How do I do this next bit? Moving on to a PhD.
May 2, 2016 1:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm near the end of my Master's degree. I have one semester left which will be a research project with a 10k-word paper at the end. I know I want to go on to a PhD next but I dont know how this stuff works.

I have all sorts of questions and don't know who else to ask. I've been in contact with BachelorsAlmaMater and they're keen to have me and help me but I haven't asked them questions that are about me shopping around. Answers/advice/experience regarding any of my questions would be much appreciated.

1. I haven't chosen a topic for my final research project. Will what I do now make a difference to where/who I can do my PhD with? Should I do something that could turn into a PhD project? Or to make myself more attractive to a specific supervisor or university I hope to work with? I asked my Master's coordinator and he didn't answer my email.

2. How do people do PhDs in a country they're not living in? I have come across a few people over the years who are doing their doctorates in another country while they live and work here, in Australia. Is this common/routine? Or do people need to make special arrangements to do this? Is there a ballpark of how much face to face contact and actual physical presence I need to allow for? My life can accomodate me going overseas lots of times a times a year if it's mostly for short periods of time (eg a week) but I can't be away for long periods.

3. Am I the beggar or the chooser? Or neither? Some people tell me Australian universities are desperate for more PhD candidates, and BachelorsAlmaMater does seem really keen to have me. But MastersUni seems indifferent. I have a great GPA but neither of the teachers I have approached have shown any interest (both didn't answer my questions, the one mentioned above didn't even answer my email, other one answered email but it was all chat chat chat about the fun conference he was at). They both supervise PhD students all the time. I feel like I need to know this to understand how best to approach applications.

4. How do people get supervisors who aren't even at their university? Superstar Bioethicist went to my MastersUni a million years ago. He is still credited with some course design/materials but he's not listed as staff, he's not listed as a possible supervisor, and I know he's never actually on campus. Or even in the country. He's been at US IvyLeague for years now. Someone at my university has him down as one of his supervisors. How did they do this? Do I just email Dr Superstar and ask? This particular Superstar is someone whose work I know really well and was a major influence for me going into bioethics, it would be very fulfilling for me to work with him. For a while my day job let me cross paths with him. We've emailed a little so I know how to contact him and he's always been friendly and replied quickly. If this is a perfectly normal thing to do, to just approach people I'd like to work with regardless of their institution, it doesn't seem to matter as much which university I go with...but that seems too easy.

5. Advice in general about picking a supervisor, please. The two academics I've mention who dodged my questions don't make me feel confident about them as supervisors but on paper, they're highly regarded and supervise all the time. When I contacted them, both of them were my teachers and course coordinators, it was part of their job to deal with the kinds of things I was asking. That makes me think I might not get the support & input I would want. What do I do beyond looking at their publications/areas of specialty? The only people I know personally who are doing their PhDs had obvious people from their undergrad years to ask, teachers they knew well, but I don't have anyone like that.

6. Advice in general about picking a PhD program? I like BachelorsAlmaMater a lot, but not for any research related reasons. I don't know any of the possible supervisors. The pros for me are personal things, like they're close to home and seem like a women-friendly environment. I also like how easy it seems for me to get into their program, I'm pretty sure I can have things lined up for the start of the next academic year, which is pretty high on my priority list. And funding is a sure thing as long you keep progressing well, also a high priority. But I don't want to choose without looking at other options. In case it matters, I'd enjoy teaching but I'm not looking specifically for a career in academia or research.

Thanks for your help.
posted by stellathon to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you spoken to anyone at VELIM?
posted by taff at 1:14 AM on May 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

What subject is your proposed PhD in, and what are your professional plans post-PhD (academia, industry, etc.)? Good advice will necessarily vary depending on the answers to those two questions.
posted by ClaireBear at 1:36 AM on May 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also, unless your PhD is in engineering, medicine, pharmaceuticals, or some other applied field flush with cash that transitions easily into industry employment post-PhD, I think you'd do well to head my warning from last year. Seriously. It contains no hyperbole at all, and is at least as true now, a year on from writing it, as it was at the time.
posted by ClaireBear at 1:42 AM on May 2, 2016

See also my advice (and that of others) in previous threads on PhDs - particularly this, this, this, and this.

