Steps to PhD success - a quick guide to finding your PhD pathway

Written By

Think Postgrad

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you finish your PhD faster?
  • How to choose the right PhD subject?

A PhD is recognised by many as the ultimate academic qualification, and its the mark of an individual's steps to success

A PhD, or to give it's full title 'Doctor of Philosophy' carries a mystique, symbolising the academic ‘best of the best’.

People acknowledge the importance of a PhD. It is an achievement within the reach of most people who show a dedication to study with an aptitude for research.

Does a PhD make a difference to the individual in the long term?

Government statistics clearly show that people who achieve a Masters degree or PhD can look forward to increased earnings. This is more apparent among the 36 to 45 age range. Setting an academic achievement goal is a positive step, and helps us put our lifestyle decisions into context.

You will consolidate a career in a sector or specialty with the help of a PhD.

The number of students undertaking a Research Degree in the UK has been steadily growing over the past five years, and stands at 19.26% of the 585,000 individuals engaged in study at masters level and beyond (figures for 2018/19).

Deciding if a PhD is the right thing to do is your first step. Here are some ideas to think about, and after that you can make up your mind if a PhD is right for you.

Firstly, take time to look at all your options

  • How does a PhD fit with your current situation - family, financial, health etc?
  • Are you prepared to spend three years to seven years on a PhD (if you are studying part time?)
  • Are you the type of person that relishes academic research?
  • Did you enjoy your degree? Or was it a bit of a slog?
  • Are you prepared to take all the steps to PhD Success?

Try to picture yourself in the future. A PhD will benefit your career in your chosen field, and in addition it will help you to grow as an individual.

Does your motivation suffer at times? Distraction is perfectly common. Having good strategies for dealing with any knocks along the road will be important.

Was it a well-meaning professor’s suggestion that you would make an ideal PhD candidate? Perhaps they said this out of concern that you don’t know what to do next?

Academic Tutors can spend a lifetime in academia, accumulating more letters after their name than in it. Few PhD students start a research journey with complete confidence, let alone all the answers.

Remember the steps to PhD success. The journey of self-discovery is a part of the academic experience you will go through.

Secondly, choose the right subject

For many students, it is the satisfaction they achieve from university study that leads them towards the path of a PhD. Your Masters experience will prepare you for further study, and above all it will give you the motivation to succeed in the future.

The decision to ‘stay on’ and pursue their masters and ultimately PhD is a simple one. Above all the university has to offer the right kind of facilities and support.

PhD student Danielle shared her experiences with us in a post.

Many international students study a PhD in the UK. At Postgraduate Studentships we advertise the most popular funded research opportunities and studentships.

Universities organise their PhD research within a Doctoral College, or specialist Research Centre. This is a self-contained department equipped with the resources to undertake your research. The facilities will be invaluable in your steps to becoming a PhD, and in addition the training you are offered will help you in your chosen career and beyond.

The University of Sussex website includes an example of the typical support offered to PhD students. The Doctoral College provides training in research skills, time management, organisation, planning and delivering presentations.

Thirdly, decide on the type of PhD programme you want to apply for

Two types of PhD are the most frequently offered at UK universities. The third type is known as a Professional Doctorate (e.g the DBA). A Professional Doctorate is usually related to areas of business practice, for example management, marketing or human resources.

Advertised PhD Studentships

The leading research-intensive UK universities bid for research funding each year, mainly in the fields of science and technology. These contracts are worth £millions, and they are highly coveted. They elevate the prestige of the university by attracting the world's top professors and academic researchers. They bring very important sources of funding into the establishment and by doing so they raise the University profile.

Bids made in conjunction with major pharmaceutical or manufacturing companies will capitalise on the expertise of the university. Companies that invest in research know how important it is for business competitiveness to remain at the forefront of their sector. Charities such as Cancer Research UK, for example are set up as partnerships between the universities and the fundraising operations.

Here is an example of a successful partnership between industry and the University of Leeds and how this has made a difference to PhD student Dale.

Government funding supports university research, therefore many advertised PhD studentships concentrate on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths/ Medicine) subjects. These include a stipend as part of the PhD project, which is an additional living costs grant for the successful PhD candidate.

The main awarding body for Doctoral Research and Training is the UKRI, and the National Minimum Doctoral Stipend for 2020/21 is £15,285, topped up by an additional cash grant.

Self-funded PhDs

PhDs in Social Sciences follow the same process as STEM subjects. PhDs undertaken in the Social Sciences are every bit as relevant to society. They contribute to the economy and new knowledge. Papers attract scrutiny by peer-review for publication in academic journals or conference proceedings.

Universities that offer PhD Studentships in the arts and humanities have a fixed number of places that they can support each year. The criteria for selection can sometimes be based on a competition, however this depends on the amount of research activity that the University undertakes.

Researching a supervisor that shares the same interests as you is vitally important on your journey to a PhD. Your supervisor will act as a mentor to help shape your initial idea into a full-blown proposal. Academic researchers undertake projects and supervision within a Department or Research Centre that aligns with their individual expertise. Be sure to identify the profile of leading academics in the field you are interested in and approach the ones that you want to work with.

Not everyone is in the position of being able to self-fund their research. Charities are an alternative sources of support and this will enable you to cover your research expenses and some of your living costs. Likewise working while studying for a PhD is not unusual and this this works well for many students.

Listen to the experiences of other PhD Students

If you have already completed a masters at university, you will have a good idea about PhD research. Ask your former course leaders to introduce you to PhD students who would be willing to share their experiences.

Getting this kind of honest feedback from someone who is living through the process is really valuable, and in addition it will go a long way to help in your decision about what to do next. Here is an example from PhD student Ricky, who shared his experiences of his PhD with us in a blog.

Online searches for research topics of notable academic staff will give you a clear picture of the subject matter that they are experts in. How fertile is your idea and is there room for developing new theories and research?

Use the network of university contacts you will have built up to reach out to academics and PhD students. Care will pay dividends in the end – no one wants to share important details of their research journey with someone who is abrupt or lacking in clarity. Take the right steps to PhD success and you will find doors will open for you.

It is perfectly OK to make enquiries to the appropriate contacts within a Doctoral College or Research Centre. When you email the Professor to introduce yourself give them time to reply, after all they are busy people.

The role of the Supervisor – what do they do?

Your supervisor is the primary mentor for a PhD student. The team working within the Research Centre will help you complete your project, and in addition provide extra support.

A Supervisor used to be a student like you are and they are building a career as an academic, and continuing to research. In other words they have discovered the steps to PhD success and they want to share these with you.

These supervisors are often classified as ‘early career researchers’. They are within five to ten years ‘post-doctoral’ of having completed their PhD, and after that they provide support for PhDs, to lecture and to conduct more research.

The importance of the REF on your choice of subject and university

Supervisors conduct additional research and it serves a specific purpose. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) includes all academic research in UK higher education institutions. The submission is every five years, with latest published in 2022.

You can use the REF to identify individual professors and supervisors. You can review their papers and areas of expertise and draw you own conclusions. We will sum up what these terms mean in another article. A good REF score is a sign of quality, and as a result the University will attract leading academic staff from around the world.

Next steps to PhD success

There are lots of factors to consider when you are taking those steps to PhD success, but above all it is about making the right decision. Look at our other articles to make up your mind.