What to consider if you’re thinking of doing a PhD during the pandemic and beyond

Written by Oliver Drake, Recruitment Specialist and Partnership Manager at CareersinHE.com

Deciding whether to study for a PhD can be tough at the best of times, yet the huge societal changes and uncertainty associated with the current pandemic have added a whole new dimension to this weighty conundrum. This post will help you decide whether a PhD is the right choice for you in the present circumstances, and if so, what steps you can take to “pandemic-proof” your PhD as much as possible.

Black woman studying at desk in library

What is a PhD?

A PhD is an advanced research degree where you complete a programme of original research under the mentorship of one or more academic supervisors. PhD programmes are like research apprenticeships that allow candidates to ‘learn the ropes’ of conducting and reporting academic research to a publishable standard. Programmes in the UK typically last for 3 – 4 years, with one primary assessment at the end of this period deciding whether or not a student is awarded their degree. This is the student’s verbal defence of their ‘thesis’; a document running to tens of thousands of words detailing research activities, findings, and conclusions. Having a PhD is usually a prerequisite for accessing the university research roles that can launch an academic career. They are also valued in many non-academic careers that draw on research skills.

Why do a PhD?

Pandemic or no pandemic, the most important thing to clarify before embarking on a PhD is your motivation for doing so. If that sounds trite, consider that the number of students who regret pursuing doctoral research is disconcertingly high, with 25% failing to report being satisfied with their decision. On the plus side, that still leaves a hefty majority of happy customers. What helps to sets the two groups apart?

Clues can be found in the aspects of PhD study that students report enjoying most. Chief among them is “intellectual challenge”, with 38% putting this at the top of the list. When including those who most enjoy working with interesting colleagues, being in an academic environment, or being creative, you’ve covered 80% of all PhD students. Aspects centring on opportunities for career progression, in contrast, together only account for what 20% of what students report enjoying most about their PhD.

It seems that the clichés are true. A passion for research, a drive to solve intellectual puzzles, and a thirst for new ideas are far likelier to get you to the other side of your thesis pleased that you made the journey than is knowing you’ve furthered your career.

It’s more important than ever to fully absorb this point before throwing yourself into a PhD. With uncertainty plaguing the job market and many industries in decline, it might be tempting to stick with what you know and opt for a PhD to extend your university experience while waiting for the dust to settle. Alternatively, you may see a PhD as a ticket to a more stable career in a future with reduced opportunity. Yet unless you also have a real passion for research and academic pursuit, these motives may not be enough to sustain you through the frustrations and setbacks that few PhD candidates can evade entirely.

Equally important is making sure that you select a topic for your thesis that really ignites your passion. PhD topics are highly specialised, meaning that you will be diving very deeply into a very narrow area. Staying engaged through 3 – 4 years of focused research will be made much easier if you dedicate yourself to shedding greater light on a topic that truly fascinates you.

Your working practices and a PhD: a match made in heaven or a disaster waiting to happen?

Doing a PhD isn’t for everyone. Little external structure, a dearth of deadlines, and a lack of managerial oversight mean that you will need to be excellent at self-motivating and organising your time to thrive as a PhD student. This is even more true now given the shift towards homeworking prompted by the pandemic. If you’re the sort of person who bounces off colleagues and draws energy from a sociable work environment, you might find it particularly challenging at present to overcome the lulls in motivation that nearly all PhD students must contend with.

But if you work best when given the independence to explore, feel confident that you can structure your time without an externally imposed schedule, and relish the thought of losing yourself in lengthy periods of solitary study, a PhD may just be the best way for you to see out this current pandemic.

How might the pandemic impact my PhD now and in the future?

Before beginning a PhD in the present climate, you should consider how various restrictions might limit your research opportunities now and in the future. If mainly lab-based, your research might be relatively unaffected. If instead your passion is for a topic that would involve conducting field studies in social settings or a significant degree of international travel, then pursuing other options at this stage could be wise. You can always do a PhD once the freedoms needed to truly follow your passion are back on the table.

