On Campus, Opinion

11th June 2022

Interviewing PhD Students On How They Found Their Ideal Postgraduate Opportunity

After university, many graduates choose to either enter the world of work or continue education into a Master’s degree. Though still very competitive, there aren’t many people talking about undertaking a PhD instead. This is another route a graduate can take after university in which you are conducting specialised research that contributes to a field of interest to you. It can be completed after a student finishes a bachelor’s degree, however, this is in rarer cases. Most students choose this route after finishing a Master’s and finding a particular field they enjoy.

I spoke to some incoming PhD students about why they decided to pursue a PhD after completing their Master’s degrees. Tom has just finished his Integrated Master’s degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and is about to start a funded Studentship. Megan is reaching the end of her Master’s in Philosophy and secured a PhD through alternative means and government grants, personally finding the perfect supervisors to help her in her own journey. They provided some very insightful information which could contribute to the journey of others who are considering a PhD to further their career.

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Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background and what is your PhD specialising in?

Tom: My background is in electrical engineering. My PhD specialises in something called ion mobility technology, which is quite a large area. Specifically, I am trying to build a miniature mass spectrometer that does not require a high vacuum.

Megan: I’ve been studying at the University of Liverpool since 2018 and achieved my First Class degree in Philosophy in 2021. I’m currently coming to the end of my MA in Philosophy. My PhD, also in Philosophy, starts in October this year, focusing on the metaphysical relationship between a mother and foetus and what this might mean for the way that we determine pregnancy rights. This follows on from the dissertation topic that I am studying for my MA which focuses specifically on the social implications of this metaphysical relationship.

Why did you decide to pursue a PhD?

Tom: I had done some research as a part of my undergraduate studies simulating electromagnetic radiation inside silicon micro-ring resonators that I went on to publish. It was this experience that made me consider working in research. After that, I went on to work in the University of Liverpool’s MicroAge research group. For this, I built bioreactor pathfinders for potential future missions to the International Space Station. This experience really sealed the deal for me.

Megan: One of my main reasons for choosing to pursue a PhD is because I found a niche and contemporary topic, which has just begun to make waves in the philosophical community which I also find incredibly interesting. My fabulous dissertation supervisor has also agreed to be my secondary supervisor next year. She really encouraged me to go for the PhD, as she thinks it is an interesting and worthwhile project. I also really like the research community in the philosophy department at UoL. This was also a factor for me when deciding to study for a PhD.

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Did you think about taking a different route after a Master’s, for example, a graduate job?

Tom: Yes. I was actually offered a job at a company called Phenutest designing fluorescent imaging systems, but in the end I took the PhD offer. This was really the only alternative I looked into as I had worked at this company previously and really enjoyed the working environment.

Megan: For a while I considered other things that I might be interested in. I definitely thought about being a teacher and I filled out an application to teach in France for a year. However, I ultimately decided that studying a PhD was a much better option for me. It allows me to further my academic career and still retains some teaching elements.

Can you tell us about the process you went through to get your PhD position?

Tom: I saw it advertised on FindaPhD.com and decided to submit an application. Afterwards, I was offered an interview which went really well and they offered me the placement. It was a fairly short process – maybe about one month between submitting the application and accepting the offer. It was quite straight forward and I received all the necessary information for a smooth transition into the role.

Megan: For me, it began with a conversation with both my academic supervisor and my dissertation supervisor who told me I had a potentially interesting project. I started working on a proposal and got into contact with my supervisor, as we shared similar research interests. He agreed that my initial proposal sounded promising and agreed to work with me. I had a great support network of staff. They helped me to complete all of the necessary parts of my PhD proposal and the application.

How much should someone know about a PhD before starting it?

Tom: I think the point of a PhD is that no one knows anything about the specific thing you are looking into. It’s very hard to generalise about PhDs, as each one is completely different. Some supervisors will want you to already know a lot about the specific field, however, others won’t care so much.

Megan: I would say that it’s important to know how you are going to fund the PhD. Will you be able to get a grant through a council or will you rely on a student loan? This will be key, so the sooner you figure it out, the less stressful your situation will be. Another thing to think about is how well the department and potential supervisors actually suit your research requirements. You don’t have to know absolutely everything about your PhD but you have to know that you have a topic that is going to keep you interested for the duration of your studies and that you are working in a supportive and fruitful department – get to know your peers as well! This will make all the difference.

How did you decide which PhD opportunities were best for you?

Tom: Whatever sparks your interest, honestly.

Megan: I looked around at other universities and other PhDs that were being offered but I ultimately decided that UoL was the best place for me as I know the department well. I feel very comfortable and supported here and have two great supervisors who share my research interests.

How much time has to be dedicated?

Tom: It’s a full-time job. The work will ebb and flow and you’ll be doing more work some times more than others. Generally, you should just treat it like a full-time job.

Megan: You have to put in a good deal of time writing a successful research proposal and filling in the application. The better your application is, the more you will be taken seriously. You have to prove that you are passionate and dedicated about your topic and that will show through how much time you spend on your initial proposal. Additionally, you have to spend time getting to know your academic supervisor – get to know their research interests, show them that you will be a good person to work with. The professional relationship you have with your supervisors will be key for your opportunities later on, so putting the time in from the start will definitely be helpful. Finally, spend enough time to make sure that you are absolutely certain that this is the path that you want to take.

Do you have any tips for anyone who’s looking to do a PhD?

Tom: PhD supervisors really want to see some independence and passion for the subject. For more technical subjects, personal projects look great on your CV and anything you’ve been able to publish looks even better. It shows an aptitude for research. Also, always bring a PowerPoint showcasing your skills to your interview. Even if they don’t ask for one.

Megan: Look around and make sure that the PhD is the best choice for you. Talk to as many potential supervisors as you can, see who you are clicking with the best! Networking is key! Going to conferences / academic events is a great way to meet people who are working in your field, and also to learn new things and gain new perspectives about your topic! Talk to as many people as possible, and carry a notebook with you wherever you go!

Do your research…

Doing a PhD is not to be taken lightly. A PhD can close just as many doors as it can open, so deciding to go ahead with one is a big decision. If you’re considering a PhD, make sure you do your research before committing to one and make sure it is the right career path for you. Though they can be extremely competitive, PhDs can be great opportunities to show your commitment to your field of interest. They can be great in moving forward for careers in academia, as well as research and development and other areas specific to your PhDs field.

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