Choosing where and with whom to do your research

If you have not yet chosen a university, research institute or supervisor to work with, then start reading here.

The university you go to may open doors to careers that you had not thought of, so close reading about any employment links and placements they organise, as well as looking at careers that their alumni have undertaken, is necessary.

If you are seeking an academic career then it’s sensible to aim for a university that has a history of sending its graduates to work in other universities. If you want to stay local then choose a university that is embedded in its region. Interesting clues to a university’s employability records and strengths abound in unusual places - has the university chosen a local person as its Ghair, Provost, President, Chancellor or Rector, or has it looked for a more national or international figure? (These are ceremonial roles but also can have a key influence in the overall direction of a university because in addition to handing out degrees at graduation ceremonies, they frequently chair important meetings.) Which aspect of different league tables does your preferred university highlight and what does it not say? What does its website highlight about the university strategy or key objectives? Is it focusing on particular industry, business and/or public sector employers or does it describe many multi-disciplinary projects (sometimes known as ‘The Grand Challenges’). If you want to travel and learn another language, this is an ideal opportunity and very worthwhile, but expect a few challenges on the way. In any case, you still need to look at what the alumni have gone on to do.

There are a number of international differences between PhD programmes. In the USA you will join a taught programme and only have an individual supervisor (or supervisory' team) after a couple of years. In much of Scandinavia the supervisor is not allowed to be involved in the recruitment process (to avoid bias), but positions in places like Norway and the Netherlands are often remunerated full-time employee roles, with pension. In other countries there are varying fee levels and sponsorship might come with quite a few obligations - for example, the obligation to go back to a home country' and work there for many years after graduation, or to teach a course as part of a longer degree programme.

The evolution of the doctorate from being primarily a licence to teach in the Middle Ages, through its role in the nineteenth-century university as a centre of research, to the more homogenised and capitalised product that we have today, has been well charted (Taylor, Kiley & Humphrey, 2018). The clever student recognises that the current formalisation of introducing research into the curriculum, especially the doctorate, has led to larger numbers of students, more competition and different measures of success (metrics), especially measuring the number of successful completions on time. This inevitably impacts on institutional expectations of students, but the clever student also seizes every new opportunity to maximise their chances of doing the type of research they truly want to undertake.

In the UK you will have the choice of undertaking a traditional PhD by research (see Figure 1.2) or a professional doctorate. The professional doctorate (such as the EdD in education, DBA in business, PsyD in psychology and EngD in engineering) will often have more taught and assessed courses and may have a slightly shorter research project, but in some cases goes alongside a licence to practice in a particular profession (see Figure 1.3). These are sometimes referred to as ‘modern doctorates’ and they have closer links with employability outside academic (see for case studies on different programmes across Europe). There are opportunities to undertake a PhD by publication (where esteemed published articles and sometimes books form the main part of the thesis but the capstone document that pulls them all together is very important; see Figure 1.4). The PhD by publication is sometimes a route open to existing, experienced members of academic staff.

If you are at the stage when you know exactly what area you want to research in then you need to meet possible supervisors and academics before

Shapes of the doctorate (I)

Figure 1.2 Shapes of the doctorate (I): the deep, narrow research-question-oriented doctorate

Shapes of the doctorate (2)

Figure 1.3 Shapes of the doctorate (2): the funnel - a doctoral programme where broad mastery and research depth are both required

Shapes of the doctorate (3)

Figure 1.4 Shapes of the doctorate (3): the PhD by publication with a capstone document

committing to that group. In some countries and for some programmes you apply to (or through) a named academic. Occasionally, researchers have found to their cost that choosing a high-profile academic as their supervisor has meant that their supervisor is incredibly busy, travels a great deal and has very little time for face-to-face meetings, so asking how much time a supervisor is likely to have to spend with you at this interview stage could give you very helpful information.

First stages in career planning

Background on careers for PhD graduates

After achieving a doctorate or a post-doctoral contract, an academic career or other role in higher education may seem the most obvious next step in a PhD graduate’s career. In Norway a recent report suggested that 60 per cent of PhD graduates want an academic/research career (Reymert, 2017). In the UK the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) (2017) reported that 39 per cent want an academic career in higher education and 14 per cent want a research career in higher education, while 15 per cent were not sure yet. Other career aspirations that between them made up about 20 per cent of the sample were: any other professional career; ‘the employer who is sponsoring the degree’; self-employment and teaching. There were over 57,000 participants in the survey from 117 UK universities, 65 per cent UK residents, 9 per cent EU and 26 per cent non-EU (Slight, 2017).

