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Does anyone have experience/knowledge of PhDs?

(44 Posts)
RunRabbit Mon 03-Feb-14 17:07:57

I really want to do a PhD.

I got a 2:1 in my Psychology degree 2 years ago. I know I want my research to be in the child development area but cannot think of a specific area/question to do my proposal on.

I'm happy to self-fund but I feel like I've already wasted 2 years hemming and hawing over this.

I bought some books on PhDs but they're more about what PhDs are about, how to write them up etc. None of them talk about coming up with a proposal question.

How do I choose a specific area, and come up with an original question?

ProfondoRosso Mon 03-Feb-14 17:13:04

I'm doing a PhD in French, RunRabbit. smile

The absolute best thing to do is identify which university you'd like to study in and which members of staff might be suitable supervisors for you (check out their research areas and publications on their department website). Send them an email, ask to meet them and they will hopefully be able to help you figure out the right way to go.

I wouldn't dream of choosing which direction to take or trying to formulate a research question without doing that first.

Don't worry about bothering them. Yes, academics are busy but they want good, enthusiastic researchers who will bring money into the department!

PlumpPartridge Mon 03-Feb-14 17:16:59

I did a PhD.

Why, exactly, do you want to do one? Passionate interest in your subject is all well and good, but will it help you professionally? Also, I have never met a PhD student who didn't go through a long dark tea-time of the soul at one point or another mind you we did bloody bloody biology where nothing f*ing works. Do you think you could cope with that?

Academics do love enthusiasm so don't worry about 'bothering' people.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 03-Feb-14 18:07:41

I have a PhD, not in psychology. There are a fair few people on here who supervise PhDs and they will give you loads of advice.

The first thing that occurs to me, though, is that you might want to do a masters first? I know you're happy to self-fund, but because of the way funding is set up these days, lots of people do a masters first, and it's a really good way of working out what you really want to study. Some are taught and others are research, but even a 'taught' masters would include a dissertation. It'd just give you that bridge between undergrad and PhD.

The same advice about emailing academics applies, though.

RunRabbit Mon 03-Feb-14 18:42:54

LRD Doing a Masters is plan B. If I get don't get accepted for a PhD I plan to do a Masters and network whilst at the University and see if I can to do a PhD that way.

But I don't want to waste more time by going down that route first.

Plump Why, exactly, do you want to do one?
I want a career in academia and I love research rather than the clinical treatment side. Even if I don't get a job in it straight away it can help me in a variety of professions until I achieve my career goal.

Do you think you could cope with that?
Yes, I've been told numerous times of the drop out rate and the soul sucking experience of doing one. But I know I can do it and I'm not one to give up so easy.

Profondo Should I contact all the staff whose interests I am interested in? (This makes me worried that they may talk to each other and find out I emailed all of them and think I'm not serious about working with them). Or should I contact the department head?

The other thing is I live in the North and I'm in the process of moving South, which is where I want to go to University and do my PhD, but everything isn't worked out. So not sure how easy it will be for me to make multiple trips just for meetings. (If I have to I will though).

MrsBright Mon 03-Feb-14 18:52:44

You'll need to do a Masters first. This gives you the research training and experience of more specialist study. Few if any credible Unis will accept you for doctoral research without one. And you certainly wont get any funding without one.

Go to and scroll down to the bottom of the page to 'Studentships'. There you will find advertised (from now until Easter) all sorts of funded Masters courses. Apply to as many as is realistic.

TheUnstoppableWindmill Mon 03-Feb-14 19:00:40

I second (third?) the Masters advice. I got my PhD funding (in a social science) when I saw a studentship offered for a specific project at the institution I was doing my Masters (part time) at. The funding came with the research question attached! I think this is becoming more common. The Masters is also a chance to get to know/get known by the right people in the institution (potential supervisors). My husband is currently trying this approach with a hard science and after one term of working hard and letting everyone know he'd like to move on to a PhD is already getting ideas and interest from supervisors.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 03-Feb-14 19:07:37

The other thing about a Masters is that if you want a career in academia, it will help you do the PhD more quickly and to do things like publishing and going to conferences during it, and that is important.

puddock Mon 03-Feb-14 19:09:07

Another one with a doctorate in a social science. Even when I did mine (turn of the century, she says, feeling ancient), pretty much all funding and placements were dependent on masters first. Some programmes have a one or two year Masters (M.St. / M.Phil) which sort of segues into the PhD, that can be a good way to go to feel out your topic area and potential supervisor first.
As well as academic staff, can you talk to some postgraduate students in child development area about their topic?

