Getting In and Getting On During Doctoral Study | Lex Academic Blog

On 12th April, 1861, Confederate men marched on Fort Sumter, marking the start of four years of the American Civil War. Little more than three months later, on 25th July, the first non-honorary PhDs in America were conferred at Yale. Three men collected their Latin-inscribed certificates, each at the start of exciting and highly specialised careers. Eugene Schuyler, a humanities graduate, would become America’s first translator of Leo Tolstoy and go on to have a sparkling diplomatic career. James Morris Whiton became a pastor and eminent teacher. The final graduate, scientist Arthur Williams, created the first X-ray photograph and was instrumental in setting up his country’s first physics laboratory. All three men made valuable contributions to a world even more unstable than our own. (Other than the Civil War, a gigantic earthquake levelled the Argentinian city of Mendoza in this year, Italy unified, and Tsar Alexander II decreed that Russia’s serfs would henceforth be emancipated.)

PhD programmes have come a long way since then, but they still give people the intellectual tools to thrive in a fast-changing world, setting aside time to address a topic or question that truly animates them. While it is exciting to consider your options when transitioning from a master’s level degree to doctoral study, the sheer number and variety of programmes available today can also be confusing. And, since seemingly every institution is trying to lure you towards their campus, it is more important than ever to proactively seek the right position.

You must, of course, think about all those academic matters that enable you to hone a meaningful question or hypothesis and rigorously address it. But geography, research culture, and the resources of institutions should likewise inform your decision. The best university on paper may not be appropriate for many other reasons. A high league table ranking might be down to an overwhelming focus on undergraduate teaching, for example, which drains resources from researchers. A newer institution, even if its campus was designed as a brutalist mess, might have precisely the supervisor for you. You may even find a funded place at such a university – a funded PhD being the only viable route to postgraduate study for many people. Before pondering geography, research communities, and supervisors, though, your first task is to brew up, talk to friends, and have a jolly good think about what really interests you.

Finding your topic

Assuming you already have a general subject area, your goal is to develop a research question: a way to engage with a topic and arrive at a well-reasoned, supported position that you can defend. You start, then, by digging deep and trying to articulate something you are curious about. At this stage, any questions or hypotheses you come up with can be very specific, or quite general. Are you a sociologist interested in the role of masks in contemporary Nebraska? Or a literature geek passionate about why Thomas Hardy punishes his characters? Or maybe a physicist with a fascination for black holes? As long as you have an interest, can articulate something you are curious about, have a direction to travel in, and a means to construct questions and enquiries, you are likely a good fit for a PhD. That said, you will need to put in a lot of thinking time to come up with something that you feel can maintain your interest for the next 3–7 years. And once you feel you’ve articulated your curiosity, it’s time to start looking for institutions and supervisors to help you refine it.

However you identify – as a sociologist, historian, biologist, etc. – your home discipline will have tools, or methods, to help you refine your ideas. Your supervisor can help you identify what these methods are and how you might use them. It is worth mentioning that, although departments are almost always organised along disciplinary lines, PhD students and other researchers have for many years been encouraged to engage with multiple disciplines. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary PhDs can make a topic difficult to manage (simply because you have to cover far more intellectual territory and it is a problem if you cannot eventually find your focus and settle on a question), but they can also be a route to some of the most exciting research questions. You might come to the question of masks in Nebraskan culture, for example, as a sociologist, starting by interviewing prominent mask wearers. But you might find a library archive about Nebraskan masks, and the tools of a historian might bring you insights previously inaccessible to you. And maybe that archive is in Romania, bringing in new questions about geography and culture. The scenario about Nebraskan masks has (obviously) been dreamed up, but you can see how bringing multiple disciplines to bear on your topic can raise new and exciting questions.

Finding your institution, department, and supervisor

Whatever your discipline, and however clear and direct you think your investigation is, your research question will change. Questions always change. They get more precise before broadening out to take in a wider landscape of possibilities. Then they get more precise again. Managing the evolution of a research programme is hard. And everyone learns how to do it at different paces, in different ways. That’s why, once you have an idea of the kind of investigations you want to conduct, you need to spend time seeking out the right institution and department that will help manage your journey.

The number of institutions for PhD-level research is vast. You will most likely have to move, perhaps even to the other side of the world, to find the best fit for you. The right department might be the one with a supervisor you have your eye on, the arts faculty with strong links to a clinical skills laboratory, or just the one in which you feel most supported and comfortable. To find these places, you might sign up for a few conferences, and speak to those who share your interests.