That being said, it may be that certain avenues of research can’t be relied upon to remain open even after the pandemic is overcome. Those that reopen in future may close again as localised epidemics erupt and subside. If planning to do a PhD involving international travel, for example, you might want to agree a back-up plan with your supervisor(s) before starting out to decide how your project can be modified if unexpected restrictions arise.

You should also bear in mind that opportunities to physically attend academic conferences – especially international conferences – are now greatly reduced. These are spaces where researchers normally meet to present research and share ideas. For PhD students, they provide golden opportunities to network, strike up collaborations, and get valuable feedback on their work.

Most conferences have been held online since the pandemic began. One benefit of this has been greater accessibility, with often prohibitive attendance fees either massively discounted or removed entirely. On the other hand, many of the advantages of physical conferences aren’t easy to replicate online, with networking opportunities in particular being more limited. Certain conferences have even been cancelled altogether due to the pandemic, with no full-scale virtual alternatives offered. It’s therefore worth checking before choosing your topic that key conferences are set to go ahead.

Another important question is whether any research group you’re interested in joining is still conducting regular group meetings where you could discuss your own and others’ research. Connecting with other students and colleagues is invaluable to conceiving, developing, and refining your ideas, so ensuring that there is adequate provision for this before joining a group is recommended.

Another easy to overlook factor to the success of your PhD is your access to print and electronic resources, such as books and academic journals. Under normal circumstances, students have access to a vast array of print resources through their university’s libraries. The pandemic has resulted in reduced access to library buildings, however, placing additional strain on the digital infrastructure of each university’s library service. With this in mind, you may want to research how successful any institution you’re thinking of studying at has been in providing electronic versions of the sorts of resources you’re likely to need.

Though the pandemic has created new challenges, it’s also opened new opportunities to those considering a PhD. The major revolutions in our way of life occurring over the past year have yielded many new, urgent, and fascinating areas for researchers to investigate. Which are the key factors influencing vaccine take-up? How have family dynamics been impacted by the pandemic? How can models predicting virus spread be improved? In tackling such questions, you could well generate insights that help shape our post-pandemic future.

On an even more optimistic note, with current plans to scrap social restrictions in England on 21st June (and with other nations of the UK likely to follow soon after) many of the restrictions constraining PhD study today could well be absent for the majority of your programme. Lingering uncertainty over how the pandemic might yet evolve over the months and years ahead means that relying on a completely “normal” PhD experience would be imprudent. At the same time, the prospect of studying through 3 – 4 years of strict lockdowns also seems unlikely at this point. Any decision to defer or forgo PhD study based on such a gloomy prognosis could well mean missing out on a horizon-expanding experience.

Finding a PhD or alternatives

Read this far and still feel that a PhD the right choice for you? Great! You can find many funded programmes using an academic PhD portals such as:

  • FindAPhD – Large Database of PhD Opportunities across the world
  • DiscoverPhDs – Database of PhD Opportunities with lots of advice resources.
  • Careersinhe.com – Database of PhD Opportunities targeted towards people from minority backgrounds.

Not all opportunities will be advertised, however, so it’s also worth talking to current PhD students and post docs and then reaching out to potential supervisors directly. You can find these by looking through the bios of departmental faculty on university websites and noting overlapping research interests. Sending a short email that introduces yourself, details your interests, asks whether the recipient is available to take on a PhD student, and asks whether they know of any funding opportunities is a great way to unearth hidden opportunities.

It will put you in good stead when reaching out to potential supervisors if you can also demonstrate that you have done some research into their research group, their publications, and their sources of funding. All should be available on their university’s website, and all will show that you are a serious applicant with a sincere interest in the research area that your potential supervisor focuses on.

If you decide that a PhD programme is too great a commitment during these uncertain times, you might instead consider studying for an MRes or “Master of Research” degree. These are like PhD’s in that they are research-based postgraduate degrees, but they usually last for just one year rather than the three to four spent working towards a PhDs. As an added bonus, having an MRes degree would give you a significant advantage if you later decided to apply to a PhD programme.