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Studying for a PhD: the basics

PhD (or doctoral) programs are designed to give you extensive knowledge and expertise in a specialised field.

Before embarking on a PhD program and becoming a PhD student it’s important that you think very carefully about the reasons why you want to do it, because although it will be a fulfilling academic experience it is also likely to be a big financial commitment.

So, just how do you get a PhD? Consider the five points below to help you work out if you are ready to start a PhD program.

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Why do you want to do a doctoral program?

The first thing you need to do is consider why it is you want to do a doctoral program. If your motivation is dissatisfaction with your current career this may not be ideal for giving you the focus you will need to succeed in your doctorate. If, however, you are motivated towards doctorate study because you really want to improve your future career prospects and gaining this qualification will fit in with the bigger picture of your life plan - then great! This should help give you the focus and motivation to achieve a successful end result.

Do you know what you want to study?

In order to enjoy and be successful in your PHD program you should have a clear idea of what it is you want to specialise in. Although it is not essential to know your topic exactly, you do want to be clear enough in where your interest lies and feel confident that the topic will hold your attention for the duration of the doctorate program. Also, bear in mind that the clearer you are about your field of interest in your application - the more chance you have in successfully gaining a place on the program.

Can you cope with the financial implications?

Undertaking doctorate study can be quite a big financial commitment. Despite numerous bursaries and scholarships, financial aid and the availability of student loans with favourable rates - the PhD tuition fees can be high and the chances are you will finish your doctoral program in some debt, or at the very least less financially comfortable then you were before embarking on it. However, if you’ve done your calculations and worked out that it is a financially viable option for you, think of it as an investment in your future. Once you are established in your new profession you should be more than able to pay back any loans you have had to take out.

How will the PhD program improve my career prospects long term?

Obviously the answer to this question very much depends on your chosen subject matter. Once you’ve worked out what doctoral program you want to follow - you need to work out how this will help your career long term. For some PhD courses (ie Law) it is obvious that doctorate study can only enhance your career. However non-vocational fields of doctorate study  (ie 18th century poetry) may be less likely to alter your career path or financially improve your future earning capacity. However, intellectually of course, the reward will be just as good.

Are you prepared for the application process?

Once you are sure you want to do a PhD program, you need to consider the application process. You need to take your time choosing the right doctoral program and institution, and bear in mind that it will take time to gather together the information you need - professional references, personal statements - to help ensure your application is successful.  Check the individual institution’s website for application deadlines and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to prepare.

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