NotDavidTennant Mon 03-Feb-14 19:35:31

I have a PhD in psychology and now work in academia.

At this stage you need to have a topic you're interested in, but you don't necessarily need a specific question - in my experience many PhD students don't really get a specific focused research question until well into the first year. My advice would be to Google around your research area and find some people who could be potential supervisors, then get in touch with them to introduce yourself and discuss the possibility of doing a PhD.

As mentioned, a Master's can be useful but if you're self-funding you'd have to consider if you could afford an extra year of study. Another (albeit less common) route in is to work as a research assistant in your area of interest and move on to a PhD afterwards.

FairPhyllis Mon 03-Feb-14 20:21:37

I'm finishing a funded PhD in a social sciences field. You do need to do a Masters first - if you can get a distinction it will help you with funding seeing as you don't have a 1st. I also second the advice about (after the Masters) finding a paid studentship focusing on a particular topic. IMO having a position like this is better for integrating quickly with a research group and doing joint publications. I also don't recommend doing a PhD unfunded - whether you can get funding for the PhD is an indicator of what likely success you will have with finding a job.

Second the advice about emailing potential supervisors. Figuring out the best supervisor for you is a critical part of the process and worth spending a lot of time on even if it means you start a year later than you want to. You should also try to talk to current postgrad students at the institutions you are interested in.

However. You say that you want to do it because you want a career in academia. IMO nobody in the current HE job market should embark on a PhD unless they want to do it so much that it doesn't matter if they don't get a job related to it at the end of it all. The reality of the HE job situation is that there are nowhere near enough jobs to go round. The jobs that will exist are likely to be short, non-permanent contracts. If you get a job at the end of it, it will be because you were lucky, not because you were any better or any more dedicated than any other student. That is just how it is. Spend some time looking at how many actual jobs in your field come up each year and thinking about how many postgrad students there are (here's a rough idea: in my subfield, only one job came up in the UK this year).

Some universities have restrictions on how far away postgrad students can live from them.

UptheChimney Mon 03-Feb-14 20:55:12

Doing a Masters is plan B. If I get don't get accepted for a PhD I plan to do a Masters and network whilst at the University and see if I can to do a PhD that way.

Doing a Masters in most fields can't be a Plan B. You will rarely get a place on a PhD without a Masters. Certainly in the Humanities at a research-intensive university that's worth going to.

A 2, i in an undergraduate degree is no indication to a potential supervisor or her Department that you have the ability or the skills or the determination to undertake a PhD. A PhD is light years away from a bog-standard UG degree -- particularly if you didn't achieve a First.

So, look around at Masters programmes which will give you a grounding in independent research methods in the field in which you want to do your research.

UptheChimney Mon 03-Feb-14 20:56:22

But I know I can do it

What's your evidence for that?

RunRabbit Mon 03-Feb-14 21:35:47

How do you work out which Universities are 'worth going to'?

NotDavidTennant Mon 03-Feb-14 22:08:07

Here are the results for Psychology in the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. You can also search on that site for other subjects if Psychology is not the most appropriate to you.

You should be aiming for departments that have lots of 4s and 3s and not many 1s.

But you also should be looking on department websites to see what research topics they specialise in and how that matches your interests.

Snuppeline Mon 03-Feb-14 22:27:43

Waves to LRD - you finished your PhD then, congrats! I've been on a thread of yours "support for those doing PhDs" (sic).

With regards to OPs question I did a PhD after a Masters (taught but with research track). I also worked as a research assistant for my Prof. One of my colleagues went straight to a PhD after a BSc and really struggled. I would also recommend doing a Masters first.

Good luck!

creamteas Mon 03-Feb-14 23:09:42

To apply to my dept as a PhD student you have to have at least a merit at Masters and a developed research proposal.

Many students use their Masters research work as a pilot study, but more than that, the Masters studies more generally gives an understanding for the field from which a PhD proposal is developed.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 04-Feb-14 00:25:51

<waves back>

I did thanks - submitted last July, corrections finally in last week (!).

