“Where do I go for my PhD?” How to make that important decision.

While many of you blog-followers might already be enrolled in your doctoral studies, some of you may be contemplating a PhD in the near future (and have been reading our posts to evaluate whether it’s a good idea or whether you should totally rethink this option!). Choosing a PhD position is a really big decision; not only would you be dedicating a number of years to yet another degree, but you are also making a series of choices — a program, a university, a city and a supervisor – in one shot. Some of us are careful planners, while others are more impulsive, so it’s fairly certain that we won’t all approach this decision in a similar way. However, I thought I’d share my own thought process and the criteria I carefully considered back when I was deciding which PhD program to join.

I should mention, first, that I am a pretty analytical person, and I do things systematically and methodically. Paradoxically, however, I am also just as impulsive and emotionally-driven as I am analytical! So, you will sometimes find me devising carefully planned pro/con lists and taking 16 days to make a decision, and other times you’ll find me “going with my gut” and arriving at a decision in less than 3.2 seconds. My PhD decision was the fruit of a systematic, rational pro/con list, many conversations with well-informed people, and a few days spent on my own, so that I could honestly listen to the voice inside my head – and, yes, also my gut.

You can create your own pro/con lists or buy a pack of these ones made by Knock Knock.

1.     PROGRAM

The choice of program is very important to consider. Try to gather up as much information as you can about it, both when you decide to apply, but especially when you are making your decision. Don’t be ashamed to ask lots of questions!

  • Does it have the structure (or lack of structure) you want? e.g. Is it course-based? Or is it mostly independent research work?
  • What is the workload like? What are the Comps requirements? What are the proposal requirements?
  • What kinds of responsibilities would you have other than your actual PhD project? Would dividing your attention between tasks other than your research be something you like, or don’t like?
  • Would you HAVE to teach (e.g. for funding)? Could you teach if you wanted the experience?
  • How big is the program (how many students, Faculty)?
  • What kinds of resources are there at your disposal (labs, possible collaborations, workshops and talks)?
  • How long do students typically take to graduate? Are you okay with this range?

Talk to current students about the program’s requirements and structure. Also talk to the Graduate Program Director if you have any additional questions, or be sure to read through the program’s guidebook, if there is one. Weigh the pros and cons (because there will likely be some of both!) and try to decide how important each factor is to you, and weigh your different PhD options accordingly.

2.     SUPERVISOR

The choice of supervisor could not be more crucial! (And, if you don’t realize it at first, you will definitely realize it when you’re in the process of your PhD.)

  • Who is the supervisor? How big an impact does he/she have on the field (collaborations, publications, etc). How good is his/her research (if you were to evaluate it critically, or examine the kinds of venues his/her work has been disseminated in).
  • What kind of research agenda does he/she *currently* have and how do your interests fit into this agenda? It is really important to know whether your interests line up with this potential supervisor’s interests and plans. It would be unrealistic to want to work on X while your supervisor works on Y and Z. It would be in your best interest if your supervisor is able to contribute significantly to your topic! Otherwise, you might consider being co-supervised. Of course, this factor might matter more if you know what you want to work on before you enter the PhD. If you don’t mind jumping in on a project that he/she is currently conducting and that you are interested in, then that’s possible too.
  • Do your personalities mesh? To get a sense of this, you really have to communicate back and forth with the potential supervisor, and absolutely meet in person to talk! Do you have a similar work ethic and expectations? For example, does he/she work crazy long hours and expect you to do the same? Does he/she believe in holding regular meetings with students, or is the kind of Prof. that rarely meets with you? Importantly, does this style fit with your needs? Consider whether you are very independent or whether you need guidance. Find out as much as possible how similar or different you are in your personalities and expectations.
  • Find out what his/her concrete plans are. Will he/she be away on sabbatical during your PhD?
  • How involved would you get on projects/activities outside your regular workload? If you would like to be part of other projects, would this be possible with this supervisor?
  • Does he/she believe in pushing you to go to conferences and to publish papers?
  • Find out the dynamics of the lab. How many other students does he/she supervise? Is there a lot of teamwork and collaboration? Do people get along and hang out from time to time? Ask students what their experiences are like and what they like or don’t like about the program and supervisor.

3.     FUNDING

Ah, the inevitable moola factor. Funding is absolutely important to consider because, even if we don’t necessarily think so at first, it does make a huge impact on our qualify of life, level of stress and, consequently, our work.

  • Do you have funding opportunities there? Through the program? The supervisor? Awards you could apply for?
  • Does your supervisor have a good attitude (proactive, helpful, “on the ball” with letters and deadlines) towards getting you funding, or would you be totally on your own about tracking down funding opportunities?
  • Do you have your own funding (this adds flexibility in your decisions and is a real blessing!).
  • How long do you have until your funding runs out? Could it be renewed?

Try to find out what your options are, both at entry-level and for at least 4 yrs of PhD. This (unfortunately) has a large weight in your PhD though, luckily, sometimes funding opportunities arise during your PhD that you weren’t aware of at the start. So, do not be discouraged, but just be informed!

4.     LAB and SPACE

This may apply more in some disciplines than in others. In a scientific field, I considered this to be quite important.

  • What is the lab like? Is the equipment up to date?
  • Do you have access to other labs or tools if you need it (equipment, software, etc)?
  • Are other students in the lab trained in whatever technique you will be using, or just the supervisor?  Consider whether there is a network of people you could turn to, or who could train you on various skills. This can be important in a situation where your supervisor becomes unavailable for a given period of time, and he’s the only one that can teach you. This could cause a bottleneck effect, if the post-docs or PhDs cannot train each other and share their expertise.
  • What is the workspace like? Would you have your own space and computer? Do you see yourself working there and conducting experiments there?