Be open to other countries. In some areas, like the Netherlands and Norway, PhD candidates are not considered students at all, but junior employees conducting research. They are accordingly paid a wage and afforded benefits, just like any other employee. In other places, such as the USA, tuition fees are astronomical but scholarships are comparatively easier to find. Indeed, most students, if they’re lucky enough to be accepted, earn some form of sponsorship. Then there are places in-between, like the UK, where PhD fees are charged at a lower rate than across the Atlantic, and there are additional, albeit highly competitive, funding options.

More generally, university open days can help you to identify a good fit if you can get to them. Check for research support, resources such as offices, opportunities like whether they will provide you with things such as teaching experience. Do they give research candidates a budget for conferences and other expenses?

Tightly linked to your department is your supervisor – by far the most important relationship you’re going to have in the next few years. For most candidates, choosing a supervisor is their main consideration, and it is hard to overstate the importance of your relationship with your supervisor. Broadly, you are looking for someone who matches your research interests. Do they have the academic chops to support your work? Have they published in areas adjacent to the ones you’re interested in? Are they still active in research and therefore able to help you locate your own work in the scholarly landscape? You are also looking for someone who can fit you into their schedule. Some supervisors stack up PhD students, badly supervising twenty or thirty at a time for the sake of their own CVs. Others will dedicate a great deal of time to two or three. There are also those superstar faculty members who are in high demand both by prospective students and extracurricular commitments. These academic heavyweights can lend considerable cachet to a young researcher’s CV, but they typically only offer scant and patchy supervision to their attention-starved students. This is a trade-off about which prospective PhD candidates ought to be mindful. Namedropping a heavyweight or two when listing one’s PhD supervisors may pay dividends down the line, and those name-brand references will no doubt open many doors during a lifetime of academic job applications, but it may be a challenging, lean, and lonely doctoral experience.

The supervisor–candidate relationship is nominally a professional one, but it is just as important to get on with your supervisor on a personal level. They will challenge you, push you, so you must feel able to trust them. For this reason, it is important to meet potential supervisors, ideally in person, but at least online, prior to committing yourself to any particular PhD programme. At the end of their PhD studies, former candidates tend to have strong feelings about their former supervisors. Some feel very close to them. Some even go into business with them, commercialising intellectual property that they’ve developed together over the course of their research. Other student–supervisor relationships disintegrate into a toxic mess and unravel before the thesis gets submitted.


Prestige can feel incredibly important in an academic career. And it seems to be true that certain tradition-laden, austere institutions hire graduates almost exclusively from their own pools. Many are convinced to join such institutions, and even pay for a PhD that they could get fully funded elsewhere. Most of us, though, will need to obtain some kind of funding to pursue doctoral study. Even if paying to do a PhD at a prestigious institution opens some doors, equally good opportunities can exist for those who study elsewhere. If you can get funding, wherever you study, this will represent a tremendous boost to your CV. A track record of fundraising has, after all, become one of the most important aspects of many postdoctoral careers both within and beyond academia.

Other than a university’s internal funding and the competitions hosted by various funding bodies, industry funding may be an option for some PhDs. This is most clearly the case in the sciences, where links to industry are obvious. Sometimes arts PhDs can be offered equivalent industry funding from a gallery, say, or a museum – some of which, incidentally, are registered as research institutions and might even be able to supervise and confer PhDs themselves. It’s also worth remembering that finding industry funding isn’t simply a case of finding someone to give you money to complete studies. Public institutions, including universities, have strict rules about who they are allowed to accept money from.

Your Long-Term Plans

Candidates can stumble into their PhD, with some general idea of joining the academic workforce. But gone are the days when a student became a lecturer before finishing their PhD. Even for the finest candidates with the best ideas, a sparkling thesis, conference presentations and publications under their belt, an academic career is not a given. But for some of us, there is no choice – it’s the only thing that animates us, and we must compete.

Even so, as many parts of the higher education sector face departmental closures and a general contraction, opportunities elsewhere are growing. Arguably, the most exciting opportunities are outside the academy. Perhaps you’re interested in computer coding, haptics and medicine, and an interdisciplinary PhD may be just the thing to give you the knowledge, skills and network to found a viable virtual-reality medical training company. Or maybe, like one of the original graduates at Yale, you are obsessed with Russian literature and see a deep engagement with that country’s culture as a way to find a meaningful role in politics. Many people find jobs outside the academy, and these new and exciting directions can influence your topic, supervisor, institution, and all other choices presented to you.