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Managing expectations about PhD goals

Managing expectations about PhD goals
© University of Leicester

Let us now look over some points arising from the four possible reasons and aims noted in the previous step:

To continue studying in the UK or in the UK system at a higher academic level

Consider whether it would be best for you to study for a PhD or else to take another Masters. For some applicants it is worth thinking through – especially if you do not have funding for doctoral/PhD study – whether the extended period of research time for a PhD really suits your needs: perhaps additional one-year Masters level qualifications will be the better route for skills, experience or qualifications in your chosen field. For international applicants, do bear in mind, however, that UK Visas and Immigration regulations do expect you to show academic progression.

To enable a career in a university after gaining the PhD

Although the academic job market has slimmed in recent years – despite the higher number of students attending university (at least in the UK) – it is probably true to say that many who undertake a PhD initially think that a future academic, lecturing career would suit them. This desire can diminish with time when students see the competition for posts or learn more about lecturers’ time and work demands, but it is still a key aspiration for many.

But not all will succeed at that aim, since competition is tough and despite so many worthy and strong PhDs being written, and sometimes published, be aware that gaining a post in your doctoral field is not in any way straightforward (note, of course, that many students who did a BA/BSc first degree or a MA/MSc never continued in that field anyway).

A number of non-UK students who have completed their PhDs at British universities do go on to pursue an academic career in the UK. Universities are cosmopolitan in their student bodies but often also in their teaching – and research – staff.

As a PhD student, you will become part of the research community of the School or Department in your host university. This can be an effective way of gaining access to contacts and networks that can assist in finding a job. At a more fundamental level, since PhD students usually are also able to gain some teaching experience (lectures or seminars) and perhaps even small administrative responsibilities, PhD study in a British university can be excellent preparation for full-time lecturing or post-doctoral research (but do note that, often, one will have undertaken or held a postdoctoral position also before becoming a lecturer).

You should also take into consideration that the value placed on postgraduate education varies around the world. The difference here is most likely explained by the levels of supply and demand in the respective labour markets. Opportunities for study to doctoral level are often very difficult to secure in Africa, whereas US education has ‘industrialised’ PhD study through the use of large ‘Graduate Schools’ in the university sector. The UK labour market probably falls somewhere in the middle. Whilst there tend to be job openings on a regular basis, it is common to see many (occasionally even hundreds) of applicants for lecturing jobs in the very best universities and departments in the UK.

Career prospects, possibilities (or lack thereof), and preferences therefore need to be considered carefully as part of a decision to undertake a PhD. However, we do not want to put you off: a strong PhD, drive and desire and determination, an ability to network and disseminate ideas and research, and a look to publish – all of these could well help you achieve that goal of an academic career!

To advance a career outside of academic life

It is perhaps difficult to say whether or not a PhD will provide much by way of additional career benefit in non-academic vocations. There is clear evidence that a Masters degree can help in moving up the career ladder. But a PhD typically requires much greater investment of time, effort and resources. Accordingly, some companies may not automatically see the benefit in allowing employees to take a three to four year sabbatical to gain a PhD through the full-time route. Part-time and Distance Learning pathways are of course a very good alternative here, but even then they require the student to take on a huge amount of additional work spread across at least five or six years whilst maintaining a full-time job – an enormous undertaking! Perhaps the best guidance would be that career advancement in a non-academic career should be considered as a secondary reason for wanting to do a PhD; however, for some professionals, achieving a doctorate can enable other doors to be opened in a company or enable scope to enter a more research-led path there.

To be able to use the title of ‘Doctor’

One of the small (or big!) pleasures of successfully gaining a doctorate is using the title of ‘Dr’. However, be aware that this might not open lots of doors: for example, for every person who is impressed by your label, there are numerous others who want to know if you are a ‘real’ Doctor – i.e. have a medical degree and are good at bandages! Perhaps surprisingly, many nations will not allow you to use the title on Passports or Identity Cards.

Having said that, receiving the title Dr upon completion of your PhD/DPhil/DSocSci is a hugely rewarding experience that vindicates your achievement. In this way it is an excellent means for you to develop your self-confidence through the demonstration of your academic abilities at the highest possible level. Furthermore, you can certainly use it the title in emails, correspondence, for articles, conferences, on business cards, badges, etc., to show the lasting academic value of your period of intensive research and writing.

Activity

We would like you, in your Reflective Journal, to begin to form a clear career path.

  • Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? In ten years?

Consider carefully whether doing a PhD will help you to fully achieve this, and if so how?

  • Do you need to consider other types of study before embarking on a PhD?
© University of Leicester
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