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Does it matter where you do your PhD?

(37 Posts)
HettyLou Sun 21-Apr-13 22:19:21

I plan to start a full time PhD in September and ultimately hope to pursue an academic career. I am torn between a distance learning offer from an excellent but far away university with experts in my chosen field or the local, respectable but not distinguished university that is 15 minutes from home (where I would have to compromise a little on my research focus).

Thinking ahead, will it matter to an academic career where I did my PhD? The Russel Group university vs the non-Russell Group university? My BA and MA are from top UK unis but I am now 40 with young children and am unlikely to move from the town where I live for many years to come. For this reason the local university makes career sense, but should I aim for the most well respected university I can get into? It seemed so important at undergrad level which university you got into, but is it the same for a PhD? Thanks.

(Also posted in Further Ed)

googlenut Fri 26-Apr-13 19:24:40

And if you do get a job you are expected to feel grateful and work all hours to be some kind of all singing all dancing individual. Academia has got itself in a right twist at the moment. It can be one of the most amazing and creative jobs but a lot of pressure as well.

HettyLou Wed 24-Apr-13 11:16:13

All excellent advice, thanks so much. Magrat, you've summed it up really, thanks.

I have really taken on board all the comments about the competitiveness of the post-doc environment and it is starting to sink in. I do want to do the PhD for its own sake; I've thought about it on and off for the last 15 years and feel its now or never. And if its for its own sake, the distance, RG opportunity is exactly the project I want. Tasmania, niminypiminy, Happyon, thanks very much for very helpful insights.

happyon Wed 24-Apr-13 09:22:07

Sorry, but I agree. Do the PhD if you can afford it for its own sake, but not with the expectation of a job. Things are very very grim in higher education and not looking likely to improve any time soon. I would also say go for he RG uni if you do go for it. It sounds like you want to.
Good luck!

niminypiminy Wed 24-Apr-13 09:05:49

HettyLou: I was on the interview panel not so long ago for a nine month fixed term appointment in my department. This job was to cover some leave, and had absolutely no prospect of leading to another job. Yet we still had fifty applicants, most of whom were well qualified to do the job. We ended up by interviewing five people who were the most brilliant of the fifty, who all had published work in referreed journals, done innumerable conference papers, and had got contracts for their first book. That, sadly, is the level of competition there is now.

Tasmania Tue 23-Apr-13 23:48:11

HettyLou Depending on what your field is... postdoc places are very, very competitive and also not very well-paid. If you really want to make a career in academia, you HAVE to be mobile. The ones I know of were even internationally mobile, and went to the U.S.A.

MagratGarlik Tue 23-Apr-13 23:41:07

To be honest, fwiw, I think you already know what you want to do. I might be wrong, but from your posts I'd say you are trying to convince yourself that the local university would not be a compromise, but actually you want the project with the distance university. In which case, do it.

There is lots of reasons not to do a PhD and you may not achieve a sparkling academic career, but maybe you will. You won't know unless you try it. The main reason I started my PhD was because I wanted to know I could do one. (The main reason I finished it was because there was no way I was going to give up).

Good luck whatever you decide.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 23-Apr-13 22:55:47

I know people who did do post-docs at the same university, so obviously it does happen.

To be honest, though, I don't think anyone at the moment ought to be starting a PhD and banking on getting a postdoc. So few people do. I'm sure there are brilliant people who are actually pretty secure - and it might be you're one of them. But I know so many people, lots at Oxbridge, lots at Russell groups, who have gone through the PhD and published and taught and attended conferences - done everything right - who are not getting jobs.

If you can only justify doing the PhD if you're 90% sure of getting a postdoc at the end, I don't see how it could work, no matter how you do it.

That is very doom and gloom, I know. I don't mean it to be - there are loads of reasons to do a PhD other than to get a postdoc at the other end - it's just really, really scary in the job market right now. I'll shut up now so the grown-up academics can say stuff.

HettyLou Tue 23-Apr-13 22:37:21

Thanks LRD, its very helpful. I've not had any first hand feedback on a distance-based PhD and its great to hear that it has been such a positive experience for you.

There is also the point made by you and others, that at some point I will have to up sticks and move where the (post-doc) opportunities are. The same reasons that prevent me doing that now (family, kids schools etc) are not going to go away. Is it very rare to continue post-doc in the university where the PhD was undertaken? I suppose I thought a few sacrifices now in order to study locally might help me work locally later on.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 23-Apr-13 22:18:13

How impossible is the teaching? Could you do it in a day?

If the university were able to schedule you classes for, say, 2pm it might be possible, and I supppose they might be able to - worth asking? Or if they couldn't promise, would it be impossible to go up once a week for a couple of terms?

If you think about it, it's only (probably) ten trips, some of which you could combine with supervisions, per year. That'd let you audit one class to learn how to teach, and teach two/three depending on how fast you completed - might that be enough?

Sorry if this isn't helpful.

HettyLou Tue 23-Apr-13 22:12:43

Thanks to everyone. I don't expect to see a supervisor as regularly as you might in a lab-based subject. My concern about distance learning is that it won't afford me the opportunities (such as teaching experience) necessary to have any hope of an academic career later.

My decision is complicated by the the fact that for the local, non-RG option, I will have to make significant concessions to adapt my research to the interests of the local supervisor. The distance-based supervisor fits my research interests exactly, but might not offer the career opportunities. That said, I believe both supervisors to respected in their own field.

MagratGarlik Tue 23-Apr-13 22:06:01

For my lab-based PhD done at very prestigious university and supervised by the best in my field, I know several people in the research group who didn't see him for the best part of 6 months. He was frequently out of the country giving talks, chasing money etc. We all knew if we wanted anything from him, we needed to catch him in the pub.

