Applying for a PhD: worth it, why, and how

Last year I wrote about how Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it. PhDs are definitely a degree worth having, but how do you know if it’s a degree worth applying for?

This post is a bit more about how to actually apply for a PhD and what it involves, once you’ve decided you might be interested. Most academic structures and processes are unfortunately still influenced by a privileged history based on personal connections. How to find and enrol in a PhD can be a mystery to most prospective candidates interested in further training in the research side of science. Don’t be put off…

As a first-gen academic, I didn’t even know what a PhD was (or that it was a career pathway) when I started my environmental science degree. It wasn’t until I graduated from my undergraduate degree and worked for a year that I realised I really missed the investigative part of science. I didn’t really know what to do about this, so I got back in touch with one of my favourite lecturers to find out my options, and she encouraged me to pursue a PhD. After a few applications and false starts (on available but unsuitable projects), I found a primary supervisor and project that aligned with my interests and goals, at a university I didn’t know much about, in a town I’d never been to.

Note, this post is mostly from an Australian perspective on ecology PhDs, so some of the details might not apply in other countries or disciplines with different academic systems. I focus on PhDs, but most of this advice would also apply to any higher research degree.

As a general note: prospective students should make sure a PhD suits their needs and wants. But academic research also needs more public funding to support research traineeships. Academics cannot explain why government-funded tax-free PhD stipends are less than the government award for other relevant trainees, e.g. graduate medical research professionals and market research trainees.

What is a PhD, how does it all work, and what are the career options?

  • A PhD trains you in discipline-specific research, data analysis, communication and project management skills. It’s a transition between an undergrad degree and a professional job that requires research and/or analytical skills. You don’t have to want to be an ‘academic’ to do a PhD – the skills you learn through a science PhD can be adapted to industry research and development, science communication, education, government policy, private consultancies, non-profits and much more.
  • PhDs aren’t for everyone. They aren’t even a prerequisite for a career. But if you love questioning the whys, hows, and wheres of the world, designing rigorous experiments, and applying and communicating those results to inspire change, then a PhD might be for you.

There are two general types of PhD

  • Topic-flexible PhD scholarships. Most universities have 1-2 general (government-funded) scholarship rounds available every year. These are competitive scholarships with minimum requirements. Anyone can put in an application for a topic of their choice, provided you have found an academic who has agreed to supervise you (see below), and your application will be judged against others in that general round, based on relevant criteria (see below).
  • Advertised funded PhDs. These PhD projects are associated with funded research projects or industry bodies, are usually advertised widely like jobs, and the primary supervisor and general topic is usually already set. Sometimes they might offer a higher stipend because of the funding. You still have some freedom to develop your own specific questions, as long as they’re within the general boundaries of the overall research project.   

A PhD has huge value to society, so why is standard funding below minimum wage?

  • A PhD trains candidates with valuable skills in research, project management and communication. PhDs are a traineeship in research, so it’s understandable the standard annual stipend is less than a qualified researcher’s salary. But it’s a bit bollocks that the standard rate for a PhD stipend is less than the minimum wage in relevant disciplines. (Academics are working to change this, but change will take time and depends on who we vote for.)
  • If you are keen to do a PhD, and the advertised stipend is not appropriate for you, do ask about options before you decide against applying. Some scholarships come with a top-up that may not be advertised, and even if not, ask your supervisors to support you to apply for competitive top-up scholarships and find other sources of income through government and industry pathways.

Finding the right supervisor and project

  • Competitiveness. Succesful completion of PhDs require certain skills, particularly communication and discipline-specific skills. When you apply for a PhD, you are not just applying to your potential supervisor (who may have already agreed to supervise you); you are applying to a committee of people who don’t know you and who are judging you generally against other applicants. You need to demonstrate you have the skills and capacity to do research and communicate the outcomes, including capacity to deal with peer review – publications are an important part of your application, but talk to your potential supervisor about what is relevant for your discipline.
  • Be mindful about what aspects of your degree turned you on. This will help you find a suitable research supervisor that you get on with and want to work with. What topics or units were you most excited about? What did you get the best marks in? What is your practical/work experience in? Connect with lecturers (at any uni) for those topics to discuss your options. Even if you don’t want to specifically do a PhD with them, they may be able to help you find the right supervisor.
  • Expand your horizons. Unlike the days of prestigious yore, you don’t have to do a PhD at the uni you completed your undergrad, or with the supervisor you completed your Honours with. It’s totally fine if you do, but your employability will not be jeopardised if you experience different university communities. Talk to your undergrad supervisors, ask around through your network, look up universities in places you might want to move to, and spend some time searching online with savvy search terms (including Google Scholar) to find out who is currently doing research in your topic of interest.
  • You don’t have to move overseas to build your career. This is a myth based on historical anecdotal evidence of academic prestige. Times have changed and we need more place-based researchers!
  • Professional cold calls. It’s totally fine to cold call email a prospective PhD supervisor. Your email should be professional, introduce yourself, and describe your interests and capability. (Don’t be put off if they don’t reply immediately for a legitimate reason).
  • Don’t take it personally if an academic you contact can’t support you for a PhD at that time – most academics have quotas for how many students they can supervise and/or they can’t take on students that aren’t associated with specific projects.
  • Keep searching for a PhD in a topic you’re interested in. It sounds trite, but it really is the most important factor that influences your overall experience.

© Manu Saunders 2021

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