By Gordon Rugg
This article covers three myths about PhDs that seem to be popular at the moment.
- First myth: You have to find a PhD topic by looking for advertised PhD studentships
- Second myth: You have to have a 2:1 or a distinction to get onto a PhD
- Third myth: You have to start in September, or you’ve missed your chance till the next year
All three beliefs contain enough truth to look discouraging to many people who might be thinking of doing a PhD, but who don’t fit the criteria set out in the myths. However, that doesn’t mean that those myths tell the full story. The full story is longer and more complex (which may be why it isn’t as widely known as it should be) and is also more hopeful for anyone who isn’t able to follow the usual PhD route.
Before we get into the details, here’s an encouraging pair of classical pictures to put you in an appropriate mood, showing the transformation from solitary uncertainty in the wilderness to public adulation and success…
One key point before getting into the myths is that British universities are proudly independent, each with their own particular ways of doing things. This has advantages and disadvantages. From the point of view of someone wanting to do a PhD, it has the advantage that there’s probably a university somewhere whose regulations make it possible for you to do what you want via one of the routes below. From the point of view of someone writing about the myths, it has the disadvantage of making general statements practically impossible. That’s why you’ll see repeated mentions below of “some universities” and “usually” rather than simple straightforward assertions.
With that point made, I’ll move on to the myths.
First myth: You have to find a PhD topic by looking for advertised PhD studentships
You can do it this way, but you don’t have to.
One of the key problems with doing a full time PhD is getting the funding to live on while you do the PhD. There are three main ways of doing this:
- Applying for an advertised funded PhD studentship on a specified topic with a specified supervisor
- Applying for an advertised funded PhD studentship where the topic is left open
- Finding a supervisor for the topic of your choice, and then finding funding
As you might suspect, there are pros and cons for each of these.
The first option has the advantage of being a known quantity, if your application is successful. However, you’re stuck with a specified topic and supervisor. There may be a bit of room for negotiation about the topic, but usually there’s not much room. There’s usually no room for negotiation about the supervisor. This option typically occurs when a researcher gets a grant to fund a piece of research, so there is the advantage that the researcher (who will usually be the supervisor) already has a good track record of work in this area.
The second option is highly desirable, because it combines the best of both worlds, but has the disadvantage of usually being fiercely competitive.
The third option gets you the topic of your choice, and the supervisor of your choice, but offers no guarantee of when, or even whether, you will get the funding for the PhD.
Second myth: You have to have a 2:1 or a distinction to get onto a PhD
This is the usual requirement, but it’s not an absolute barrier.
One alternative route involves doing a taught postgraduate degree. Most universities will let you onto a PhD if you have an MSc, MA, or other taught postgraduate degree. Many universities will let you onto an MSc, MA, or other taught postgraduate degree if you have a 2:2, and some will let you on if you have a Third. This route takes another year of study and expense before you can get onto a PhD, but it’s reasonably straightforward, with the only significant risk being the risk of failing the taught postgraduate degree (in which case, you need to ask how well you would have done on a PhD anyway).
Another alternative route is that most universities have a line somewhere in their admission criteria to the effect of “or other suitable evidence”. This allows the university admissions people to use their judgment in the case of applicants who don’t meet the usual criteria, but who have a strong case for admission on other grounds.
An example of other grounds for admission is publishing a peer-reviewed paper. This sounds like (and is) a pretty high hill to climb, but if you manage it, then it is a strong argument that you have what it takes for completing a PhD successfully. The disadvantages of this route include the time involved and the uncertainty involved in getting a paper accepted for publication; the advantages include being able to try this route even if you don’t have a first degree. This particular approach is not advisable if you’re working alone, because of the learning curve. However, it’s a route that some supervisors will support some prospective students on, if they’re reasonably confident that the student has what it takes.
This isn’t the same as a PhD by publication, which is a completely different thing that involves you pulling together a batch of your peer-reviewed publications into a dissertation. Some universities do PhDs by publication; others don’t.
“Other suitable evidence” can take a wide range of forms; if you’re thinking of trying this route, it’s advisable to make some enquiries first, before launching into a formal application.
Third myth: You have to start in September, or you’ve missed your chance till the next year
The answer to this one is short and simple, which is a welcome change. Most universities prefer you to start in September, because that makes the administration easier for them (and for you), but that’s usually a preference, not a necessity.
I’ve repeatedly mentioned the issues of finding a supervisor and finding a topic. These are both extremely important, but getting this right involves the sort of skills that you don’t usually have until well after you finish a PhD. The irony of this is not lost on PhD supervisors.
Unpacking the full reasons for this would take several articles; fortunately, you can find an in-depth discussion of these and many other issues in The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, by myself and Marian Petre, which is in most university libraries (usually in the short term loan section). As the title suggests, this book tells you a lot of things that you won’t find in the other books about PhDs.
I hope that this article helps you, if you’re thinking about doing a PhD.
Notes and links
Attributions for images in the banner:
By Thomas Cole – Explore Thomas Cole, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=182985
By Thomas Cole – Exlore Thomas Cole, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183030
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:
Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
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