To answer your question about the mechanics of specific measures to take, you can read this previous comment of mine, which spells it out in steps. It's written particularly for humanities academia, but from friends' experience I believe the general tone of doom holds for many fields of science as well, and the steps to success (lol) should be reasonably similar.
posted by ClaireBear at 1:52 AM on May 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm in bioethics. I can see opportunities in pharmaceuticals & biotech.
posted by stellathon at 3:12 AM on May 2, 2016

Best answer: Hi stellathon. I'm a PhD candidate at an Australian university, heading towards my submission, so I can probably provide a few answers (although I'm in Theatre and Performance, so it's a wildly different world as far as supervision and project structure is concerned)

I'm going to address your points as you raise them:

1. To even get a look-in on the application process, you need to have an investigation in mind. I know that in sciences, you will be attached to a larger research project that will be lead by others, but you still will need to know what you're interested in in order to find the right program and university. Write down one question that has arisen from your reading, then see if that leads to another, and maybe a third. Can you write 200 words (an abstract) that links those questions together? If you can, then maybe you have a project. You can then shop that around departments. I suspect that at least part of your problem in seeing potential supervisors is that you don't have a clear idea of what you want to do yet. The thing is that your research question and project statement will change over the course of your candidature - that's a sign that you're learning, not that you're doing it wrong. So don't feel like you're setting the course for your whole life, because you're not.

2. As far as I have seen, doing a PhD in a foreign country is very hard, very lonely, and very expensive. You absolutely have to have work and a stipend or scholarship. It's also fairly common, especially between countries that share a language (for example, English) However, program requirements can be radically different - the UK and AU 3-year PhD is totally at odds to the longer US program. Generally speaking, you are a resident in the country you are studying in, and will only have limited leave (in Australia, foreign students have only 4 weeks leave - it's the equivalent of a full-time job). You may be able to wrangle that with fieldwork, but I would be very careful how you explain that to any potential school.

3. It is currently the case that Australian universities are funded per successful student at the postgraduate level. This may change in tomorrow night's budget, we don't know. So yes, some universities are looking to maximise income from research students as well as 'innovative' outputs (ie, patents). However are you a researcher or a cash cow? Doing a PhD is a very difficult thing, and you need a school that is going to pay attention to your needs as a student and a human being - you need a quality education to be employable, and a degree factory is not going to provide that.

4&5. The simple answer to these two questions is to find the people whose work interests you and email them directly. Your supervisor is going to be the closest person to your professional development for at least 3 years, through some very difficult times, and they are going to have to be someone you like, not just respect. If they don't want to meet with you, or at least Skype, they - and their school - are not worth it. I could have stayed at my (moderately prestigious) arts school to do my PhD, but I did not have a relationship with my supervisor there that was mutually respectful, so I shopped my project around. Of all the universities I spoke to, there were plenty who were receptive and encouraged me to apply, but only one potential supervisor called me himself and said "let's have a coffee and talk this through". We met, and it's carried on from there - we've built a good working relationship, a friendship, and are moving into some great creative collaborations both in the university and outside. That may be more of an arts thing though! The main thing is that your success is predicated on a good relationship with your supervisor - they will nudge you in the right direction, spot interesting papers, conferences and opportunities for you, and generally put you in the process of 'coming out' as an academic. So search for someone you like.

6. How comfortable and happy you are at the university is a massive part of it: if you don't like going there, if you don't feel welcome or safe or valued, then you have a big disincentive. What I would look for, knowing what I know now about PhD life, is that you really need a student cohort that is cohesive, with departmental programs - like reading groups, regular seminar sessions (particularly with students and staff presenting their current work) and so forth - to build that rapport rather than impose or reinforce it. A number of universities now have additional 'professional development' for all research students as a hurdle requirement, which is basically corporate training on matters such as 'leadership' or 'maximising your career potential'. These courses are utter and unmitigated shit, so generalised across the entire range of postgraduate programs that they are essentially meaningless. So be careful of those, and try and pick the ones that are actually useful (If it's run by the library, do it - librarians actually have a clue about what research students need!)

