So, you want to do a PhD?

(Warning: the following contains large amounts of personal opinion masquerading as facts, liberal quantities of prejudice and a highly judgemental tone. Please prepare yourself for disagreeing with every word.)

Why would you do that to yourself?

No, seriously, you really need to answer that question. Why do you want a PhD at all? OK, I’ll give you the right answer straight away and then explain why I think the others are wrong. The right answer is that you want train in a new profession, that of the academic researcher. You want to spend at least a proportion of the rest of your life earning a living by undertaking research – even if you spend the rest of it as a teacher, a clinician or as another profession. A PhD is a professional training, just as medical training qualifies you to be a doctor or driving training qualifies you to drive. They train and license you for an activity you intend to undertake. If you don’t want to be a professional academic researcher – don’t do a PhD. At least, don’t approach me to be your supervisor.

The wrong answers include:

  • I have my Bachelor’s degree and my Masters, this is next. No, it’s not. Education from the age of 5 to 21 in the UK may now be an escalator that seamlessly takes you up towards some distant height. Up to 21 you can be forgiven for mindlessly allowing the machine to transport you onwards. But a PhD is not part of your general education and preparing for life ahead. It’s a professional training you go through after you have selected a particular career, not a way of postponing that decision.
  • It’s a way of capping off my professional career. If you work as a therapist or other health professional you may have gone through various steps of pre- and post-registration training. You are aware that some (high status) professions get called ‘Dr’ as soon as they qualify. Others have this as a badge of honour for a few senior members. Some professions have few or no people with a PhD and scarcity equals value, right? No, a PhD is not the end point and pinnacle of an old career, it’s the basic entry point for a new one. Your excellence and experience as a clinician do not necessarily ready you for a research career – in fact they might have ossified your thinking and attitudes to the point that a PhD is impossible.
  • I want to increase my earning capacity/get a promotion in my current job. Bwahahahahahaha!!!!
  • I want to prove that [insert intervention of choice here] is effective. You don’t need to do a PhD. You already know that your intervention is effective and no evidence that you might turn up to the contrary is going to persuade you. You need a course in marketing or public relations instead.

OK you’ve convinced me your motives are pure. What next?

You need a research area and a research question. Many people confuse the two. “My research question is around the practice of cranio-sacral ear-candling.” No, that’s your area or topic. A question has a question mark on the end of it and ideally needs a word with the letter W in it somewhere. Who? Why? When? How much? Where? If your topic is as given, your research question could be any of:

  • How effective is cranio-sacral ear candling in improving symptoms of the common cold?
  • How do patients experience  cranio-sacral ear candling and how could it be made more acceptable?
  • Who elects to undertake  cranio-sacral ear candling and why?
  • Is  cranio-sacral ear candling superior to a tinfoil hat in preventing bad dreams?

Do YOU really want to answer this question?

Some people bring the question they think they ought to ask, or that will attract the funding, or that others will think is worthwhile. Bugger that. You must choose a question that you passionately want to know the answer to. Sooner or later if you do a PhD you will have a long, dark night of the soul where you wonder why the hell you ever started this. Having a question you are really committed to will make the night shorter and lighter. Answering someone else’s question may make the night endless.

Is your question capable of a surprise answer?

The best question to ask is one that you genuinely don’t know the answer to and ideally have no preferred answer to. If you love swimming with dolphins you’ll have a lot invested in a question like “Does swimming with dolphins improve the human immune system?” You can do your best to stay neutral on this one, but a better question would be one where you don’t care about the answer one way or the other, such as “What are the effects of swimming with dolphins and how long do they persist.”

We found a question before we discussed a method? Congratulations!

Some people roll up already knowing the method they want to use. “I’d like to do a set of interviews to establish the effectiveness of this diagnostic test” or “I want to survey 1,000 medical students to understand their experience of medical training.” The general methodology and the precise method (don’t get these confused, please!) are selected on the basis of the kind of question you want to answer. Don’t bring your preferred method in search of a relevant question to answer.

Can I do this PhD part-time over the next six years while carrying on my full time job and bringing up a family?


Hang on, is that all you have to say on the matter?

OK, sorry I was flippant – but the answer is the same. A PhD is meant to equate to three years of full time work. You just can’t do enough work, collect enough data and write enough material in less time. And squeezing it in round a full time job and/or childcare responsibilities is a recipe for failing in all areas and/or mental/family breakdown. I have supervised PhDs (usually by inheriting them from colleagues) that have taken 6 or 7 years or more in this fashion but I’ve never yet supervised one to a successful completion. You really need a supportive employer and/or partner and/or to be young (or old), free of responsibilities and able to live on very little. Ideally, a Fellowship from somewhere like the NIHR would be ideal for health professionals in the UK. These are very competitive but give you full salary support for the full three years at your existing grade. People get them (I got one and I’m supervising someone else who got one) so don’t write it off. Easier to get are University studentships such as these from my own University. Most universities offer them and they come onstream in about November with closing dates from January to April for an October start. Studentships pay your fees and give you a stipend of about £14,000 a year for three years. Hardly a king’s ransom but if you can survive on it or have other support, better than nothing. Register with and select the PhD studentships button to get details of these in your email. But if you haven’t thought about the reality and practicality of how you will do three years’ full time work, you’d better consider it now.

Do I need a Masters degree?

Not necessarily. I didn’t have one when I started my PhD but I had published research from my OT training, and my BSc, and from clinical practice. That was enough to persuade the department and the funders that I had the potential. If all you have is your undergraduate degree and/or professional training that’s probably not enough. You need to do some research or ideally get a research training via a Masters degree. Not all MSc or MA degrees are research-heavy. A good route is the NIHR Clinical Academic Training route but all universities will offer some kind of research Masters teaching; my department’s version is here.

OK, enough sarcasm. Where can I get some advice that’s actually helpful?

How to get a PhD is the classic book. Buy it, read it (especially the chapter called How not to get a PhD) and then read it again every semester. And if all the above hasn’t put you off me completely, then by all means contact me too. I promise I am nicer in the flesh or on the phone than I am in print.


3 thoughts on “So, you want to do a PhD?

  1. This is really interesting Kim. I am about to put in my PhD proposal. Just finishing my MA dissertation. Have published and researched before. Start of a new phase of my life and building on the old one. I know it is going to be hard. Letting go of other things. But I am committed and determined. Hope all is well with you 🙂

  2. I’d add the following. You will need a supervisor to oversee the PhD. Ask around about that potential supervisor. Ask current PhD students, ask the postdocs, ask the staff, ask the undergraduates how that person teaches. Because if everyone says that potential supervisor is a nightmare then run a mile and find someone else.

    I never met my supervisor before I started my PhD (we interviewed over the phone) but I did ask a lot about him and what people had to say. I am glad to say that I have a wonderful supervisor, and during those long dark soul searching moments that’s been the thing that’s made me keep going.

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