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PhD - does calibre of uni make a difference? & other obvious questions

(21 Posts)
PhDquestions Sun 05-Mar-17 00:41:53

I don't really understand how to apply for a PhD, or the funding, or what you're meant to live on for three years... so that's one question to begin with.

But... I have been asked numerous times to do one, and apparently I have my pick of supervisors (sorry if that sounds big-headed) blush

My question is, does the calibre of university come into it? So say, Nottingham uni vs. Nottingham Trent?

Which is most important - the calibre of uni or who you have supervising you?

Is it true that the most difficult job to get after it is the first one, but once you've obtained your position then you're in a good place? Will you always be employed/employable if you have your PhD?

Any tips most welcome smile

user7214743615 Sun 05-Mar-17 09:53:48

You need to name the subject area to get useful responses.

Sciences: PhDs are funded by research councils with non-taxable stipend of around 15k per year. If you can't get a funded PhD, don't do one in sciences.

Calibre of group/supervisor is most important factor but in reality most top researchers aren't in the bottom ranking universities.

Jobs: really very much dependent on research field. In my area, 6-8 years of postdocs before getting a permanent position is normal and permanent positions are very hard to come by. However, it can be much easier to get a permanent position in other nearby areas of science. Remember that across all areas of academia only a tiny fraction of PhDs go on to become permanent academic staff, so the numbers will never be in your favour.

EightToSixer Sun 05-Mar-17 10:00:40

Social sciences here. I did my PhD ESRC-fined (stipend of 13k a year) at a Russel Group University. It was a DTC (doctoral training centre) so funding abstinent with ESRC but was tricky in that it was such a PhD factory. I may have had good background training as a result, but I was just one of 50 odd students and don't feel my supervision was initially good until I switched supervisors.
I did 18 months of visiting lectureships on short term contracts after this and then got a permanent job in a 'new' university. I must admit I was a little snobby initially, but the PhD students at my new place are excellent, very driven and because there are fewer of them they have more established relationships with their supervisors and academics which I think develops them well into working life.

from my experience then I would suggest going for wherever the funding is first, but then the next important thing is the relationship with supervisors (above and beyond the reputation of the university).

user7214743615 Sun 05-Mar-17 11:32:00

Just to say - stipends are the same across all RCUK i.e. all fields of research. They have gone up now to around 15k per year.

flumpybear Sun 05-Mar-17 11:39:36

I'd be inclined to look for one at Notts uni if choosing between the two. There's far more research and opportunities at UoN, collaborations/resources etc perhaps I'm biased as I did mine at UoN!!!
Most important thing by far is to check the supervisor is good to their students and they've a good reputation. Speak to the other students in their group to check

GriceBaby Sun 05-Mar-17 11:48:37

Will you always be employed/employable if you have your PhD?

Er.... doing a PhD is associated with lower income than a Masters and often (so I've been told when employed outside) with being seen as difficult to manage and having got into bad work habits.

Obviously the working conditions may make up for it - the intellectual freedom, control over your own time - if you value them. But I'd recommend doing a lot of research before committing because if you would like the option to do something else, a PhD really hinders you. Look at the Chronicle, the Professor is In, and this from the Economist:

It's close to a Ponzi scheme in many fields. We're being encouraged to take on more PhD students to expand teaching capacity and research assistance capacity. This seems unethical though when longer-term career opportunities afterwards can't be guaranteed, and when it is really difficult to start all over in another sector.

If you're in STEM then things are rather different. I also don't think it hurts for someone to do a quick PhD and finish by mid-20s so that they can rejoin the graduate labour market without being 'too old'. But I see some PhD students where I am, who love the institution and who are in their fourth or fifth year, doing RA work and bits of teaching, and am not sure where they can go with it - especially if they are not geographically-mobile.

£15k a year tax free for three years to do what you like is amazing until it runs out. Keep an eye on the jobmarket from the very beginning and make sure your topic is marketable.

This may not at all apply to you - not if you have your pick of supervisors! - but am posting for people who may be searching along these lines. And nothing will stop someone who really, really wants to do it, and they will always find a way through, especially if they're hard-working and resourceful. It's just that there are other rewarding career paths too, without the prohibitive up-front costs of a lengthy apprenticeship.

Good luck!

PhDquestions Sun 05-Mar-17 13:27:42

Thank you for all the posts!

Just to clarify, the subject is psychology. The person who'd like to supervise me is one of the tutors from my master's degree; she was a great supervisor on my dissertation.

Off to read the posts now!

Foureyesarebetterthantwo Sun 05-Mar-17 15:00:17

First off, you really need funding. Look on for funded PhDs where the subject is already set, there are lots of psychology ones out there already. You usually need a 2:1 but at the high end or a first, and a merit, or distinction in Masters. If you don't have very high grades, no hope of shortlisting either in the funded pre-specified ones or the other source which is universities or RUK council studentships. I have students who have got 68% and then got a 1+3 ESRC studentship, which is your other option, but they had an extensive portfolio of relevant career work that fed into the PhD topic.