General tips:

The first and most important is YOU WILL FUCK IT UP AND THAT'S OK! You are still a student! You are still learning. Even with all the preparation and all the reading and the best supervisor in the world, you will be thrown entirely off course and everything will be wrong and you will crawl into a cupboard and cry. This happens to everyone. You have not failed, you have not ruined your life, you have not disappointed everyone who ever met you ever. It's how you learn how to do a PhD, which is a very specific kind of task, and one that you will never have to do again after this.

The second most important thing is that a PhD is a very large version of the thing you have been doing since undergrad - it's a very big, very particular kind of essay. You have certain format and style requirements - lit review, methodology, signposting that since you have demonstrated x in chapter 2 you will now be able to theorise y in chapter 3 for the purpose of proving z in chapter 7, etc. In the fuzzy world of practice-as-research and the arts, we often push boundaries in thesis format, but it takes a very rare and determined student (which I have discovered I am not) to do so. In the 'ethics' bit of 'bioethics', you might be able to push, but i doubt it. So write to the form, stick to the structure, you won't actually ever have to do it again.

The third most important thing is to use your student services. Every university has a Postgraduate Student Association of some kind. I cannot emphasise it enough: USE IT. Health services, counselling, advice about supervision or milestone requirements, even just dumb stuff like the communal microwave or a desk spot to work for an hour between meetings. The whole purpose of a PSA is to get you through your degree in every way that the department can't. And if you are ever in difficulty with your supervisor, or with a colleague, or someone else in the department or the university, they are able to provide impartial help. I have done this, and I have helped other people do this, and I will tell you straight that it saved my project from annihilation.

The fourth most important thing is to take care of yourself. Make sure your private health is paid up if you have it, never wait to see what happens before going to the doctor if you're sick, if something is bothering you or you feel wrong or sad or unsafe make sure someone else knows. A friend, a colleague, your supervisor if that's the kind of relationship you have. You are more important than your project, and you aren't going to complete it if you can't complete it, see?

Look, I hope that helps. Good luck!
posted by prismatic7 at 4:35 AM on May 2, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Prismatic7's advice is very good. I would only add that, as an academic at an Australian university, we have incentives to have some PhD students. The specific incentives differ from university to university. At ours it is quite explicit, in that we get excused from undergraduate teaching at a rate that equates to about one course a year for every two PhD students we have. After a certain number, of course, that incentive is irrelevant.

Other universities have different structures, but in general, most academics want a few PhD students, but not more than a handful. So you might get quite enthusiastic responses to inquiries to potential supervisors who are fairly new and have fewer students, but less enthusiastic or responsive replies from senior people with a lot of good networks and supervisory experience.

I think you want a mixture of both. If you think you might want an academic job one day your chair or main supervisor should ideally be someone senior who can assist you with that goal by connecting you with their top colleagues elsewhere and writing you references that will count for a lot. Otherwise, get a primary supervisor who is enthusiastic and who publishes a lot (because you'll get coauthorship opportunities), but maybe has fewer students, so more time for you. But not someone for whom you are their first student, because that often doesn't go well. Then stack the rest of your panel if possible with people at the other end of the spectrum so you have a good spread between people who will be there when you need them, and people who might not be, but whose names will lend your work prestige and legitimacy, and whose networks will help you get opportunities.
posted by lollusc at 6:09 AM on May 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am a PhD candidate at a top-50-in-the-world-in-my-field university. I am based in the UK, moved there from the US. I have a full scholarship and am 'employed' (I do paid work for supervisors, but truth be told I don't actually do much work). I moved abroad alone, solely for the PhD.

I just want to chime in to let you know that while you will hear a lot of horror stories--such as ClaireBear's above, which I don't claim at all is invalid or untrue, btw--that is not at all a guaranteed part of the experience, and not necessarily the norm. My PhD experience has been wonderful, fulfilling, and totally worth it. There are moments of isolation and fear, but they come and go just as they did before I started the doctorate. It has, on balance, been the best time of my life, and I often wish it would never end. Roughly 80% of my cohort at my uni agrees, and I would say roughly 60% of my PhD candidate friends in the US and Australia are similarly happy.

A big part of that happiness in my case, I think, can be credited to my supervisory team, so as for advice, I would suggest that you prioritize finding a good supervisor(s).
posted by still bill at 2:38 PM on May 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

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