a specific career path, or because you have a passion for your topic are good reasons. But as the authors of this book point out, there are bad reasons too. One of their examples is that no one does a PhD to get rich. Academics are traditionally poorly paid and the career path is insanely competitive. If you want to make money, you’d be better just focusing on how to do that. If you want to publish a book, well, that’s different to a PhD too, so perhaps you’d be better off writing the book you want to write. Find How to get a PhD in a UK University library near you.

Be realistic

Not only is a PhD a very specific kind of project, designed to show you are able to do academic research, there are other implications to bear in mind too. You have to be willing and able to work on the project, by yourself, every day, for at least three years. Sure, everyone finds slump points in the middle of their programme, but you have to be able to re-motivate yourself to work diligently through the slow times, and being interested helps. Of course it’s important to find some balance, but you need to bear this in mind in advance. How will this impact on those around you, friends, family, partners, as well as yourself? How will you find time for your work and fit it in around the other commitments in your life?

It’s a rich man’s world

The other big thing to bear in mind is the opportunity cost of a PhD. They are time consuming, expensive and require you to give up the chance to earn money now in return for a qualification later. To some extent, you might feel that your life is kind of ‘on hold’ compared to your friends. They have jobs, salaries and nice homes. You are still a student, possibly still living in shared accommodation on a shoe-string, sacrificing the earnings your friends have for the love of your subject. Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different, and it isn’t all doom and gloom. But it helps to think about it now to be prepared for how you might feel. You will also need to consider whether you can afford to study now, or whether you might be best taking a year or so in the workplace to earn some money to find your study. This can help you to fund further study, but returning to study can be hard to get the hang of again. Of course, there is funding available but it can be difficult to get. Watch this space for more on applying for funding soon…

Know your options

Not sure about whether a PhD is for you? Book a one-to-one appointment with your university careers advisor and ask them what else you could do with your degree. Rather than pursuing further study, what other avenues might you be able to pursue? You never know, you might find something that grabs you.

And finally…

I think the best overall advice I was given came from a teacher at the institution where I studied my Masters degree. All the taught postgrad students were given a presentation which was supposed to be about encouraging us to apply for research degrees. The staff were very honest about the reality of being a research student and mostly explained all the down sides. And the best pearl of wisdom was:

“Only do a PhD if you really can’t imagine life having not done one”

That’s why I’m doing it. Those independent research skills it’s all about? I want those for their own sake. I just love to study, not everyone does, but I do.

I hope this helps you work out what’s right for you!


  1. Tammy says:

    I think synchronicity brought me to your blog. This is a question that I have been contemplating for some time. I love research and being a student. I don’t like the idea of not making money but wouldn’t mind if it went away for a while. I love your comment about “Only do a PhD if you really can’t imagine life having not done one”. I have always thought I would. Thanks for the reference to the book. I will go to the library this weekend.

  2. [...] study, at whatever level, you’ll want to think about the practicalities. As discussed in other posts, deciding to go back to school will have a big impact on your life and the lives of those around [...]

  3. [...] study, at whatever level, you’ll want to think about the practicalities. As discussed in other posts, deciding to go back to school will have a big impact on your life and the lives of those around [...]

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