How I Became a PhD Student

by Jessica Day

So, whatever stage you are at in your undergraduate or postgraduate study (or, as can be the case, working career), the route to becoming a PhD student can take a variety of forms. And, as is often the case, this route will also have as many lows as it will highs. Yes, the truth is, becoming a PhD student isn’t easy. The chances are, no matter how sure you are of the originality of your ideas or your passion for your subject matter, you will have days where you question how exactly it is you will get to that “ impossible there.” But, the key is, to just keep going- as the whole process, from start to finish, is worth it. As with every setback, be it (what feels like) a wasted day sat staring at a blank computer screen or the feedback of an unsuccessful application, your ideas and, most importantly, you, get stronger. And, although I cannot provide a map of answers that will ensure you reach the end point and finally enrol as a PhD candidate, I can offer some hints and tips after my own very scenic, and bumpy journey of how to become a PhD student.

Yes, my own journey was not quick- it took over a year and half and two PhD applications until I received the email saying I’d done it and would undertake a funded PhD. But, no matter how long it takes, as everyone’s experience is different, in retrospect I can now see how and why I needed to have certain setbacks. Every hurdle you face in the application process is necessary, as it is in overcoming these you’ll be able to begin your PhD knowing what it is exactly you are going to start researching and why. Yes, the first part is deciding this- what are you going to focus your research project on and what research questions do you intend to answer? And, although this sounds simple, the more in depth you think about your research focus and consider the rationale for your work, the more likely you are to be accepted for doctoral study.

Whilst I began my first proposal thinking I knew what it is was I wanted to research, it wasn’t until I contacted a possible supervisor at the institution that I was applying for that I realised perfecting a PhD proposal would take more than two-three drafts. But, this was one of the most important steps: gaining insightful, critical feedback from other academics within the field and/or who I may work with in the future. The first step of becoming a PhD student should therefore be to answers to the following questions in a proposal: What will your research focus be? What methodology will you use and why? What impact will the research have or contribution will it make? Do you have a provisional plan of how the PhD will be structured? And, whilst all proposals are provisional ideas of what could happen, be affirmative and show confidence in yourself and the work by saying what the project will do.

Then, the second step should be to seek feedback and advice from as many (relevant) academics as possible. And this doesn’t have to just be senior academics, advice from and communication with other current PhD students can be as useful and supportive as anyone’s. In fact, I’d recommend this as a staple ingredient to the PhD journey: network and make friends with students who’ve just been through or know what you are experiencing. Not only can they offer invaluable intellectual advice and become useful contacts, but you’ll find most will be willing to provide emotional support and guidance. If unsure on how to do this, attend an event or enter a forum which other postgraduate students participate in. Conferences or symposiums often attract many postgraduate or early-career researchers who, like you, are developing their ideas, so don’t be intimidated to attend one just because you’re not undertaking a PhD yet. Plus, if feeling confident, throw yourself in the deep end and apply to speak, as the experience will also enhance your academic profile.

After getting through the proposal phase, the next stage is the interview. Whilst knowing your research focus is evidently an important aspect of the interview process, so is having a good understanding of the current trends and “lingo” within academia. Before a PhD interview, familiarise yourself with what is currently going on within the school you’d be working within but also higher education more generally. Of course, knowing what modules or extra research activities are currently taking place within the school will be useful if and when you begin to talk about the prospect of what you’d add as a teacher etc. But, from my experience, being able to talk confidentially about such topical issues as the REF (research excellence framework); significance of Open Access, the impact narratives of research projects; and wanting to become an associate fellow of the Higher education academy were all useful in showing that you’ve done your homework. If unsure on how to become familiar with these, the best thing I’d recommend is not just to google them but to look at the accounts of academics on social media and or on academic blogs. (The two I’d recommend would be Martin Eve’s or Nadine Muller’s).

Finally, have faith. The chances are if you are prepared to dedicate another three years plus to the development of your education, someone somewhere will recognise this attribute and your passion. And, if it’s not the first person or place you want it to be, don’t let this determine your next move in the wrong way. It will happen, and when it does its not nearly as daunting as you think- it’s actually quite enjoyable.

(For more advice on answering these questions and putting together a proposal, see Nadine Muller’s ‘Writing PhD Propoals’ blog: http://www.nadinemuller.org.uk/guides-to-academia/writing-phd-proposals/ ).