Finding yourself at the educational crossroads and delving into what PhD programme to choose can be hard.
Especially now, when there are more than 500 PhD options to choose from.
Should you opt for the easiest one, or be ambitious and go for the hard ones? Where do you seek advice and information? Are university rankings reliable? What doctoral degrees are in demand? And so on and on.
The first thing you should know is that studies have recorded dropout rates (i.e., attrition rates) as high as 40-60%. The second – it doesn’t mean your PhD studies are doomed to fail.
Yes, a doctoral degree can be a hard pill to swallow. Yes, approximately 1-2% of the world population holds it (in the US, for example, the exact percentage of PhD attainment is 1.2%). But that doesn’t mean the road is not worth the trouble. It only cautions you to choose wisely.
Here’s what you should be asking yourself. And others.
How to Choose a PhD Programme?
The best way to choose your PhD is to do what you should do best – research. Guides like this can provide you with valuable starting points. At the end of the day, though, the best programme is the one that is right for you specifically.
PhD is an abbreviation for Doctor of Philosophy, and it is awarded for completing extensive research in a particular field of study, crowned with the doctoral thesis. The most crucial distinguishing feature of this degree is that it signifies a significant contribution to the knowledge base within a discipline.
Full-time students usually manage to finish the research after four years, but the duration can vary significantly.
And, as many of them will testify, a PhD degree goes beyond abstract definitions. Attending doctor degree programmes also means research blockages, sleepless nights, and gallons of coffee. On the flip side, it also means feeding your intellectual passion at a whole new level.
What it certainly isn’t – is a continuation of your undergraduate studies. Requirements for various programmes will vary from university to university (even from department to department). Still, there’s no general rule obliging you to choose a research field related to your primary education area.
Go For the Easiest, Hardest, or a PhD in Demand?
When first narrowing down your options, choose none of those. Education and labour market trends are important but shouldn’t be your primary criteria when starting your doctoral studies.
What good are great job outlooks for statisticians if you don’t know your way around numbers?
Or, does it matter that PhD in education is the easiest to get if you don’t possess pedagogical acumen? Likewise, if you can calculate the speed of light in the middle of the night, how is the fact that physics is the hardest PhD relevant for your decision?
The general rule of thumb is that the more a PhD programme is in demand, the more demanding it is. Traditionally, STEM doctoral degrees (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are the hardest to complete, although rewarded with great job prospects and the corresponding salary averages.
But, every PhD in, say, arts (that has decent pay and loves what he does) will raise his voice here. And he/she’ll have a point. If you choose a doctorate programme simply because it is referred to as “the easiest” or “in demand,” there are great chances that you’ll contribute to the overall dropout statistics.
When you’ve successfully identified the field of study, it’s time to get practical. Dive into the matter. See how many research options you have at your disposal. Some programmes have project-based positions, to which you’re applying to research a particular topic, while others enable candidates to choose their own dissertation topic.
Don’t stop there, though. Research your research with scrutiny. After all, you’re going to be doing that in years to come.
Adopt a search engine mindset. See what research has already been done in that field of study, identify research gaps, and find your potential spot under the academic sun. You don’t want to spend weeks thinking about the project that’s already examined by academics.
Consider The Format, Duration, and Outcomes of The Programme
The next step in choosing the right PhD programme entails more pragmatic considerations.
As you probably know, there are two types of doctoral programmes – academic (PhD) and applied (Doctorate). The first is primarily focused on research and theory, while the latter offers specializations within particular fields of applied theory. Although not a rule, students usually undertake PhD studies to pursue a career in academia or professional doctorates – to apply their knowledge in the industry.
But the truth is far from this simplification, at least concerning PhD graduates. Many of them do not find a settlement within a university and transfer their careers to various industries.
That’s why it is crucial you understand what skills you could potentially gain from a particular programme. Examine the curriculum with scrutiny. See what the defined outcomes of the courses are. Visualise your future self equipped with the defined expertise. Do you like what you see?
On average, PhD programmes take longer to complete than professional doctorates. Naturally, the duration of your studies will depend on the programme design, subject area, and the institution you’re enrolling into.
Also, note that some fields of studies, by their nature, demand an on-campus presence, whereas others can be fully or partially studied online. For example, chemistry topics cannot be investigated outside the laboratory, but humanities do not require any additional essential equipment besides books.
The smartest thing you can do is leave no stone unturned when reading about a specific PhD programme – what are its outcomes? What skills does it aim at developing? What’s the duration of the programme? Does it require a full on-campus presence?
Do University Rankings Matter?
Yes and no. Of course, you will benefit from a chosen university’s reputation and quality. Still, your everyday research life will revolve around the more specific parts of that institution: supervisor, laboratory and research facilities, and the academic community. That’s why there’s no such thing as an official PhD ranking.
In other words, don’t let the university ranking be your ultimate criteria. Use it as quality guidance and a useful mapping tool, but decide only after inspecting the particular programme.
Talk to Students and Potential Supervisors
Everything we’ve discussed so far relates to a long-ahead future when you actually start your research. On a more down-to-earth level, you should think about your potential academic environment and people that create it.
Probably the most critical choice in your academic career will be finding the right supervisor. After all, he/she will be the person guiding and mentoring you throughout your postgraduate education. In other words, the professor you choose to be your supervisor will be the person most involved in your study.
Make sure you base this decision on as many things as possible. Look into your future mentor’s career, publications he/she has written or mentored, areas of research he/she is interested in. Don’t ever hesitate to reach out – a friendly introduction email can do a lot for your eventual relations. Be sure not to write a thesis proposal, though – be formal yet polite while explaining your reasons to choose a specific topic and his/her guidance.
To make sense of your choices and confirm they correspond to reality, talk to students who’ve already been on your path. Get as many real-life examples of how it is to study at that particular PhD programme. Devise a list of questions critical to your decision and compare various answers. Only when gaining palpable impressions from students will you be able to truly imagine your everyday life at that university.
Social Aspects Make a Difference
Even though you anticipate spending entire days and weeks at a research facility, note that there is a life after enrolling in a PhD programme. It does matter whether you are in a city whose lights lift you up or in the middle of nowhere. Likewise, it does matter whether you’re surrounded by nature that boosts your productivity or stuck in a cold metropolis far away from home.
In other words, think about the location and social aspects of your future studies.
Don’t just automatically assume you are obliged to sacrifice everything in your life to get your PhD. Set your priorities and find a way to keep those things in life you’re unable to work without. Perhaps this is closeness to your family, a well-paid job you’re not willing to quit, or having your friends near. Yes, you will spend long hours researching, but that doesn’t mean you should cease being a human.
Best Advice: When in Doubt, Reach Out
Asking yourself all these questions might cause discouragement. Don’t worry if you do not have all the answers. Instead, perceive them as a set of criteria you will personally tailor.
Most importantly, get out of the confusion hole. In the end, PhD studies are a beautiful and fulfilling intellectual journey. Its paths are paved with hard work, but the reward is very well worth it.
Probably the best thing you can do is disperse all your doubts by reaching out and actively seeking information. If you decide to do that immediately, contact us or download our prospectus to see how we can help.
Best of luck!