5 Things to Consider Before Applying for PhD Studies

Did your master’s thesis leave questions unanswered or are you just hankering for your next big research project? Are you dreaming about a career in academia? Unless you are already eagerly counting the days to your escape from academia or have sworn to never return there, you may have considered continuing your academic studies in the form of doctoral studies. However, doctoral studies are quite different from your studies so far. Whether you are about to graduate or are returning from work-life to do a PhD (an increasingly common option), there are some things you need to consider even before you send in your application.


1. Your supervisors are important.

Because people are different, supervisors are different, too. And what you will need as a doctoral student will also differ, so there is no hard and fast rule for what a good supervisor is like. The important thing is that your co-operation works: you have similar expectations of appropriate workload or how soon you should respond to emails. The University of Helsinki requires that all doctoral students and their supervisors sign a Supervision Plan, valid for one year, which outlines key concerns such as the frequency of meetings or responsibilities between supervisors, if several (which is increasingly common). But whether or not you and your supervisor are a perfect match, your supervisors are important as the people who will be guiding your research. Not only do they give feedback on your research, they also write you recommendations for funding applications and possibly introduce you to relevant readings or conferences. If you are thinking about doing a PhD, you should already be asking around for potential researchers who have the academic expertise, capacity and willingness to supervise you. The academic interests or preferred methodologies of members of faculty can best be discovered by looking at their recent publications.


2. Your PhD studies are not actually about studying.

You may be used to thinking about studying as taking courses, going to lectures or seminars, taking exams and doing homework. If you apply for a PhD program, chances are you need to devote a section of your application to describing your study plan in terms of courses. However, studying for your PhD is not like studying for your bachelor’s or master’s degree. PhD is a research degree – courses are a tiny part of what you are doing. For example, in Finland, doctoral degree includes a minimum of 40 ECTS course credits, including theoretical studies or practical academic skills. Yet in total the doctoral degree is worth 240 ECTS! This means the majority of your work is in the form of researching, as in data collection, analysis or writing conference papers, journal articles or your monograph. You occasionally have seminars and you can take courses that will support you in your studies, but many of them are irregular in timing and in their completion method. For example, seminars may be held only once a month, and many courses are graded Pass/Fail.


3. Financing is tough.

If your studies are funded by the University or a research group, lucky you! However, if you haven’t yet been accepted for a funded position, you will want to have a plan B, because the number of funded positions is small, especially in fields where most research is carried out independently rather than in groups. And even the funding of research projects is usually only for a certain period, meaning you will eventually have to apply for more money. If you choose to apply for a grant to support your PhD studies and are accepted, you can take easier on the non-academic work and focus on your studies. However, again, most grants are only for a year, meaning you will at some point have to apply again. Furthermore, the competition for grant money is hard and getting tougher every year, so your application being accepted is not a given. If you are independently financed, chances are you are working part- or full-time and have to find a way of balancing your research with your job, not only in terms of time but in energy.

One of the things to learn is that applying for money for your research is part of the job description and something you would keep doing even if you become a post doc. But an even more important thing to remember is that being rejected for funding does not mean that your research or even your research proposal is bad – it may just be that the competition is too high or that the funder is interested in slightly different research questions. Even good applications get rejected.


4. You will struggle with motivation.

Doing a PhD takes at least four years of full-time study, usually more. The PhD will feel competitive even for those used to being at the top of their master’s program. Why didn’t I just leave Uni and go for a stable-salaried 9-5 job with evenings off? Whether as the result of a funding rejection or just a fatigue from reading too much, you will have times you would rather just stay under the blanket all day. You feel your research questions are trivial, your chosen method impossible, your data undecipherable and your results statistically non-significant. Recognize when you just need to take a day off (we all do sometimes) and when you need an external push. For example, a talk with your supervisor or another senior researcher can help you overcome a hurdle in your research or point you towards the next sensible step to take. There are also plenty of forums and blogs – such as The Thesis Whisperer, Get a Life, PhD not to mention PhD Comics – with peer-support or study tips. Remind yourself of why you picked your research topic: while it may sometimes appear trivial or uninteresting compared to curing cancer or saving the rainforests, you once picked it because you know it is interesting and novel in your field. And you know that if you continue in academia, your PhD is not even your final chance to show your worth.


5. Your studies are ultimately rewarding.

Sure, you get the title, the book with your name, and maybe even that weird tophat, but there’s more to it. In the end, there are still many cool things you get to do or learn, if you just go for it. You’ll definitely improve your writing and presentation skills, but perhaps you also need to learn a new skill for your research, like basic programming, statistics or designing questionnaires – or how to write really good applications. These will be useful also outside of academia. On the other hand, you get to show your research at international conferences and meet people interested in the same academic topics as you – which is amazing, whether you think of it as a public speaking or networking opportunity or as a chance to hear the plenaries of the big names in your field. And finally, if you go for the PhD route, chances are you genuinely like researching and discovering new things, in which case you get to cherish the moments and the new knowledge on your topic your hard work brings about. Whether or not you stay in academia after your doctoral defense, these moments have been rewarding in their own right, and you can keep on carrying them as badges of experience throughout your life.