4 questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking about doing a PhD

Written by Jenny Sloan, Careers Consultant at The Careers Service

If you’re coming to the end of your master’s, you may be facing a dilemma about what to do next. Should you look for graduate jobs or consider pursuing a PhD? Both routes have pros and cons, and it’s important you make the right decision for you.

Here are four questions you should ask yourself, if you’re considering a PhD:

  1. Why do I want to do a PhD?

There are lots of reasons you may be interested in pursuing a PhD, from your love of research or passion about your subject, to wanting to become an expert in your field. It may be that the job you want in the future requires a PhD (or a PhD would be a significant advantage), for example academia, or scientific or advisory roles. However, PhDs are a commitment and it’s important to ask yourself, am I thinking about a PhD because I don’t know what to do next, because I can’t find a job, or because my friend is doing one? Check out our PhD pages to help consider your motivations for doing a PhD. You can also speak to current PhD students, alumni and academic supervisors and lecturers of PhD programmes. Have a look at how to find contacts on LinkedIn and The Manchester Network.

  • Do you have the skills to be successful during a PhD, or do you need to further develop them?

As well as technical knowledge, PhDs also require self-motivation, independent thinking, resilience and problem solving. As you will know from your undergraduate degree, 3-4 years is a long time to study a topic in depth, and with a PhD, your focus is much narrower. There will be times when you’ve lost confidence, passion or drive, or have hit an obstacle and feel unmotivated. It’s important to prepare yourself for the realities of doing a PhD, and making sure you’re equipped with the skills needed to preserve and succeed. Even if your master’s was taught rather than research focused, this doesn’t mean you haven’t used and developed your research skills throughout your master’s degree. Your dissertation may have included data collection and analysis, using qualitative and quantitative methods, critical thinking skills, as well as presentation and sharing of outcomes. These are all abilities valued both in PhD candidates, and graduate job applicants.

Indeed, even if you decide to apply for graduate roles after your master’s, it’s important not to underestimate the value of transferable skills. Master’s courses can require that you are able to learn about various topics in a relatively short period of time, often with less contact time and more independent learning than your undergraduate degree. Graduate employers will be interested in your advanced ability to plan and prioritise work, your problem-solving skills and your ability to use your own initiative. Undertaking a master’s dissertation is also a great example of project management skills.

Find out more about how you can gain and further develop transferable skills here.

  • What components would make up the kind of role you would enjoy?

Although it can be overwhelming to consider what your ‘dream job’ would look like, it can be helpful to think about what you want out of a role, accepting that your priorities will change as you navigate your career. Are you looking for flexibility or do you thrive with structure and routine? What about autonomy, being part of a team, creative control? Is location or salary more important for you? Do you want to specialise in a particular area or become a generalist? When you build a picture of the kind of role you would enjoy, do you research on these kinds of jobs. Explore the job market and look at job adverts to see what the requirements are. Do they require a PhD? You can use our Which career? pages, as well as Prospects job profiles, to further explore sectors and roles you’re interested in. Use LinkedIn to see what roles with people with PhDs in your agree have, and connect with them to build your network.

If you find that the roles you are interested in require knowledge in a particular area, think about how you can acquire that knowledge. Through a PhD you will commit 3-4 years during which you can also spend that time getting relevant experience (indeed, many PhDs are not funded, so you must be prepared to work on top of studying). However, there may also be graduate-level jobs you can do that will give you the research skills and knowledge required for this kind of role in the future, so it’s important to do your research. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or aren’t sure where to start, book a careers guidance appointment with a Careers Consultant to discuss your options.

  • If you decide on a PhD, do you want an academic career?

Ask yourself, is an academic career right for me? A PhD will offer you a more-in-depth opportunity to explore a subject, while also enabling you to further develop your critical thinking, independent working and problem-solving skills. After your PhD you may decide you want to stay in academia to pursue research, but you may also decide that you want to apply your research skills in a commercial, healthcare (if applicable) or charity setting.

Use our academic careers website to explore academic careers, assess your chances of making it to professor, and work out your next steps.  Think about which elements of your research you’ve enjoyed.

If you are an international master’s student coming to the end of your degree, there are other elements to consider. Remember to research the local labour market in the country you are considering doing a PhD, and check the regulations associated with doing a PhD in this country, to ensure you will benefit from access to the labour market after you have finished your PhD. It’s also important to look at the costs of overseas programmes and the visa rules associated with them. When looking at PhDs, see if your master’s degree will give you an edge, check if it’s relevant, and check that you can work in your chosen professional in the UK (if that’s what you would like to do).

You can find out more about doing a PhD here. The FindAPhD website is a great resource for researching the types of PhDs available, and you can find out more about applying for PhDs and funding on our further study and funding pages. You can also find more information on the sorts of graduate jobs you can do with your Masters here, as well Careers How To Guides specifically from a prospective perspective.

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