If your supervisor is suggesting it, then she or he may have a specified idea about where you can get funding for, either through the ESRC/doctoral training centre route or through that uni studentships. For these (where the topic is not prespecified), you write up a proposal with the supervisor and put it forward usually into a competition. The chances of success vary depending on the institution, our DTC studentships are so ridiculously competitive at the moment, I would only go forward with an outstanding candidate, departmental/uni studentships may be better.

As for getting a job afterwards, it depends if you mean an academic career or whether any job in research/psychology will be fine for you. Academic careers are harder to manufacture, and as everyone says, there are more PhDs than lectureships, so the danger there is getting post-doc jobs for a few years and having nowhere to go. That said, the absolutely best candidates will out. I find many PhDs rather drifting and rubbish at career stuff, and just say 'I'd like to continue' but only a few have the drive and ambition and work ethic and ability to move to actually take them into an academic career which I think can be great for women once you are established, but leaves you very vulnerable in the early years/fixed contracts stages.

If it is just to get a job in general, you will be able to do that, I've never had a PhD student yet that hasn't been gainfully employed, especially in areas like psychology where there are multiple options depending on your sub-specialty (commercial research, think tanks, charities, policy stuff, research in organizations).

Foureyesarebetterthantwo Sun 05-Mar-17 15:01:18

As for the 'pick of supervisors', you need to get a pick of studentships which pay money! You can always find a supervisor, the hardest thing is to get funding for your PhD and that requires flexibility about location/topic for most people.

Godstopper Sun 05-Mar-17 15:15:28

Academic jobs are v. hard to come by, and - in my field at least - it's just not true that the best will make it. There is a massive element of luck, and who you know. I've seen people just as talented as anyone else having to leave owing to lack of jobs. Mumblings are then made about " haven't got what it takes." Make no mistake: academia is elitist (background of most is privileged), racist (two black senior academics in my field in entire U.K!), and disablist (I am in a minority of o e being deaf, and have faced assumptions all along).

Why do I stay? Well, the status quo won't change if people like me leave.

The comment about taking on lots of PhD's being unethical in current climate is exactly right.

I'm in a traditional humanities discipline largely ran by Oxbridge educated white men who haven't a clue. Hopefully, this is not the case for you!

Foureyesarebetterthantwo Sun 05-Mar-17 15:23:04

Godstopper I agree with you, there are not enough jobs for the really talented, and there are still massive issues of race/gender defining who makes it and who doesn't, because those that are privileged can work the crazy hours, have the financial backing to do so, less pressure on them to run the household at the same time and so on.

I do think, though, that if you are mediocre or even quite good but rather plodding as a PhD, you definitely won't stand a chance. You have to be really determined, and have the intellect, and unfortunately not all PhDs have this and even more unfortunately, they don't seem to realize and are happy to drift about doing PhDs/post-docs but not really making the most of this or going anywhere. Can you tell I am fed up with dealing with PhDs who 'want to continue' but aren't dedicated to doing the types of things that would make this a likelihood?!

wizzywig Sun 05-Mar-17 15:32:54

if its a funded professional phd in psychology (ie, a bps approved phd) go for it!!! start subscribing to nhs jobs by email and you'll see how many jobs there are out there for psychologists. loads of them.

geekaMaxima Sun 05-Mar-17 15:49:04

Some great advice already, but if you think you ultimately want to pursue a career in academia/research, I'd add that the quality of PhD training is something else to consider alongside university reputation and supervisor relationship.

I have experience working both in post-92 universities with research ambitions (like Nottingham Trent) and in pre-92 research-intensive universities (like Nottingham).

In the post-92 institution where I worked, PhD training was overall fairly good but it didn't set students on a strong research career path. Things like aiming at lower-tier journals was standard (higher-tier journals were seen as too ambitious), national conferences were targeted more often than the main international conferences in the field, and students were encouraged to stick to safe, incremental research that won't rock the boat too much rather than pursue innovative lines of thinking. It all added up to even the best students having decent but not stand-out CVs on graduating.

At the research-intensive institutions, the culture has tended to assume that innovative research is good so long as it's rigorous, and it's normal for students to submit to top journals and conferences. It has meant that a mediocre student often ends up with a stronger CV than a top student would have had at the post-92 university.

YMMV, but if you're considering psychology depts in different universities, then take a look at what their PhD students are up to (they should have online profiles). Are they presenting at international conferences? Publishing in a variety of what are considered top-tier journals for the subfield? If not, then it's a red flag that the research culture of the dept/university might limit your ability to be competitive in the postdoc job market.

user7214743615 Sun 05-Mar-17 20:16:17

Make no mistake: academia is elitist (background of most is privileged), racist (two black senior academics in my field in entire U.K!), and disablist (I am in a minority of o e being deaf, and have faced assumptions all along).

