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Thinking about a PhD

PhD researcher working with lab equipment

 

A PhD is the highest level of academic qualification in the UK and it involves three to four years of original research on a specific topic. 

If you're considering taking a PhD, our advice will help you investigate whether or not it is the right option for you. 

 

What is a PhD? Why take one?

There are different types of PhD, some related to particular professions, such as engineering and medicine, and some that include a first year of study at masters level.

Research degrees differ from taught degrees. You'll be expected to:

  • take responsibility for your own learning - no set course of study, curriculum, lectures or reading lists. 
  • work independently - there may be other researchers in your department or school, but you'll have different specialisms, so the 'camaraderie' of an undergraduate or masters group will be absent.

Think seriously about your reasons for taking a PhD as research degrees are rewarding, but tough.  You will encounter periods of self doubt and difficulties. Being able to focus clearly on your original motivation and having a realistic view of what a PhD is will help

Good reasons to take a PhD include

  • a genuine commitment to your research topic
  • enjoyment of the research process
  • knowing how and why it will enhance your career

Don't take a PhD because:

  • you don't want to leave university yet
  • you're unsure what you want to do
  • your boyfriend/girlfriend is staying in Nottingham

Prospective students can be approached by a tutor or final year project supervisor if they consider the student has the academic qualities to undertake a PhD. If this happens to you, stop and think about what a PhD involves and if it really is what you want to do..

 

What are the differences between a research degree and an undergraduate or taught postgraduate course?

In a research degree you will not undertake a set course of study with a curriculum to follow, lectures to attend, supported by a reading and resource list.

You will have to take responsibility for managing your own learning and achieving your PhD. There are, of course, support systems in the form of your supervisor, other academic colleagues and peers but it is your responsibility to plan and manage your work, to seek help and support when you need it and to overcome difficulties and setbacks.

You will need to be prepared for what some call, “the loneliness of research”. While there may be other researchers in your department or school you will all be working on different topics so the “camaraderie” associated with an undergraduate or masters group of students is not replicated in a PhD.

 

What are the attributes of successful PhD students?

These are some of the attributes that PhD students possess:

  • Ambitious
  • Confident
  • Curious
  • Dedicated
  • Dynamic
  • Imaginative
  • Independent
  • Intelligent
  • Methodical
  • Thorough
  • Well-organised
 

Some other things to think about:

  • If you are an arts or humanities student, do you like working alone for long periods of time?
  • If you are a scientist or engineer, you may have to fit in your experimental work around the needs of others in your group, this may mean an unusual working pattern
  • Whatever your subject, can you take disappointment and rise to a challenge especially when your research does not go as you planned?
  • Are you able to take criticism and defend your point of view, academic challenge is part of a PhD?
  • Would it be an option for you to take a part-time PhD?
 

PhD student case studies 

Amanda Kale, PhD Creative Writing

Amanda Kale

Read Amanda's blog post: How to Prepare for a PhD

Luke Francis, PhD Sustainable Chemistry

Luke Francis

Read Luke's blog post: My PhD Journey So Far

 

Case study: Blanca De Dios Perez, PhD researcher

Blanca De Dios Perez

Blanca De Dios Perez

What is your current role and what does it involve?

I am a PhD researcher pursuing a cross disciplinary PhD between the Division of Psychiatry and Applied Psychology and the Division of Rehabilitation, Aging and Wellbeing, based within the School of Medicine. I work with researchers interested in developing interventions to improve the quality of life of people with multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke and traumatic brain injury among others.

My role involves developing a job retention intervention to support people with MS to remain at work for as long as they wish. Some of the responsibilities of my role involve conducting systematic reviews, qualitative and quantitative methods, and liaising with national and international MS professionals to share knowledge and establish new working relationships.

 

How did you become a PhD researcher?

My undergraduate degree was in psychology and I became very interested in research. For this reason, I decided to pursue an MPhil Psychology, which gave me the opportunity to conduct research on the topics I was most interested in. My MPhil focused on understanding language deficits in people with MS.

After my MPhil, I worked as a research assistant for two years, working with stroke survivors. These years were crucial to develop both my research and organisational skills, as well as gaining greater insight into the problems faced by people living with long term neurological conditions such as MS and stroke.

Now I am pursuing a PhD and looking forward to continuing to develop my skills as a researcher.

What advice would you have for someone considering a PhD?

The most important thing is do not give up! PhDs can be competitive, so if you are not successful at first, remember that there will always be new projects coming up. I’d recommend looking into opportunities to take part in work experience in research or related areas before pursuing the PhD.

