PhDs

Posted on October 21, 2009. Filed under: All, Education | Tags: , , |

Over the years I’ve had a number of enquiries about becoming a PhD student within my fledgling research group (when I had one). Every single one of them seemed to think that a) I had plenty of topics for them to work on and b) I had lots of money to fund them.

Let’s get a couple of things straight – in the UK, very few universities or other research organisations have funding for PhD research unless it is associated with an established high profile programme with external funding allocated to it. The majority of PhD students are, therefore, financed by themselves, their employers or their governments.

This also means that, although the potential supervisor (Director of Studies in PhD-speak) might have a lot of good ideas it is morally and ethically dubious for him or her to attempt to dictate the topic to the student. A secondary issue is that it is very difficult to judge the ability of a potential PhD student from just a CV and a few lines of references. For this reason, most responsible DoSes will ask the applicant to come up with a research proposal – usually of one or two pages – to allow them to assess the candidates suitability. They should also ask the crucial question “who’s paying? ” (strangely enough, once this question is asked about 75% of applicants give up – makes you wonder what the motivation was really ? )

The proposals are quite informative – some are just page after page of material ripped from the ‘net (do you think we really don’t know the sources better than you do ? ) and go straight into the bin whilst muttering the word “plagiarism” again. Others read more like the sort of essay one would expect from a school pupil. Poorly referenced, ill-thought out and full of journalistic tone and opinion. The good ones, though few and far between, are a joy to read. They contain a properly considered argument explaining what the general research area is, have an indication of what the critical research questions might be (these haunt PhD candidates for the rest of their lives…) and how they might be answered. There will be proper references to published recent papers on the subject (not just a list of books and webpages).

So – if you’re thinking of applying for a PhD – prepare first – please don’t just send an e-mail asking if there are any PhD place – tell the potential DoS what you want to do and it’s going to be paid for – that might get you to the next stage – the interview. At that – there will be one crucial question : “Why do you want a PhD ? ” – and there is a right answer to that – but I’m not going to give away all the secrets now.

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    This is the weblog of Angus M. Marshall, forensic scientist, author of Digital Forensics : digital evidence in criminal investigations and MD at n-gate ltd.

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