5.    WILL I LEARN AND WILL I GROW?

This was an absolutely crucial factor for me in my decision. I compared PhD programs based on how much I thought I would gain from them, and found myself leaning more towards the programs where I would be pushed considerably outside my comfort zone, rather than continuing with what I’d become familiar with during my B.Sc and M.Sc.

I considered the program’s workload and evaluation (as mentioned in factor 1), but also how much this added to what I had previously been doing. One program’s evaluation was based on multiple-choice exams at every term. I was afraid this would not be enough for me. I knew I needed to write papers and improve my oral presentation skills, and that I would learn more in a program that placed a heavy emphasis on these skills.

I also considered the “depth” of whatever knowledge I’d be getting. I didn’t choose an interdisciplinary PhD program for this reason – I really wanted to specialize in a topic or technique, and although this would build on what I was interested in all along, it would do so in a NEW way that would challenge me, and allow me to keep learning and growing. (However, because I do consider interdisciplinary work beneficial and interesting, I did choose an extra program requirement that was outside of my department. Again, try to find out concretely what your interests and needs are, and look to see whether the choice of PhD program satisfies these interests and needs.)

6.    INSTITUTION

Although I personally think the choice of program matters more than the name of the institution itself, the reputation of the institution can be important for some students.

  • What kind of degree will you get? Do other universities offer the same program, but in another department? Does this matter to you? (e.g. PhD in Medicine vs. PhD in Education).
  • What is the reputation of the institution? Does the perceived prestige or status of the university matter to you?
  • What feeling/vibe do you get at that University, on that campus, and in the department itself? You’re going to be spending a lot of time there, so it’s important to feel like it’s the right place for you!

7.     LOCATION

Location, location, location! There is truth in this cliché, at least for me!

  • If you are changing cities, is your new location a good location? A town where you would be happy to live for at least the next 5 years?
  • Is it safe? Is it affordable? Is there decent housing available?
  • Are you close to what/who matters to you? (partner, family, friends, pet, monument of choice, ocean, sports you’re passionate about, etc).
  • Would you have a nice life there besides your studies? Would you feel secure and inspired enough to have a balanced lifestyle? This might be hard to tell in advance, of course, also because it often is what YOU make of it. But the location should be a good fit for you.
  • If the location is not the greatest, for whatever reason, could this be overlooked because the program and supervisor is just awesome? Again, weigh the different pros and cons depending on your own preferences and needs.

If you feel good, whole and inspired, chances are this will be reflected in all that you do, including your work. A PhD is not only a choice of school program and temporary occupation, but a way of life. There are a lot of challenges to cope with, and lots of work. A balanced lifestyle helps maintain your sanity 😉 Location (and proximity to the places and people who matter) might help maintain that balance.

8.  FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES

This one could also be called “what is best for my career?”.

  • What doors would this choice open for you, for the future?
  • Would you be learning a valuable technique or working on a really cool research topic that would improve your chances of getting a job in the future?
  • Would you be collaborating with a “big-shot’ who could open doors for you?
  • Is the program renowned or prestigious?
  • Is your supervisor known for getting his students to publish a lot, and will this open doors for you?
  • If you were to accept a fellowship or scholarship by attending this program, would that fellowship title open doors for you later on?
  • How have the alumni been doing? Have they found a job or post-doc position quickly? Have they been publishing in good journals?

9.    WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK

Some students consider this as well. I heard some opinions while I was attempting to decide, but ultimately stayed true to my own thoughts and wishes. It is important to remember that you are the person committing time and energy to a PhD, so it is ultimately important to satisfy your own needs and wishes in this choice.

10.     THE GUT FACTOR

I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t have this “what does my gut say?” factor. It’s not at the bottom of the list, but apart from the whole list – something I consider in parallel.

Pay attention to your gut. It’s not everything, but it’s got a voice too. It gets a little complicated if your gut and your head disagree, but hopefully that won’t happen!

  • Is this what you wanted for a long time?
  • Did this acceptance letter make you smile or scream more than the others?
  • If you were to write your choices down on bits of paper and randomly pick one, which paper do you hope to unfold? If you’re (even mildly) disappointed by any other pick, then that’s your gut giving its two cents right there.
One of the steps in my PhD decision-making process

I realize this makes a ton of different factors and sub-factors to consider. But, as I said, not everyone cares about all these details, or at least not equally. Just think things through as best as you can, with all the information you could collect at hand. Eliminate the factors that are not important to you, and decide which ones matter most.

Ultimately, you can’t be 100% sure of anything in life and often you just have to take a leap of faith! A PhD is as much a degree in research as it is a degree in adaptability, patience, courage and tolerance of uncertainty! There’s no way of knowing if a decision was the best one, or not. All you could do is then make the best of it once your decision has been made. The summer before I started my PhD, just a couple of months after I had made my decision, I encountered a quote that says, “Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out”. I still love that quote.

If you are using the pro/con lists made by Knock Knock (as in the image above), I would only advise you not to consider this as a “dilemma” but a privilege. You are lucky to be in a position where you are able to pursue your studies and work on something you are truly interested in. Stay humble, but be confident in your excellent abilities and your decisions. No regrets!

Good luck making your choice, and in the PhD path that lies ahead.

3 thoughts on ““Where do I go for my PhD?” How to make that important decision.

  1. Very useful post, Kristina!

    Although an Internaitonal student would not have all this information available even if they wanted it, but I am going to refer some people to this post. 🙂

    Like

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