Snuppeline Tue 04-Feb-14 08:06:53

Delighted to hear it LRD! Hope the job hunt, if you are hunting, is going well also smile

<hands thread back to OP>

MrsBright Tue 04-Feb-14 08:14:13

Getting the networks etc is VERY hard work if you have anything like a partner/family. All the (optional) 'research community' stuff is in the evening or late afternoon (school pick-up time) and since the Dept is run by blokes with compliant wives they don't 'get' why this is an issue.

And a career in academia? If thats you reason for doing a PhD then stop right there. There are a tiny number of posts - and non-one is appointed to a lectureship straight out from a PhD. Best friend (acknowledged as best doctoral student in years) is still slogging through casual teaching hours and badly paid bits of research for academics whilst struggling with baby and partner with PND. He knows it'll be YEARS before he gets a teaching post and it wont be at that Uni to start with (far too grand). He's already 35 so is now wondering if the entire circus is actually worth it. Especially since junior teaching jobs involve being on all the crappy academic/management committees that no-one else will do any more, on top of a full teaching week, and evening meetings. Do a Masters and then a PhD but do it for something for a bit more thought out/realistic than 'a career in academia'.

UptheChimney Tue 04-Feb-14 09:44:17

How do you work out which Universities are 'worth going to'?

See, this question suggests to me that you're not yet ready to do a PhD. I think you need to look for a good Masters programme which will orient you towards the kind of research/professional knowledge and approach which will help you find the best place to do the Doctoral research you want to do.

* As someone says upthread, look at the RAE results -- but these are a snapshot of research activity from 2007, so you need to cross check against current Departmental activities.

* Doctoral funding is now organised via the Research Councils in collaborative "Doctoral Training Partnerships" or Doctoral Training Centres. Not all universities belong to these, as not all universities are research-intensive enough. So being part of a PhD training consortium is a sign of a place worth doing research at.

* What research work are you reading/have read for your UG degree? Whose work are you interested in? Who is doing this sort of work in a UK university (I'm assuming you're based in the UK) now?

* Read the THE and the Guardian HE supplement every week. Look for advertisements for studentships on other people's big research projects. Aim to become part of a larger research team: you'll have access to a lot more resources & opportunities.

* Ask your personal tutor in your current degree. Have you been to your university's information days about PG study? Go to other university's PG Open Days. Talk to people in the area in which you want to research. Talk to current PGs in the Department in which you did your degree.

_Other advice_: Start saving. Without a First you're likely to have to self-fund. You need a Distinction (or Merit at the very least) in a Masters to be in the ball park for Doctoral funding.

And if you want an academic career, as others say, you'll need to be prepared for the long haul. Just "wanting it" is not enough -- you need to be prepared to do a 1 year Masters, 3-4 years of a PhD, and some sort of Post-doc work for at least 2 years before you are in a position to be competitive for an academic post. I have a very talented junior colleague who did various post-doc roles for about 6 years before he was appointed to a permanent postat a decent (ie research-led) university.

UptheChimney Tue 04-Feb-14 09:44:59


LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 04-Feb-14 11:21:56

Thanks. smile It's getting embarrassing now, I've been 'nearly finished' for ages.

And OP, that is a big thing. I got a 2:1 too, so I'm not a snob about it, but it did mean I had to really prove myself. People do care. If you did get onto a PhD course without a Masters, which I know you sometimes can, in four years time you'd be applying for jobs. And on your CV, your last result would be a 2:1 at undergraduate.

If you could bump that up by, say, a distinction at your masters plus funding for a PhD (you get kudos for getting the funding), you'll look a lot better.

I know you're saying it's plan B and I know we're all saying the same thing, it's just the list of reason for it are so long, especially if you want a career in academia. If you didn't, a PhD on its own might well work fine, but if you want to get a job you're shooting yourself in the foot if you make your CV much less impressive than anyone else's. And the thing is, if you can do a PhD, you ought to be able to get a really good masters.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 04-Feb-14 11:22:38

*list of reasons.

I can spell, honest not.

RunRabbit Tue 04-Feb-14 15:10:21

How old was everyone, when you did your PhD? If you don't mind me asking

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