It is also important for you to know what your preferences are. I think it is fine if you have doubts now; by doing some work experience you can gain a better idea of what you like and don’t like.

For anyone thinking about a role in academia, I would recommend contacting lecturers or professors working on topics that you enjoy. You can ask them if they have any projects advertised or coming up, or simply tell them that you are interested in their work, as they might be in need of a new researcher.

 

Where do I look for vacancies and how do I apply? Includes advice from UoN alumna

Vacancies 

There's no central admissions system for research degrees. University departments will advertise the vacancies they have for PhD research degrees and they will receive and assess those applications.

You may also see PhD opportunities advertised as part of a Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP), Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) or Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT).

Advertisements will appear internally on departmental noticeboards and on university online vacancy bulletins (via the human resources department). You may be approached directly by a supervisor who has a research grant and has a vacancy, this does not automatically mean the place is yours but it is good to have the support of a supervisor.

Find a PhD - searchable database of PhD opportunities

Jobs.ac.uk - find PhD opportunities

University of Nottingham - studentships

Application process

There are some differences in the application procedure between academic disciplines but generally you will complete an application form and include a personal statement or an outline research proposal.

If shortlisted, you may attend an interview and if successful be offered a place. If you have not yet secured funding, then the offer will be subject to you being able to satisfy this requirement.

In the sciences, engineering and technology you may not need to submit a research proposal but will write a statement about why you wish to contribute to the area under investigation.

In the arts and social sciences you may need to generate a research idea and be able to present this as a proposal in your written application. 

FindAPhD - Information and advice on the application process

University of Nottingham - advice on writing a research proposal

Using English for Academic Purposes (UEfAP)
Advice on writing a research proposal for a PhD application 

Interviews

A PhD interview covers your interest in the research area and your commitment to a PhD. Some typical questions may be:

  • What do you think a PhD entails?
  • Tell me what led to your interest in and about any work you have already done in this area
  • Why do you think you are suited to doing a PhD?

FindAPhD - PhD interview questions

Jobs.ac.uk - Top Ten PhD Interview Questions

Advice from UoN alumna, Jenna Hanmer

Jenna Hanmer

Jenna Hanmer

After securing two interviews, I began to feel very anxious as I needed to give a presentation to a panel of academics. I had not given a presentation for a very long time and worried that my nerves would impact on my performance.

I approached the Careers team for some advice and support. An adviser watched as I delivered my presentation and provided feedback on my style and pace. She recommended that I simplify some of my slides and emphasise certain points.

 
 

I realise now that the adviser had changed my attitude and approach to the interview. I had been so distracted by my insecurities that I lost sight of how exciting the opportunities were. My preparation paid off as I was offered funded places at both universities.

I would definitely recommend that students speak to the Careers team before attending an interview, especially if they are feeling anxious. The advisers can help you to make the most of your strengths so that you make a good impression during your interview.

 
 
The interview went very well, and I’ve been offered the PhD studentship. I'm delighted and I know I wouldn't have done so well without your help and the confidence you inspired in me. Many thanks again, this is really a life-changing opportunity for me and I owe so much to your help.
Astrid Bowen, MSc Developmental Disorders

How do I fund my studies? Includes access to the Alternative Guide to PG Funding

The main sources of funding in the UK are: government, research councils and charities. 

These methods of funding are highly competitive, subject to eligibility requirements and sometimes reserved for international students.

If you're concerned about how you would fund a PhD, you may want to consider taking a part-time PhD. These usually take about six years and if you've already started your career, may be part of your professional development. 

Gov.uk - Information on the Doctoral Loan for perspective PhD students

Research Councils UK
Information on funding, availability and eligibility

University of Nottingham, Researcher Academy - Search for postgraduate scholarships

University of Nottingham - Funding opportunities for PhD students

The Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding 

This online guide provides alternative sources of funding - especially charities - which can make awards (fees, maintenance, research costs) to any student regardless of subject, or nationality. 

It contains a huge database of funding opportunities, comprehensive guidance, and numerous tools to help you prepare a winning grant application.

We have purchased a licence for the guide so it’s free to Nottingham students to use.

Free webinar for UoN students

Luke Blaxill from GradFunding held a webinar on how to apply for funding through charities and trusts. He also covered more traditional sources of funding for PhD students. This is an excellent session on all aspects of funding.

GradFunding webinar. Login to MyCareer to watch it

Confirmed funding in 2019-20

189 UoN students received funding through the Guide with the total amount exceeding over £120,000.

Alternative Guide logo

Log in to the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding

 
 

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