Happily settled into my postgraduate programme as I am now, I do recall the period of my applications as a distinctly overwhelming time. The problem may have seemed on the surface to be one of plenty, but the stress of choosing where to do your postgraduate studies and information overload can get very real!
Having navigated scores of university websites, hundreds of multimedia application guides, and an endless barrage of market researched advertorial text throwing themselves as well-meaning advice to baffled students, here are the five simple actions that for me had finally emerged as the defining ones when it came to choosing where to do my postgraduate studies.
1. Shortlisting universities
Most of us already have some idea of which universities are best reputed for the disciplines we want to pursue from recommendations of teachers, senior colleagues, friends, and ranking guides. But as the education sector is as competitive and fast-paced an environment as any, these ranks can be constantly shifting, making the Russell Group universities, known for their consistency in academic achievement and impact over extended periods of time, a prudent place to begin your search. This makes it hard when choosing where to do your postgraduate studies.
To get a better sense of student life, it is also helpful to speak with recent or current students wherever possible to understand a university’s attitude to students’ wellbeing. Planning ahead for employability, looking at the leaders of the industry you want to eventually be a part of, and observing any discernible pattern regarding their erstwhile institutional affiliations can be particularly valuable as avenues to follow.
2. Understanding departmental structures and functions
At a postgraduate level, academia is as much about learning as it is about actively contributing to your field and helping it to grow, be it as a teaching assistant, contributor at a conference, organiser of an event, or author/editor of a journal. For this, understanding the structure and functions of a department outside its lecture theatres and laboratories can be important. Looking for student bodies and their activities, partner institutions, exchanges and training programmes, and recent events can help you estimate where you would fit in. It can also help you understand what new skills you would pick up, and whom you would form working relationships with to explore new interdisciplinary inquiries.
3. Finding the right supervision
Many of us have had nerded out on senior academics at some point, admiring their genius from a distance and pining for an opportunity to work with them. But enjoying a book written by a scholar and working closely with them for three to four years at a stretch can be very different experiences. Of course one needs to be familiar and aligned with their potential supervisor’s body of work to be sure that their fields and methods of research overlap to some extent, but ideally so should their styles of work.
Before approaching a faculty member with your research proposal, it may therefore be worthwhile to take a moment to figure out what brings out the best in you and apply accordingly. For example, are you at a stage where you would benefit from close monitoring, or would you want more independence in your research? Do you function better with tight deadlines or more flexible schedules? Do you have a preference between theoretical and practical approaches?
Current or recent research students of a faculty member will often be listed against their staff profiles if you have any questions for them, but you should also communicate directly with your potential supervisor before applying. This will also be helpful as it will enable you to ensure that they are accepting new students and are not away on research or personal sabbaticals during your intended PhD. It will also allow your supervisor to incorporate their feedback into your proposal before submitting the formal application and get a sense of what personal interactions with them will be like.
4. Getting your postgraduate studies funded
Postgraduate degrees can be expensive, and more so if you are relocating to a new country where both exchange rates and cost of living are high, making it hard when choosing where to do your postgraduate studies. Fortunately, a lot of postgraduate programmes in the UK have generous fundings available, from universities as well as other autonomous bodies. If you are an international student, an ideal funding to look for would be one where the scholarship covers tuition fees at international rates, offers a realistic stipend to cover living expenses, and has some research training grant to support short courses, field visits, and conference attendance.
Unless you are comfortable funding yourself, it may be more practical to apply to those universities that have higher number of scholarships, as receiving one would considerably ease any financial worries that you may have, and enable you to focus more on your academic activities instead. Potential supervisors and departmental offices will often be able to tell you about one-off research grants and/or studentships beyond the usual cyclical, well-known, and thereby more competitive ones.
5. Factoring in some fun
Finally, it is good to remember that in addition to studying, over the course of your programme you will also be making new friends, pursuing some recreational activities, and travelling to exciting new places.
Having an idea of where you want to locate yourself can be an advantage. Do you need the rush of city life to feel at home and to never be out of things to do? Or would you rather find yourself in a more idyllic landscape to practice slowing down in? Or if you cannot decide, maybe you would like a bit of both in a university town where it is calm enough through the week to get all your reading done and assignments in, but also vibrant with nightlife over the weekend? You could also factor in the proximity to major cities and airports, availability and quality of students’ accommodations, transport networks and walkability, and overall safety and liveability of a city to make sure you make the most of your time at uni.
To conclude, if I could talk to my anxious self from application season 2020, the one thing I would say is that rationalising the process of choosing will ultimately allow for greater focus on quality over quantity. Rather than spreading yourself thin over many applications, strategically scoping your options down will give you the time to engage more deeply and critically with individual submissions and work hard on them without running out of steam. This would make the choosing where to do your postgraduate studies much less stressful and with a higher chance at succeeding.
Read more blogs about postgraduate research.