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  • Writer's pictureDavide Ferrari

How to choose a PhD

Hi there!

The PhD, which stands for Philosophiae Doctor from Latin, is the highest academic title someone can achieve. It usually lasts no less than 3 or 4 years and it usually requires having a master’s degree in that field to apply.

Most of the people do not even consider applying for a PhD because most of the careers do not require such academic title, but for some of them it is the minimum requirement, in particular academic careers themselves. To become university professor, you need to get a PhD and to continue in that field as your primary job.

But this article does not want to explain what a PhD is, but how to choose one instead.

The choice of a PhD is particularly important and determines in very large measure the professional destiny you are going through. Being a PhD student means that realistically you are required to become one of the most expert, if not THE most expert person in the world in a particular topic.

This can sound weird when you think about the fact that there are a lot of eminent professors who dedicated their entire life to study some specific topics. This do not prevent you to become even more expert of some aspect of that subject.

Being a PhD student is not like being a normal college student. When attending a bachelor or a master’s degree, you are guided through a series of courses and goals set by someone else with more experience who want you to be enough expert of that subject to be capable of being a professional in that field, whereas during the PhD, no one in the world is doing or have ever done what you are going to do, so there in almost never a pre-defined path towards your degree.

You become the entrepreneur of yourself and you must figure out where to start, through what to go and how to get to your results. Of course, you are never alone (hopefully) because you will have the support of your supervisors and eventually of your research team or laboratory. But at the end of the day, you will be the only one to carry on that specific research, so you are required to be able or to learn how to conduct your own research and to produce your own original results.

What PhD field?

To choose a PhD I would start from what is the topic or field we are most passionate about. This is very important because once you have chosen your topic, you will spend endless hours working on that.

The specific topic you chose do not necessarily have to be the very same of your previous master’s degree, although you will not be allowed to apply for a PhD if you have not studied subjects relevant to the project.

For example, in my case, I’ve a master’s degree in computer science, I have studied specifically medical applications of statistics and artificial intelligence, so I had been able to apply (and finally been accepted) for a PhD in Data Driven Healthcare projects.

This is the union of medical applications and data science approaches and therefore is suitable for both mathematics or computer science students and medicine or biology students.

Usually, the choice of a particular field is made during the master’s degree in which you start to appreciate the very deep details of the subject of your studies.

Where to apply for a PhD?

The choice of the university where to do a PhD should be closely related to the project you want to do and therefore to the university that deal with that kind of research. To me, the most important thing is to find a very stimulating environment in which not only the physical place, but also the people are extraordinary and will keep you motivated in your research.

I suggest not to limit your search radius to the closest university because it can prevent you from having an amazing experience. So, you may also want to consider abroad universities that will give you a completely new experience with respect to what you have always lived in your previous university.

There are a lot of website in which you can find PhD proposals and every specific field have plenty of them. Even if you can find proposals online basically everywhere, one other very important source can be your professors. They always have a long list of contacts of colleagues all over the world and they can point you to some of their colleagues who have PhD positions open in your interest field. This is how I found the availability of a PhD position at King’s College, where I am right now.

So, if your relationship with your master’s supervisor is good, ask him/her to help you find something. Always be honest about your desires because you will spend at least 3 years and you want to be happy in that period. So, if you want or do not want to be in a specific city, tell them. If you do not want to apply for a topic you are not really interested in, tell them. Do not apply.

When to apply for a PhD?

There are no rules about when in your life you should apply for a PhD. Maybe there is only one gold rule: do it when you fell like to do it. It has not to deal with your age, but with your attitude and your passion.

PhD students do not usually earn much, especially during the PhD itself. So DO NOT APPLY for the money. Apply only for the passion for the subject and for the desire to surround yourself with interesting people and stimulating environments.

If you are clear about the desire to do a PhD, consider taking advantage of your academic career and apply right after the master’s degree. But if you are not sure of what you want to do, I suggest waiting because starting such a thing when you are not fully confident may ruin your experience and your entire attitude towards study and research. Wait until you are ready and fully confident about the choice.

In conclusion

The PhD is not only a study choice or a career choice. It may also become a life choice, it opens an interesting number of new opportunities, friendships, and colleagues and it allows you to really devote yourself to the deep study of a specific subject, but also have its drawbacks. So, chose wisely and ask for support to those who already have pass through that and be open to discover opportunities you do not have even thought about.

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