So, you’re thinking of a PhD?

Jim RealiAdvice, Jim Reali, Postgraduate

This time last year I wrote a blog post entitled, “What about a career in academia?” in which I discussed undertaking a PhD with a view to going into an academic career subsequently. Recently I’ve been working on a new workshop in which I highlight some of the considerations for anyone considering undertaking a PhD and I thought it might be helpful to share some of those thoughts, which may be of help to you.

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What is a PhD and what does it involve?

The Prospects website provides some useful starters:

  • A PhD degree typically involves students independently conducting original and significant research in a specific field or subject, before producing a publication-worthy thesis.
  • Full-time PhDs usually last for three or four years, while part-time PhDs can take up to six or seven.

Typically, the first year will involve discussing your research with your supervisor, undertaking a literature review and creating a plan. You will then move on to gathering data and possibly gaining teaching experience, before writing-up.

A PhD is a level 8 qualification (the highest level) and requires you to produce a publication-worthy thesis of anywhere between 80,000 – 120,000 words in length.

What are the career prospects with a PhD?

Many people embark on a PhD with an aspiration to work in academia. However, the Careers Research & Advisory Centre (CRAC) published a report in 2020 identifying that, consistently, the average number of PhD graduates who work in academia across all disciplines is 44%; of these, on average fewer than 30% are involved in teaching, whilst the remainder are involved in research or other roles, such as professional support functions. According to the most recently available survey data at the time, 78% of PhD graduates work full-time, 10% have part-time employment, over 10% are involved in other activities and less than 2% are unemployed.

Traditionally, there have been some concerns that undertaking a PhD may be counter-productive if you are seeking a role outside of academia. However, this perception is being challenged increasingly, as demonstrated in the 2019 article in Nature, “Why Earning A PhD Is An Advantage In Today’s Industry Job Market”.

If you’d like to find out more about some of the different employment sectors available to you beyond a PhD, check out the “Non-Academic Careers For PhDs” page on

What might you need to consider before applying for a PhD?

The list below isn’t exhaustive, but will give you some pointers:

  • Your motivation (you need to appreciate everything involved in completing a PhD successfully)
  • Your career goals
  • Your previous research experience (if any)
  • Funding
  • Institution reputation
  • Institution expectations of the successful candidate
  • Geographical location

Your motivation is of huge importance – you need to be able to demonstrate that you have a real desire to complete this and that you won’t be disheartened when faced with some of the challenges you may face, working autonomously on a long-term project.

Do I need a research proposal?

If you’re applying for a pre-defined PhD, a research proposal may not be required or may have been defined already by the supervisor. However, if you’re proposing your own research and applying for a studentship, often, universities will ask for one. The article “Writing A Good PhD Research Proposal” on the website explains some of the key requirements and provides suggestions for a suitable structure.

What skills might I need?

The website is a website dedicated to supporting the professional development of researchers. Their Researcher Development Framework (RDF) describes the knowledge, behaviour and attributes of successful researchers. You can also read about the experiences of PhD students in applying aspects of the RDF to their own work.

How do I apply?

Typically, you will require:

  • A personal statement (sometimes referred to a “a motivation letter”)
  • An academic CV

Different institutions may provide different guidelines (e.g. re-word count). Often it may be a side of A4 or 400-500 words. Several websites offer guidance on the structure of a PhD personal statement – for example, “How To Write A PhD Motivation Letter” on DiscoverPhDs. You can find out more about academic CVs on the “Example CVs” web page.

If your initial application is successful, you are likely to be invited to attend an interview to discuss the proposed research in more detail.

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What do I need to do next?

I can’t tell you everything here, as your circumstances and interests may be unique. However, here are a few pointers:

  • Review the links in this blog
  • Look at websites such as and to see details of current PhDs and to identify those of interest (also check some of the additional support resources on those pages, such as the guide to funding)
  • Begin drafting your personal statement and academic CV
  • Book a 1:2:1 appointment with a Careers Consultant via Aston Futures, to discuss your application and discuss your circumstances

If you’re not sure what to do, or need help deciding, please do contact us!