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Does it matter where you do your PhD?

(10 Posts)
HettyLou Sun 21-Apr-13 21:42:01

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?


creamteas Sun 21-Apr-13 22:29:34

The most important thing for a PhD is to have the right supervisors. You need to be to maintain a good relationship though good time and bad and they need to guide you into the right networks to become established.

So the right university is the one with the best supervisors for your project regardless of where they are.

The other thing to bear in mind that it is really competitive post-phd. For an entry grade lecturing job it is not enough to have PhD anymore. You will also need teaching experience with preferably a PGCE in HE teaching, and a track record in academic publishing and successful grant applications. Between the PhD and a securing a lectureship expect to spend a long time taking insecure research assistant/sessional teaching positions. Your track record in these will be as important as were you did your PhD

niminypiminy Sun 21-Apr-13 22:33:10

With a Phd there are several questions to ask:

Who is going to supervise you? Is there someone with expertise in your field, and how well known are they as a researcher?

How is the department (rather than the university) ranked for its research (look at the last RAE)?

Is the department known for doing the kind of research you want to pursue?

How many Phd students does the department have?

Does it have a good research culture? What kind of research environment can they offer Phd students? Do they have bursaries/other kinds of financial support?

In terms of research, the department is more of a key factor than the university as a whole. Depending on the subject an 'undistinguished' university may have a leading group of scholars in your field, whereas the 'distinguished' university may not. You need to do quite a lot more research.

The other thing I would say is that you need to be very realistic about your goal of becoming an academic. The reality is that having finished their thesis, most people will spend a while ekeing out a living doing part-time hourly paid teaching, trying to publish and make a name for themselves, before (if they are lucky) landing a fixed term contract job, which they will probably have to move for. For those who do eventually get a permanent, full-time job it is very likely that they will have to move several times, living away from their partner and/or family for part of the week.

I am talking about arts subjects here. The situation is slightly different in other areas. It would probably be a very good idea to try and talk to wherever you do end up applying to about career prospects for post-Phd, and how they prepare and support Phd students to prepare them.

BrienneOfTarth Sun 21-Apr-13 23:12:11

I've posted on your other thread too but just wanted to also second niminy here - if you are serious about an academic career you will need to up-sticks and relocate to wherever the opportunities are, no such thing as a distance-postdoc position. Having this dilemma at all suggests that you don't have that flexibility. It's just one of many reasons why women are under-represented in academia (the nasty backstabbing hateful culture of academia is another smile)

HettyLou Sun 21-Apr-13 23:53:34

Thanks everyone and apologies if the two identical thread approach is inconvenient! I wasn't sure where to post initially.

I am starting to get a picture from these comments of just how competitive post-doc life is and it is worrying because, as you say Brienne, I couldn't up-sticks and relocate.

Niminy, that's great advice to ask about how each supervisor/dept/uni might help prepare me for the post-doc environment.

Thanks Creamteas. I am starting to think that although the distance learning option is the 'better' university and would allow me to focus more directly on my specific interests, it would not offer me the teaching opportunities I will need and may mean I am too isolated from the research community.

Thanks again to everyone. This is really helpful and much appreciated.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 22-Apr-13 10:48:44

People who know a lot more about it than me have made important points on both your threads and I don't disagree ... but ...

I'm in my fourth year of my PhD and I've done the whole thing a four-hour commute away from my university. It was a really good way to do it and I strongly recommend it - so long as you push yourself hard to get a community of people around you. (And it will only work in certain subjects, obviously, but that's a given).

The positive side is that if you do your PhD the traditional way (which you're not anyway), starting out behaving a bit like an undergrad and getting to know other people on the course, it can take a while before you get pushed out of your comfort zone at conferences. If you don't, you have to treat it like a job and you have to get good at making contacts when you go up to your university, and at getting to know people in your local area too.

I've ended up with two research communities that feel like 'home', and that's really useful. Especially because I get to see how different universities do things. I actually attend seminars at two universities and friends I know have found lots of universities are very welcoming in this respect - if they're holding a talk, from their point of view, bums on seats to show the visiting speaker how popular they are, is a good thing!

The downside is that you have to have money and organization to get the teaching experience. You might be able to do it in a day's round trip if you're lucky, or you might get very familiar with the local youth hostel (or befriend people early on who have spare beds!). It is doable though. Same with training days. The thing I regret most is that I didn't go to more of those as all the ones I made it to were excellent.

Final point - yes, I know it matters far more who your supervisor is and whether the department is the right fit for you. But it is really obvious, in my field, that if you were at Oxbridge you are much more likely to land a JRF and finish in three years. There are also differences beween thesis lengths that matter if you're an arts student. At my university a thesis can be 90-100,000 words. At my friend's, it can be as little as 60.

Sorry, I'm rambling on ... I totally agree with others about the postdoc stuff, from where I'm sitting (in the middle of applying), the idea of not moving just makes no sense. But I did want to post because I think long-distance PhDs can be really good experiences.

TinyDiamond Mon 22-Apr-13 14:26:43

in a similar position so lurking

HettyLou Mon 22-Apr-13 16:44:28

Thanks LRD. Its good to read about a positive experience of long distance PhDs.

Ehhn Wed 24-Apr-13 23:38:57

I'm in fourth and final year of phd and it has been a bitter, ugly slog not helped by a supervisor who has gone on what seems to be permanent leave since she had a personal crisis (I'm at a Russell group uni).

Teaching has been the only highlight - so I second the idea that you want contact with a uni. Plus, if you get known in the local uni, you are more likely to pick up a position there. Contacts are everything as it is absolutely about who you know - you get asked to do things and it is pretty closed shop for positions and funding (which I admit that I have benefitted from), so being a local at your uni could work to your advantage.

HettyLou Thu 25-Apr-13 10:41:20

Thanks Ehhn, another useful perspective.

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