How to get a PhD
Trying to wrap your head around how PhD programs work? We don’t blame you. Sometimes it feels like you need a PhD just to figure out how to get a PhD.
So, with a little help from our academics and some current UQ PhD candidates, we’ve broken down the application and preparation process into 10 manageable steps:
- Complete prior research programs
- Choose your topic
- Find a PhD supervisor
- Write your PhD proposal
- Identify potential scholarships
- Gather required documents and apply
- Determine what work you’ll do (if any) during your PhD
- Calculate how long you’ll be researching your PhD
- Develop the traits and behaviours of a good PhD student
- Start your research
Let’s discuss how to get a PhD in Australia – from choosing your topic to getting stuck into the actual research.
1. Complete prior research programs (if necessary)
You don’t necessarily need a master’s degree to start a PhD. However, you do need to have completed an extensive research project (such as an honours year at the end of your bachelor’s degree). This is because the selection criteria for getting into a PhD program includes having demonstrated experience in conducting effective research.
2. Choose your topic
Whether you’re refining a thesis you’ve already worked on or branching out into a new area of interest, you’ll want to know early what kind of topic you want to research for your PhD. Finding a niche that sparks your curiosity is important for ensuring you’ll stay inspired during the 3+ years ahead.
Keep in mind that you generally have two options here. You can complete a PhD by:
- joining an existing research project in an area that interests you (less prep work required, but less control over your topic)
- start a fresh research project that aligns with your specific goals (more prep work required, but more control over your topic).
3. Find a PhD supervisor
One of the essential steps to consider when thinking about how to get a PhD is finding someone to guide you through the process.
Approaching academics about your PhD can be intimidating, but shortlisting and selecting the most appropriate person / team to supervise your research project is important. By choosing your mentor carefully, you can ensure you’ve got someone in your corner who understands your research, has relevant expertise, and will be there to support you throughout your journey.
4. Write your PhD proposal
With your chosen supervisor’s guidance, it’s time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Your PhD proposal is an essential document for outlining the scope of your research and giving your project its initial momentum.
5. Identify potential scholarships
Dedicating yourself to research sometimes means sacrificing your income in the short term, though it can lead to more financial security in the long term. To support yourself and your family during your studies, you can apply for PhD scholarships and funding.
6. Gather required documents and apply
It’s time to jump online and do the official application process. Aside from your research proposal, you should also prepare to provide your:
- academic CV
- academic transcript
- degree certificate(s)
- English language documents (if needed)
- ID (such as a passport)
- two references / letters of recommendation from people who can comment on your research experience.
7. Determine what work you’ll do (if any) during your PhD
PhD candidates can usually continue doing part-time or casual work while completing their research. Depending on your circumstances, this might be something you have to do to get a PhD. However, this takes some serious time-management skills and dedication. So, think carefully about whether you’d like to keep working throughout your PhD or commit your attention fully to your research.
8. Calculate how long you’ll be researching your PhD
There are only a couple of uncompromising things you need to do a PhD. One of them is time.
Something as monumental as a PhD can feel overwhelming if it doesn’t have a tangible end date. You can keep the next decade more organised and predictable by mapping out approximately how long you’d like to work on your PhD.
However, you should anticipate at least 3 years and 3 months (full time) and prepare to be flexible with your timeframes if your project hits any obstacles. The very nature of research is that you’ll discover unexpected things and take unplanned detours along the way – so it’s not always feasible to set an ironclad deadline for your PhD.
9. Develop the traits and behaviours of a good PhD student
We know you’ve already got what it takes, but there are some skills and attributes you could cultivate or practise to make your upcoming journey a little smoother. Between writing your proposal and meeting with potential supervisors, be sure to set some time aside to work on yourself as well.
10. Start your research!
All the prep work is done. You’ve equipped all the gear, chosen your guide and mapped out your route. All that’s left to do is start climbing that mountain – a mountain that will feel much more surmountable once you’ve begun.