Hi I’m Charlotte, I studied a PhD in Psychology at the University of Exeter and I now work at Get My Grades as their Head of Research. In this blog, I’m going to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to study for a PhD and how you might go about finding one.

A PhD is the highest level qualification you can achieve in most fields.  It is awarded for writing a thesis (essentially a book) which makes a unique contribution to your chosen research field in 3-4 years (a UK PhD is short and focused compared to others elsewhere).  After writing your thesis you are examined by a viva – which is a verbal examination. This process varies by country – in the UK it’s just you and two academics from your field (one from within your university and one from a different university); in Australia, your thesis is just sent to academics who only comment, whereas in the Netherlands, it’s a public affair with friends and family attending!

I both loved and hated studying for my PhD. Carrying out research, especially cutting-edge research is filled with many ups and downs. Getting through the downs is tougher than most people imagine it will be – particularly as the research is something you are passionate about. There are four things I think will help you to succeed and you should look for when choosing your PhD:

  • A good PhD supervisor – check if they’ve had successful PhD students before and if you ‘get on’.
  • A topic you love – you need to be passionate to research a topic for 3-4 years!
  • Peer support – is there a good community of PhD students in the department?
  • Funding – the stress of money is not an additional factor you want to have.

Oh and also humour – if you’re thinking seriously about doing a PhD have a look at http://phdcomics.com/ for a humoured reflection of what it’s actually like (albeit based on American PhD’s which are slightly different as they are much longer and more taught).

The day to day tasks for a PhD varies massively by subject. For my research in psychology, I spent time doing things like programming experiments and computational models, recruiting and testing participants, analysing data, doing literature reviews, attending lab meetings, and writing papers. Other subjects could be more lab-based or more library-based depending on what you are doing.

So how do you find a PhD? Finding a PhD is much harder than finding an undergraduate course. There isn’t a repository online listing all the PhDs as, although a lot are advertised online (look at www.jobs.ac.uk), most are found through word of mouth. So, it is important to start trying to build a network of contacts – ask your undergraduate thesis/dissertation supervisor (if they’re in a topic you’re interested in) as they might know of colleagues looking for PhD students.

Another key issue is finding funding. This primarily comes from two sources: research councils or universities. Research council funding is generally thought of as more prestigious. The allocation of these places either comes about through grants awarded to academics or through PhD allocations which vary by university, with those universities that have better research records getting more PhD places. Research Council funded places often also include funding for a masters degree. I was funded through the university – this meant that my funding was contingent on me doing a certain amount of teaching per year. Balancing teaching and research commitments was hard, but I have to say that actually I enjoyed the balance after I got used to it – doing research can often be solitary and teaching gives you a reason to chat to students and colleagues!

When in their career progression people study for a PhD varies a bit between the subjects. In the sciences usually, it comes straight from undergraduate or a masters, whereas in the more applied subjects people often gain some hands-on experience before returning to do a doctorate.

But what about after a PhD? The natural course is to pursue a career in academics. This is by no means an easy option and finding postdoctoral positions is a whole other challenge. But the career path is clear – if not competitive. But less than half of people who gain a PhD go into academia.  Beyond academia, a PhD opens doors. Doing a PhD teaches you a whole set of transferable skills: project management, analysis, writing skills, problem-solving skills, time management, independent work the list goes on. Which means having a PhD makes you highly employable a whole host of different sectors.

Although my PhD was hard at times – if it made any sense as a thing to do I would go back and do another one!