With my own PhD students (I got tenure at a different RG university), I had documented meetings with each student individually once a month and had an open-door policy for them the remainder of the time. I only had one-to-one meetings more frequently than that with students flagged as struggling. As a PhD student you are learning how to be an independent researcher, you have to be given some freedom to learn how to do independent research.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 23-Apr-13 21:38:08

tas - yes, but I think it might depend on the subject (as I said). If your subject is like teacher's, perhaps you were 'there' and the supervisor would have a lab or similar to go to where s/he'd expect you to be?

In my subject, I spend most of my time on my own in a library or on my own writing at home. I couldn't work in the department, nor could most of the other PhDs - we need to be either out doing field work (archaeologists) or in the archives/libraries. It's just a different set-up, I think.

So, I think for the OP it will depend what the subject is like.

My university is Russell group (just! grin) and I'm familiar with that and with Oxford (where I live), so I am fairly confident that I'm not being short-changed with more infrequent supervisions.

I do think it is really important to work out what the norm for the subject is, though. I know people who didn't realize that it wasn't normal for their supervisor to absent him or herself for months on end, and others who didn't realize it wasn't normal for the supervisor to insist on seeing drafts of every single conference paper before allowing the student to submit an abstract. Neither extreme is good news. Current students could probably give a prospective PhD student a good run-down, though, and I would think most would be happy to help if she got in touch and asked for some people to speak to at each place?

happyon Tue 23-Apr-13 21:34:58

Yes, who the supervisor is is key. Also how much financial support you can get from the university/department? Some places just have more money to go around for conferences, research trips etc...

I am an academic in the humanities and I see my graduate students around every 4 to 6 weeks, more if they need it. I think that's quite normal.

teacherwith2kids Tue 23-Apr-13 21:27:54

LRD - for my subject (lab based), contact with my supervisor was daily....they'd be snooping around at 8 pm checking up on who was still there [and commenting snottily on those who weren't]

Tasmania Tue 23-Apr-13 21:26:25


Really??? DH had daily interaction with his supervisor. All the PhDs pretty much lived in the department during the day (not many working from home). My friends all had daily interaction with theirs either... all at RG unis.

God, even at undergraduate level, I could see my professors / lecturers whenever I wanted (within reason) - again, a RG uni.

Highlander Tue 23-Apr-13 21:07:29

No, it'sthe reputation of your supervisor and the impact factors of the journals that you publish in.

Less than 2% of post-docs make it to a tenured academic post.

please make sure you have a plan B during your first post-doc.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 23-Apr-13 20:14:41

Once a week?! Jesus. Not in my subject, at least no-where I know of.

Once a month maybe.

I totally agree about support, I just wanted to say that this might be a differences-between-subjects thing. Nothing wrong with skype, either, IMO.

lljkk Tue 23-Apr-13 20:07:12

I will put forward another view which is an aspect of who:
Who will you get the most support from? Friend ended up with MPhil because her supervisor decided to stop supporting her, just couldn't be asked.

So many PhD students find their supervisors inaccessible in other ways. So if you find local supervisors with whom you can establish a good rapport then that is by far the best option; they will be both physically and socially accessible.

Go so far as to ask them what support they offer, how do they keep in contact. A good lecturer/etc. will often try to normally meet weekly with all their RAs/PhD students for social cohesion (coffee!), and individually at least once every 1-3 weeks, even if it's only 20 minutes. You will not get that feeding off each other's energy/enthusiasm/little bits of feedback from distance learning.

You drop off a draft copy of a PhD chapter in someone's pigeonhole you can see if they picked it up. You email it and it's easy for them to take ages to even get around to printing it out.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 23-Apr-13 11:21:26

Somehow, what with the fact you've not read the thread at all (the OP already has her undergraduate degree and is starting a PhD), and the fact your only other post has the same link, I think you're advertising and not a genuine poster.


Navdeep Tue 23-Apr-13 11:17:32

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

Tasmania Mon 22-Apr-13 23:10:18

If you aim for an academic career - then yes, WHO with is mega important.

If you decide not to go for an academic career, however, the typical "which uni" question is quite important...

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 22-Apr-13 10:49:25

Posted on your other thread. smile

louisianablue2000 Mon 22-Apr-13 00:32:03

I left academia after one postdoc (in the sciences) for a job in industry. Where I did my DPhil impresses customers more than who with or what in. I also have a permanent job, reasonable working hours, a generous benefits package and a supportive boss. Things that none of my friends who stayed in Universities have.

I read an interesting article that compared academic research to being a popstar. There are a lot of people chasing the glamourous jobs but most of them end up doing shitty jobs to make ends meet, only a few people get to be Brian Cox.

HettyLou Mon 22-Apr-13 00:13:44

Thanks Magrat. Please don't apologise, I need a reality check. I've thought a lot about how I would manage a PhD with two primary school age dcs, but very little about how I would manage an academic career in those circumstances, tied to schools and making sure the dcs don't lose out etc.

I have hated the culture of other areas I have worked in and left jobs because of it, but have only seen academia from a student's perspective. Your input is very welcome, thanks.

MagratGarlik Sun 21-Apr-13 23:58:56

I've read the advice on your other thread and have to say, I sat and nodded throughout. I was lucky, disc a PhD with a leading supervisor, leading university, got a postdoc straight away, followed by another and a permanent post 3 years after PhD. I am not a typical case there. I also left as I hated the culture of academia, and realised that with both dp and I as academics, the dc's were missing out due to excessive working hours (working till 3am was not unusual and I don't remember the last family holiday I had were I didn't take work with me).

Sorry, I'm sounding very negative. It's a fab job in many ways, but I wouldn't go back.

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