So you survived the university social scene and really enjoyed your course. What next?
Do you join the mass graduate job hunt? Or would you rather dig deeper into your favourite subject? Should you explore the mysterious path that allows you to remain at university? Could post- graduate research be for you?
A postgraduate research degree leads to a PhD. Basically, this involves you doing a substantial volume of research, some of which might be published in academic journals, which you then write up (produce your thesis) and discuss with other academics (in an oral viva). This is distinct from other post-graduate qualifications, such as an MSc, where any research component is only part of a largely taught course.
Before getting too enthusiastic, you need to consider two things. Firstly, will you obtain the required grades for a PhD? In scientific disciplines it is often possible to apply straight from undergraduate level, so long as you achieve at least a 2:1, otherwise a Masters degree will be required.
Secondly, are you suited to research? This is a hard question to answer. Unless your undergraduate course included a lengthy lab-based research project, you are unlikely to have experienced any comparable research environment. (Core subject practical classes are not a good indication of laboratory research; I know that I hated them...). However, if you are interested in the subject, well organized and self-motivated, it could well be for you.
So, how do you find a PhD position? Generally, supervisors obtain funding for a specific research project that they then advertise. Some universities also run Doctoral Training Schemes. These vary but have a structured first year, including lectures and time spent in several research labs, before you choose your main project starting in the second year. Either way you submit an application and, if invited to interview, will be asked questions about your interest in research and academic background. Most PhDs start in September or October and are therefore advertised from the spring of that year. Good places to find adverts are on university or departmental websites, or academic job-search sites such as www.jobs.ac.uk.
Tackling a PhD is very different to how you approach a taught course. Practically, your first weeks will involve many meetings with your supervisor(s) to discuss your initial experimental strategy, as well as a lot of reading around the subject. There should also be safety and induction training in your specific research environment.
Your first experiments and ideas will be very closely supervised to ensure you are safe, capable and understand how to execute and plan your work.
As time goes by, the level of experimental supervision will drop as decisions about the direction of the research become more your own. After all, a PhD is an indication of your ability to conduct independent research.
On a more personal level you will need determination, perseverance and a good lump of bloody- mindedness. Progress is rarely smooth and you will learn a great deal about research, including how not to do it. If things aren’t working, did you make a mistake? What if you changed X, Y or Z? Is your hypothesis not quite right? Sorting through the options takes time and patience...
This may sound a little daunting. Occasionally, a string of un- interpretable results will get to everyone. Then you need to take a deep breath, switch off the computer and forget about work for the night. Despite the cliché, work / life balance is important and, no matter how absorbed you get in your PhD, you shouldn’t stop doing other things that are important to you.
And it is all worth it. When your own personal theory turns out to be right, the satisfaction is immense. After all, you have just discovered something that no-one else knew. Which is kind of cool. This makes you want to do it again and find out more. Where else could you take it...?
By the end of your PhD, you will have discovered much about yourself and acquired many relevant life skills. If you find that you love research, this offers many opportunities. Taking up a post-doctoral position abroad, for example, is a fantastic way of experiencing another culture while furthering your career.
And just imagine the feeling when you hear the words, ‘Congratulations, Dr Smith!’