However, the ambition of up to 60 per cent of PhD graduates to follow an academic career is often not happening in practice. Hunt, Jagger, Metcalfe and Pollard (2010) found that only a minority of doctoral graduates (19 per cent) work in higher education research roles three and a half years after graduating and 22 per cent in higher education (HE) teaching or lecturing. Most of the rest have moved into roles outside HE in sectors such as healthcare, education, engineering and business.

There are many different influences behind the careers choices made by doctoral candidates. An Australian review identified a range of factors including: work experience, whether or not the qualification was obtained at a research-intensive university, distance learning, the use of certain job search strategies and access to networking opportunities (Jackson & Michelson, 2015).

Another key influence to take into account is how individuals see their identity trajectory'. The power of the ‘imagined future’ is very strong and explored by McAlpine and Turner (2012).

How career aspirations develop

According to a publication by Vitae (Haynes, Metcalfe & Yilmaz, 2016), the long-term career aspirations of respondents changed significantly if they had subsequently been employed in higher education doing research:

  • • Only 18 per cent continued to have aspirations for an academic career.
  • • The most common career aspiration was for a non-research career outside HE, selected by one-third of respondents.
  • • Aspirations to self-employment/running own business/consultancy or other role in HE both more than quadrupled to around one-fifth of all respondents.

Male respondents were slightly more likely to report an aspiration to a career in research, both within HE and other sectors. Females were twice more likely than males to report aspirations of a long-term career in HE in roles other than research and/or teaching. Overall, long-term aspirations showed a more even spread of career interests and were fluid, with movement in various directions. For example:

  • • a significant number of respondents aspired to further career transitions, for example one-fifth aspired to self-employment/running own business or consultancy, double those currently self-employed
  • • only 70 per cent of those who now aspired to a research career in HE held that aspiration as HE research staff
  • • only 40 per cent of those who now aspired to a research career outside HE were the same individuals who had held that aspiration as HE research staff.

Imagined future selves

At the beginning of this chapter, the first risk mentioned was ‘failing to use research to plan your career’. One of the ways to counter this risk is to look at all those you meet during your research and build up a picture of the type of work they are doing. Our identity is formed in complex ways, and is constantly evolving, so it can be powerful to imagine ourselves undertaking various roles in the future (McAlpine & Turner, 2011). As that exploration deepens, so we can make more reasoned decisions about whether or not this is the future we seek. Chapter 12 explores ways of doing that.

Possible occupations

Of those surveyed by Haynes et al. in 2016, four-fifths of those in work were employed in one of nine occupations (see also Chapter 12). When starting as a student doing research it is important to consider the broadest possible range of roles and organisations. In some countries commercial organisations will offer more opportunities to do pure research than might be available in academic institutions, but these opportunities may also be directed by commercial objectives. As we will see, the transferable skills gained through doing research can open a wide range of career options in commercial, public sector and not-for-profit institutions. There are also many levels of education and many ways of working in education to be considered - from policy to practice. A growing group, for example, are the researcher developers.

While most PhD graduates in Norway are employed, even there there is still, as elsewhere, a problem with short-term contracts (Thune, Kyvik, Olsen, Vabo & Tomte, 2012). In the UK the Concordat on Careers (Vitae, 2008) aims to create a more stable environment for academic researchers by influencing funders and employers. In a fast-moving world looking to the past is not always the best guide to the future, which is why in Chapter 12 there is also a section on the entrepreneurial researcher.

Longer-term trends

Trends in longer-term employment for doctoral graduates have been measured three years from graduation. This research highlighted the major value of doctoral study to researchers, employers and society. There was good evidence for the relative employability and value of doctoral graduates and it identified an earnings premium for those with a PhD over those with a master’s degree but warned against the economic insecurity caused by short- and fixed-term post doctoral contracts (Mellors-Bourne, Metcalfe & Pollard, 2013).

Summary of advice on career planning as you start your research

  • 1 Choose a research topic that will introduce you to the broadest possible network of people so you can see how and where they work and decide whether or not it is for you.
  • 2 Use your developing research skills to find out about and keep records on jobs and organisations that you find interesting.
  • 3 Keep as many options open as possible: if you are offered (or create) the opportunity to publish from or present your research, even if it doesn’t seem important at the time, do it because it will keep open doors that might later become attractive, Moreover, it is a positive thing to put on your CV. Imagine yourself in as many roles as possible to create a range of ‘possible selves’.

