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How to prepare to study a PhD

Studying a PhD represents the pinnacle of academic study. Requiring hard work and dedication it's a big decision to make to study at a doctoral level. We explore how to prepare and what you can expect.

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Ready to take your academic journey to the next level? A PhD is considered to be the pinnacle of academic life, allowing you to explore a particular research area with greater independence. If you are dedicated, hard-working and have the relevant qualifications, a PhD could be the right choice for you.

We explore what it means to study at PhD level and how you can prepare, plus advice from Alexandra Gruian, an international PhD graduate who moved from Romania to the UK for her studies.

 

What is a PhD?

If you complete and pass a PhD, you will receive a Doctor of Philosophy qualification and will be awarded the title of Doctor, though this cannot be used in the same way as a medical practitioner.

 

If studied full-time, a PhD typically takes between three to four years to complete, in which time you will be working towards a thesis and developing your own original research. Some PhD students aim to have their work published, so expectations are particularly high at this level of academia.

 

What will I do on a PhD course?

Most of your time will be preoccupied with researching, reading and writing a thesis. However, this doesn’t mean always being cooped up in a library. Depending on your chosen field, a PhD could involve lab work, fieldwork, interviews, group discussions etc. You will also be assigned a supervisor who will work closely with you throughout the PhD. You can discuss your thoughts and findings with them to gain their views and guidance.

 

Alexandra explains that each year of her PhD at the University of Leeds was quite different in terms of her day to day life. She said, “I read a lot in the first year. I would read ten books for example and summarise my findings, then I would have a meeting with my supervisor who would give feedback.”

 

She added, “In year two I went back to live in Romania to conduct my fieldwork where a day would involve trying to contact people that I wanted to talk to, scheduling meetings with them, going to interviews, analysing documents, writing up transcripts and also piecing together everything that I found.”

Search for a PhD course today!

 

Why should I study for a PhD?

Asking yourself this question should be the first step when considering and preparing for a PhD. Each person will have their reasons for choosing to pursue a degree at this level of education, but some of the most common might include:

 

  • To gain a great sense of accomplishment
  • To become an expert in a field
  • To expand your mind
  • To remain in academia
  • To gain valuable skills
  • To contribute to a particular area of research

 

Alexandra explained her reasons for choosing a PhD and said, “I tended to be very good in school, so I realised academic life was for me. I liked studying and I did a masters in gender studies and so it just flowed naturally. I also looked forward to living abroad and this was a way of doing it while being in a protected environment.”

 

What are the challenges of a PhD?

Part of preparing for a PhD involves considering the potential challenges and thinking about whether you would be able to deal with these. So, as mentioned, doing a PhD requires hard work, this is a given. But what other challenges might you face?

 

Supporting yourself financially when studying for a PhD

If you’re about to embark upon a PhD, then have probably already completed or are finishing a postgraduate degree. As an international student, you’re likely to have paid tuition fees without a student loan and so it’s vital that you can afford to do a PhD. Will you be funding this yourself? Will your family be supporting you? Or are you looking for external funding?

 

You can look specifically for funded research projects, scholarships or loans depending on the university and country you choose for your PhD. Want to start searching for scholarships today?

 

Staying motivated during a PhD

A PhD demands lots of self-motivation and independent work which might dip at certain points throughout your course. This is to be expected but you will need to remain positive and try to push through this lack of motivation. Persevering will benefit you in the long run. However, working independently can be difficult, so if you start to struggle, you can use our mental health guide for support and advice.

 

Working independently when studying for a PhD

While you will receive one on one support from a supervisor, a PhD does require a lot of independent work and managing your own time effectively. Alexandra felt this was true for her own experience, commenting, “For the first time I found myself having to figure out a lot on my own, particularly with fieldwork, I was worried about finding something relevant to finish my thesis.”

 

She added, “My PhD was very different from my undergraduate and master’s degrees, mainly because I was moving to a new country which for me was a very big thing.”

 

How can I prepare for a PhD?

You might decide to apply for a PhD while finishing your master’s degree or you may take a break and apply later on. Either option is totally fine. However, if you do decide to take a break and apply at a later stage, you may need to retrain your mind and get up to scratch with academic reading and methods of learning. Whether you’re in the early stages of considering a PhD or looking to send off an application, here are some tips for ways to prepare:

 

  • Read articles, books, journals related to your topic of interest
  • Find out what you need to do for your application
  • Ask your current lecturers for their advice on studying for a PhD
  • Look into how to write a research proposal
  • Find a supervisor who works in a relevant field
  • Decide on your references (people who know you in an academic context)
  • Sit an English language test (if necessary)
  • Prepare your financial and educational evidence for your application

 

When speaking about her PhD, Alexandra said that she researched relevant supervisors at universities in the UK which helped her choose the country and course. She notes, “My choice of university was ultimately dependent on finding the right supervisor with the right specialisation and having scholarships available. I had to sit my English language test which I did specially for the PhD programme, and I wrote a three-page proposal.”

 

Will a PhD help my career?

The truth is that while some argue against the value of studying a PhD, others see the benefits, so it really depends on what you’re looking to achieve for yourself and your career as to whether this is the right choice for you.

 

There is no doubt that a PhD will provide you with heaps of experience and transferable skills that will be useful for any future profession. One example would be the opportunity to teach undergraduates within the university. This work is usually paid, offering the chance to financially support yourself through the course.

 

You will also be contributing to existing research, which means you may have the opportunity to present your findings to other scholars with an interest in your work.

 

Alexandra added, “You end up with a lot of soft skills that are transferable like analytical skills, writing, presentation, research, interviewing and so on. These are all things that I developed in my PhD and helped me get my current job.”

 

Want to know more about the skills employers want from graduates?

 

Now you know what a PhD involves and how to prepare, your next step is to use our course matcher tool to find a programme, university and country before applying and starting your own PhD. You may also find it useful to read our guide on transitioning from undergraduate to postgraduate study and some of the top postgraduate degrees.

 

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