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Choosing A PhD Topic

Choosing a PhD topic can be difficult, as it is likely there will be more than several projects that will take your fancy when you start researching what is out there.

Having an idea of which areas in the UK you would like to be based will make this step significantly easier though.

1. Read around topics that interest you

We recommend making a list of topics or general areas you are interested in within your field, which you can then narrow down.

A good place to start looking for potential projects is FindAPhD.com – this website contains lists of current PhD courses across different subjects and will give you an idea of what’s on offer.

2. Decide on your type of doctorate

Before you can find the right doctorate, you need to know what type of doctorate is right for you.

Broadly speaking, doctorates come in three general formats:

  • Advertised projects - these are often found in Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (‘STEM’) subjects. They will usually be offered within laboratories, research groups or other specialised academic networks which will help shape your research, but not always in the direction you may want.
     
  • Self-proposed projects - these are more common in Arts, Humanities and some Social Science subjects. These usually mean you will pick your own topic and submit a proposal to a university or supervisor. You can generally choose whatever you want to study, but it will need to form the basis of a feasible PhD and fits the aims and/or expertise of the university's faculty.
     
  • Professional doctorates - you will find these in vocational subjects such as Business and Management and tend to award specialised qualifications such as the DBA (Doctor of Business Administration). They are aimed at experienced candidates looking to carry out research into their area of practice, rather than become academic researchers.

These areas may overlap slightly but working out the subject you wish to research in will help you narrow down the kind of doctorate you should be looking for.

You should also start to think about what you want to do after your PhD. Career opportunities for doctoral graduates are more flexible than you might realise, but there’s still a fairly clear difference between academic and professional doctorates.

3. Consider several ideas

While it may be difficult to pin down at least one original idea, it's a good idea to look at several, especially if one (or more) of your ideas is already being studied by other students who are about to publish their work.

Be prepared to be flexible and realise you might not be the only one with your great idea!

FindAPhD.com has a handy tool for comparing current PhD projects, so you can see what's currently going on in your field. Although lots of interest in your subject is good, it also means you will have to think more carefully about how you will differentiate your work from others.

4. Look at rankings

PhD rankings will give you some indicator of the quality of a university, and whether it will be a good environment for you to do your research.

You can also see how much research the university publishes, and how likely you will enjoy your experience there.

Things to watch out for in rankings include:

  • research performance
  • teaching performance
  • study abroad opportunities
  • international education.

Among the current top ranked universities for PhDs are University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Stanford University and ETH Zurich.

5. Go to an open day

Try to visit any universities you are considering for your PhD, as this will give you first-hand experience of what it is like.

Look to see when the next postgraduate open day is, which will be advertised on the university's website.

FindAMasters.com also has a comprehensive list of postgraduate open days across the UK.

It may also be possible to arrange an informal visit, especially if you have already made contact with a supervisor to discuss your project.

6. Choose your universities

Next, browse some departmental websites, where you will find more detailed PhD listings. This will take less time if you already which universities you are interested in applying to.

Bear in mind that details of individual PhDs will be released at different times, so it’s best to get in touch with the postgraduate admissions tutor, and start preparing your application as early as possible before your intended start date.

For projects starting in September, deadlines are usually as early as the previous October or November.

However, you will find for a majority of PhDs in the arts and humanities or social sciences, specific subject areas are not advertised on websites.

Therefore you should conduct a general search and find out which departments appeal to you. This is so you can approach any prospective supervisors and/or find out the general research direction of the department to see if it suits your needs.

It may be worthwhile contacting potential supervisors directly, with details of your research interests and background, and ask whether they might be able to offer you an appropriate environment to carry out your PhD.

7. Find out about funding

Make sure you find out about funding at this point too, as what is available in terms of scholarships may have an impact on whether it is feasible to apply for a PhD at a particular department.

You will find that a majority of funding is allocated directly to individual departments, either to certain projects or to be divided up between a group of people.

Contact the department at the earliest possible time and ask what awards you might be eligible for.

You can be awarded a PhD place with no funding, although this is a very difficult option.

Departmental or university scholarships are one source you can consider, but there are generally far less of these on offer than research-council funded studentships.

Therefore it's worth looking into which research projects or departments have already attracted a range of funding in your area.

Please see postgraduate funding for further details on how to fund your PhD.

8. Seek expert advice

It's important to ask the experts for advice before deciding on your doctoral dissertation.

This is also part of testing and investigating your ideas in advance. Accept problematic questions, as they offer a general outlook on your work. Therefore, regular contact with your PhD advisor is very valuable for your success.

9. Don't rush your decision

Remember that you will be studying this topic for the next few years, so it's no good if stops being interesting after the first week or two.

Take your time, and be methodical with your research to see exactly what's going to be involved.

Be aware that some PhD programs ask you to spend time travelling or do more practical-based work, so it's worth asking yourself what you will be comfortable doing.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying for a PhD, please see: