Selecting a PhD program and supervisor

Eva Lantsoght
6 Feb ’14

In our most recent post, we've looked at the benefit of your academic skills for finding employment after the PhD. Today, we take a step back in time, and look at the very beginning of your PhD adventure: finding a PhD program and supervisor.

The typical approach of finding a PhD program, is just by applying to a number of institutions, and seeing where you get accepted, with funding.

While getting into a program with funding is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of finding a PhD position, there are a number of other aspects to take into account as well. As a side note: almost all PhD positions in The Netherlands come with secured funding. In The Netherlands, a PhD student is considered an full-time employee of the university, with an OK salary, and social security. You won't got in debt over your PhD in The Netherlands, and you might even be able to save some good money if you live frugally. Besides the top-quality programs, this secure positions of PhD students could be one more reason to look for a PhD in The Netherlands.

Before zooming in to the aspects you should consider when selecting a program and supervisor, I'd like to share the two elements that made me pick my program and supervisor. The first factor that determined my choice, was interest. I wanted to do research on either buckling of concrete columns, or shear or torsion problems in reinforced concrete members. With that research interest in mind, I started to browse the pages of concrete research groups in various universities. I had given up on the idea of doing a PhD in the USA because of the crisis and the difficult funding situation (that was Fall 2008, and the confusion was complete). As such, my search was narrowed down to European universities. The second element that guided my search, was the reputation of the universities and their professors. I checked out the work of research groups of universities that I consider highly in Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. Delft showed that they would start a large project on the remaining life capacity of concrete bridges, with shear as a mean topic, and that struck a chord immediately. Moreover, I was attracted by the reputation of the professor leading the research group. I sent an e-mail, then later sent my resume, and the rest is history.

Maybe I was extremely lucky to find a topic that really fit my research interest. Maybe the fact that I had a clearly defined research interest helped me find my position, which turned out to be a very positive experience.

Now that you know my story, let's look at a number of aspects to consider when selecting a PhD program and supervisor:

1. Your research interest

If you're going to spend 3 to 4 years of your life focused on one single topic, it'd better be a topic of your interest. Don't settle for a topic you are not interested in at all, just because you are getting funding. Don't settle for a topic that doesn't raise your enthusiasm just for getting a chance of putting "Dr." in front of your name.

2. Compatibility with supervisor

Before enrolling in a program, take a trip to your prospective institution to talk to your future supervisor in person. See if you share perspectives on your years as a doctoral candidate, see if you are on the same wavelength. While anything can happen along the road, such a discussion can give you an idea of how compatible your working style is with that of your supervisor.

3. Lab facilities

If you have an interest in experimental work, see what would be available to you when you'd join a given research group. Likewise, if you're more into numerical/analytical work, see what is available.

4. Learning opportunities

Every PhD is a learning journey. Inquire about the requirements with regard to technical courses, courses in which you train your soft skills, and more. Some PhD programs have a larger course load, some PhD programs are more research-oriented. Define what your learning needs are, and if these are in line with the opportunities at a given institution.

5. Post-PhD employment opportunities

Doing research for 3 to 4 years is lots of fun, but there's the truth of life after that too. Inform about the career paths of graduates from the program you are interested in. See if your prospective institution has good ties to the industry, which might give you more chances at finding employment after your PhD.

6. Location

If you are moving abroad for your PhD, consider the country and city you are moving to. Is it easy to find housingin that region? How high is the cost of living? What is the crime rate (aka is it OK to walk around with your laptop in your backpack?)?

7. Funding/Employment conditions

How is your research going to be paid? Will you be treated as a student on a scholarship, or a full-fledged employee of the institution with job security during a given amount of time and social security? Does your funding cover all years your PhD program is supposed to last?

8. Support for foreign students

If you are coming from abroad, inquire if the university is providing you with assistance for getting your visa, work permit, housing and all practical aspects of moving abroad. I can speak from experience that having to figure out all bureaucratic rules as a foreigner can be a long and confusing process...

9. Travel funding

What is the conference/field research travel policy of your prospective research group? Are you entitled to 1 international conference per year, or do you get to go wherever you feel like, as long as you write and present a paper? Is there funding to go and visit foreign labs? To participate in technical committees?

10. Research group

Last but not least, how is the atmosphere in the research group? Are people hanging out together for coffee breaks and lunch? Or do you feel that the cohesion in the group is rather small? Do you feel "at home" with those people, or do you think you'd be left alone?

These 10 aspects highlight different parts of your PhD research. From feeling well in your environment, to having the tools and resources to carry out your research, there are a number of topics to think of when you make your decision with regard to selecting a PhD program. Above all, trust your gut feeling: if you visit a research group, and your inner Big Nerd starts to get itchy fingers and shouts "Yes, yes, yes, this looks cool!", then go for it!

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