I'm sorry that this is your experience in your field but it is simply not the case in all academic fields.

In fields such as mine, which are very international, it is just not true that UK posts are dominated by "privileged" people. It is unfortunately true that women and those with disabilities are in the minority - but not through direct discrimination, mainly due to the fact that there are so few posts and people have to be willing to move, hold off on having families and so on.

I do think, though, that if you are mediocre or even quite good but rather plodding as a PhD, you definitely won't stand a chance.


And you have to look at the statistics and be realistic. My own institution is one of the best in the world but only a very small fraction of our own PhD students will make it in academia. Don't assume that you will be in the successful 5% or 10% or whatever it is for students from your institution - have backup plans.

PerpetualStudent Sun 05-Mar-17 20:28:16

take a look at what their PhD students are up to (they should have online profiles). Are they presenting at international conferences? Publishing in a variety of what are considered top-tier journals for the subfield? If not, then it's a red flag that the research culture of the dept/university might limit your ability to be competitive in the postdoc job market.

This is excellent advice. I'm in the final year of my PhD at a Russell Group uni, well known supervisor, ESRC funding and so support from the DTC at my uni, but my actual department is awful. Next to nothing in the way of teaching or RA opportunities, no ambition or support for students (was told I couldn't have funding to deliver a paper at the largest national conference in my field because "first years don't do conferences" and the research training was a joke.

I did my MA here too and loved it, thought it was the centre of the universe. I don't regret doing my PhD here, but do wish I'd looked at the department with more of an eyes towards what benefits a research student...

PerpetualStudent Sun 05-Mar-17 20:29:59

Excuse typos - I blame the poor training! wink

Godstopper Sun 05-Mar-17 20:42:47

Yes, being prepared to move and postpone certain life events is a given. My field is philosophy. Things are slowly changing, but there are toxic aspects that I've seen drive super talented people out.

LRDtheFeministDragon Sun 05-Mar-17 21:33:57

Most things have been covered, but one thing - you mention what you live on for 3 years. In my field, completing in 3 years is quite rare. It might be different in yours. Certainly, I don't know anyone who completed in three years who went on to an academic job - the only people I knew who were that fast, had cut out all the extras like presenting at conferences and writing papers, so of course they were quicker, but they wouldn't have been employable, because the thesis bit of a PhD is only part of what you're meant to do if you want to get an academic job afterwards.

So that is worth thinking about too. Financially, it's horrible.

So, I would say, look at the financial opportunities wherever you apply. Obviously you need funding, but also see if the department is good at getting their students teaching, or if they regularly find fourth years part-time work while they write up, and similar. My university got me part-time teaching in my fourth year and it was a godsend.

HilairHilair Mon 06-Mar-17 08:34:54

My question is, does the calibre of university come into it? So say, Nottingham uni vs. Nottingham Trent?

In my field, yes indubitably. You need to be supervised by the best in the field. In most fields they won't be at places such as Nottingham Trent.

Thing is, the post-92 universities were formerly polytechnics. They weren't funded for research. And you don't create a research culture by simply renaming polys as universities. You need a depth of research knowledge and research culture, and a place that attracts the best.

MarasmeAbsolu Sun 12-Mar-17 22:12:03

science here - my sub-field is beyond snobby for institutions.
However, things are changing fast (RG unis not always delivering best training with the DTCs, for example) - I'd focus on finding the best supervisor possible.
check with their current students: do they get regular, meaningful one-to-one supervision? regular feedback? do they attend conferences? are they winning prizes? [are they happy!?]
Is the supervisor either a recognised researcher, or on her/his way to become one (if more junior)

lekkerkroketje Fri 17-Mar-17 11:35:40

If you're brave, try looking abroad. The Netherlands for example has excellent English speaking universities (e.g. Leiden), pays around 30,000 per year and includes pensions and maternity leave. Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany are similar. Doing my PhD outside the UK was the best decision I ever made.

Your supervisor should know people in other countries so that if you see a job advertised they can advise you if the supervisor is a nut case. If your current supervisor doesn't know international people in your direct field, I'd suggest not even thinking about doing a PhD with them because that implies they're not very up-to-date or good at networking. Your PhD supervisor is highly likely to get you your next job through recommendations and knowing who has money available, so someone who knows everyone is an asset. On a similar note, ask around about anyone you're interested in working with, because people's reputations travel e.g. he sleeps with his students, she never reads emails, he dumps all his teaching off on PhDs, she's brilliant at getting students to finish on time etc...

On a similar note, ask how much travel money there is. You want to be able to attend international conferences and not have to stay in a shit hole while you're there. If you can't travel no one will find out about your research and you will struggle to get your next job.

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