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Careers Service

Considering postgraduate research

Postgraduate Research (PGR) programmes such as PhD and MPhil* are life-changing, career-directing experiences. They present an opportunity to become a true expert in your subject, and push back the boundaries of knowledge, but can come with a lot of questions and unknowns.

Many of these will be addressed within this section, including resources to explore your options and seek advice. But if you would like to discuss your options in person, please do book in to see a Careers Consultant.

*Note: MRes programmes are covered in Considering postgraduate study - taught programmes

Our guide to postgraduate research:

  • What is postgraduate research?
  • What factors should I consider?
  • When should I do this?
  • How do I choose the right research?
  • Funding a postgraduate course
  • Research outside the UK
  • Applying for a postgraduate research course
  • What happens after a postgraduate research course?

What is it?

A doctor of philosophy (PhD, DPhil, doctorate) degree is a 3 year (full-time, 6 year part-time) course of research and study, carried out within a university. Some professional variations exist, such as the Doctor of Engineering (EngD), Doctor of Education (EdD) and of course Doctor of Medicine (MD).

A PhD comprises one large, self-driven project with the aim of making a novel contribution to your field. The exact format and methodology vary enormously based on the academic discipline, but all PhDs should ultimately make you an expert in one area of your subject. You will gain other valuable professional skills along the way – always consider a PhD a professional role as well as an academic qualification.

Some disciplines offer the chance to pursue a PhD part-time, to allow the candidate to continue in employment. This will typically double the length of the PhD period.

Some UK PhDs are delivered through Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs or CDTs, occasionally DTPs (Partnerships)). These tend to be funded through one of the seven Research Councils in conjunction with external sponsors, and therefore can have more focus on transferable skills. They can also offer a 4-year PhD program (“1+3”), incorporating a Master’s year as a means of exploring research interests.

DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) degrees offer business professionals a chance to conduct research in their area, and normally require a number of years’ professional and/or research experience before enrolling. They tend to be conducted part-time alongside employment.

MPhil (1-2 year research-intensive Master’s) courses also fall with the definition of research degrees. While these do exist as self-contained courses, they are most often encountered as the first 12 months of a PhD programme. An MPhil is therefore often awarded to PhD candidates who do not complete the course.

What factors should I consider?

Undertake a PhD if you are:

  • Fascinated by an area of your subject, and are prepared to spend several years pursuing it.
  • Driven to push back the boundaries of your subject.
  • Interested in a career in research, academic or otherwise.

Do not take on a PhD if you are:

  • Putting off choosing a career direction.
  • Unsure of what to do next.
  • Interested purely in the qualification.

Your enthusiasm for your topic needs to sustain you throughout your PhD. If you go into the experience with questionable motivation, you run the risk of losing heart and never finishing. Many complete their undergraduate studies filled with a love for their subject, but they may be more inclined to begin applying this through work, rather than through further academic engagement. It’s important to choose the route for you before committing to the time and expense of a PhD.

When should I do this?

A PhD is very often conducted immediately after undergraduate or postgraduate taught courses, if it will allow you to stay in the habit of full time study. It also allows subject knowledge, research and practical skills to stay well-honed.

On the other hand, a PhD conducted later in life gives you more time to consider your research interests, and to choose a PhD closely aligned to your professional and personal development. This path can be jarring however when returning to an academic environment after a period away, particularly after being paid for several years.

It is possible in some disciplines to begin a PhD without first having a postgraduate taught degree (Master’s etc). However, this normally requires either undertaking a taught degree as part of the PhD itself, or having some equivalent prior research experience, acquired through work or internships.

How do I find the right research?

Your choice of project is all-important, followed closely by choice of supervisor and choice of institution. By the time you approach the end of your undergraduate or Master’s degree, your academic research interests may be beginning to emerge. But if you are still unsure how to find the right project, consider the following:

  • Ask for recommendations. Academics in your favourite disciplines will be able to suggest who (in addition to themselves) might be able to offer research projects in the right area.
  • Get to know your lecturers. Attend departmental seminars on the topics which interest you, to get a feel for who pursues this and where.
  • Follow the literature. If you have encountered interesting published material in journal articles, you can visit the article’s online abstract to see which academic groups have cited that article in their own work. This can give you a shortlist of groups who are conducting similar research.
  • Talk to current research students and postdoctoral researchers. Even before you have settled on a topic for your own research, hearing first-hand what the experience can be like will be vital to your decision-making. Many research groups have personnel pages, and you can also consider using resources such as the LinkedIn Alumni Tool and the Manchester Network.
  • Use search tools such as FindAPhD.com and Jobs.ac.uk

Applying for a postgraduate research course

The process of applying for PhD or MPhil courses is initially similar to that of taught courses. You will be asked for similar information and documentation, and more detail on these can be found in the Applications and Interviews section.

However, you will be encouraged and, in some cases, expected to approach potential research supervisors before applying in full. This allows you to make a more informed decision about the research and supervision on offer, and to draw the supervisor’s attention to you as an enthusiastic candidate.

This can initially take the form of a short email expressing your interest, and potentially lead to email discussions or in-person meetings to discuss the work.

If such discussions leave you better informed about the project, make sure you reflect that in your application. Remind the reader that you took the trouble to reach out and enhance your knowledge, and explain how the discussion has allowed your view of the project to develop.

What happens after a postgraduate research course?

Graduating from a research course puts you in one of the most elite educational bands in the world. It also presents you with an array of employment options. Ideally, it is worth starting to consider these as you approach the final year of your course, to give you time to act.

As with postgraduate taught courses, you will have acquired a spectrum of skills, which it is up to you to communicate to potential employers, including:

  • Expert knowledge in your field
  • Research and independent study expertise
  • Advanced project management skills
  • Collaboration and multi-disciplinary working ability
  • Communication skills crossing many levels of understanding

While some employers will understand and recognise the skills you bring as a PhD graduate, others will need to be informed. This is discussed in more detail in our section exploring career options for research students.