What can you expect from your supervisor?

This varies depending upon your needs, their strengths and how the university is organised. In some universities there are now large generic undergraduate and postgraduate support programmes. These can include outstanding help with writing academic English and writing English as an additional language. Some universities are organised so that they have good postgraduates or post-docs trained to offer disciplinary-based help in such things as data search, statistics and other quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis. Team building, project management and communication skills are also often on offer. Many universities have outstanding work placement or work experience plans and excellent careers departments, so your supervisor’s role might be to highlight these opportunities and enable you to access them. The framework introduced in Chapter 2 and which runs throughout the rest of this book is one way of analysing what you need (and this will change at different stages of your research) and the concepts of supervising research that your supervisors may be operating from. Then you can identify strengths, any gaps and discuss how these gaps might be filled.

The European Higher Education Qualifications Framework

There are many excellent national frameworks of higher education which set out in outline what is expected of students at different levels (see examples for

First Cycle (BA Hons)

Second Cycle (Master’s)

Third Cycle (PhD)





  • • have demonstrated knowledge and understanding in a field of study that builds upon their general secondary education, and is typically at a level that, whilst supported by advanced textbooks, includes some aspects that will be informed by knowledge of the forefront of their field of study
  • • can apply their knowledge and understanding in a manner that indicates a professional approach to their work or vocation, and have competences typically demonstrated through devising and sustaining arguments and solving problems within their field of study
  • • have the ability to gather and interpret relevant data (usually within their field of study) to inform judgements that include reflection on relevant social, scientific or ethical issues


  • • have demonstrated knowledge and understanding that is founded upon and extends and/or enhances that typically associated with the first cycle, and that provides a basis or opportunity for originality in developing and/or applying ideas, often within a research context
  • • can apply their knowledge and understanding, and problem-solving abilities in new or unfamiliar, environments within broader (or multidisciplinary) contexts related to their field of study
  • • have the ability to integrate knowledge and handle complexity, and formulate judgements with incomplete or limited information, including reflecting on social and ethical responsibilities linked to the application of their knowledge and judgements


  • • have demonstrated a systematic understanding of a field of study and mastery of the skills and methods of research associated with that field
  • • have demonstrated the ability to conceive, design, implement and adapt

a substantial process of research with scholarly integrity

  • • have made a contribution through original research that extends the frontier of knowledge by developing a substantial body of work, some of which merits national or international refereed publication
  • • are capable of critical analysis, evaluation and synthesis of new and complex ideas





• can communicate information, ideas,

problems and solutions to both specialist and non-specialist audiences

• can communicate their conclusions, and the knowledge and rationale underpinning these, to specialist and nonspecialist audiences clearly and unambiguously

• can communicate with their peers, the larger scholarly community and with society in general about their areas of expertise




• have developed those learning skills that are necessary for them to continue to undertake further study with a high degree of autonomy.

• have the learning skills to allow them to continue to study in a manner that may be largely self-directed or autonomous.

• can be expected to be able to promote, within academic and professional contexts, technological, social or cultural advancement in a knowledge based society.

Normally includes 180-240 ECTS credits

Normally carries 90-120 ECTS credits - the minimum requirements should amount to 60 ECTS credits at the Second Cycle level

ECTS credits not specified

Source: Adapted from the EHEA Framework (2018).

Ireland: (NFQ).aspx; the UK: frameworks.pdf (2014); Norway: the-norwegian-qualifications-framework-for-lifelong-learning/; and Australia It is worth delving into the part of the one that is most relevant to you. Perhaps the most commonly used one was originally devised at Bologna for the European Higher Education Area, and in the abstraction created for Table 1.1 we can see some differences between the different levels of the curriculum laid out next to each other. Here we can see that the first section for each level of knowledge relates to the level of understanding of knowledge that is required; the second section relates to the ability to continue their learning; and the third section relates to the student’s ability to communicate that knowledge. The EHEA Framework of Qualifications is the set of descriptors which covers the widest higher education area, so that is what is referred to in the following three sections and summarised in Table 1.1.

In this chapter I have deliberately foregrounded some issues about career planning. Not because you need to decide now, but because you need to keep open the widest range of choices available. In Chapter 12 we will look at how to make decisions between these options. But first, in the next chapter I am going to introduce a framework for analysing what you need and what your supervisor (or supervisory team) can offer. This is a problem-solving framework that can be applied to all levels of higher education and many other dilemmas in life, but it originally came out of research into effective supervision with doctoral students and supervisors.

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