Have you ever thought of doing a PhD?

A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is awarded for postgraduate study in any subject (not only Philosophy) which involves substantial independent research that can be considered to be ‘adding to knowledge’ in your area. It usually takes 3-4 years full-time in the UK, produces a single-authored thesis of up to 100,000 words (depending on discipline), and is examined by two academic examiners through viva voce. Applicants are usually expected to have a good first degree and evidence of some previous research (such as a master’s dissertation), although exceptions can be made for significant ‘real world’ experience in a relevant area.

A PhD can be a life-changing event, a career-development opportunity, a career-changing opportunity, a chance to deeply explore  an area of interest, a chance to develop and demonstrate your expertise, a chance to both broaden and deepen skills you didn’t know you had, a chance to impress your nearest and dearest (although also a chance to bore them rigid with the details…), and many other things. It is also, of course, the first step to an academic job.

If you are currently thinking YES, that’s for me! but don’t know how to go about it, read on.

The nitty gritty

Funding for PhDs in the UK covers the tuition fees and a maintenance grant of around £15,000 per year, usually for three years. It isn’t a loan, unlike for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and you don’t have to pay it back. However finding funding can be difficult and is very competitive.  Much of it is now funnelled through Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs), which are held by one or more universities in partnership with one of the UK Research Councils.  The Open University is part of one such DTP funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), along with Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Design is an AHRC funding area, and the OU Design Group has some students funded through this DTP.  There is more information on applying for a PhD as part of the Open-Oxford-Cambridge DTP at https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/home – click on ‘Prospective students’ and then ‘How to apply’ to see the process.

In order to apply for the OOC DTP you will need to have developed a research proposal in some detail. This should be discussed first with a potential supervisor, who you can identify by looking at individual profiles;  a list of the current Design academics is here.  The supervisor should be someone with demonstrable research experience and interest in the area you are proposing, who is willing to support your application and work with you on the development of the proposal for the OOC DTP, and who will agree to be your primary supervisor.  The deadline for OU applications through the OOC DTP is midday on 11thJanuary – so you need to decide pretty quickly if this is something you want to try for.

Within the School of Engineering and Innovation at the OU (where the Design group sits) we also have an internally-funded student each year. Potential areas are defined by academics, and for this year these will be advertised in January, with the deadline for applications on the 4th March 2022.

A third approach is to look for advertised PhDs in specific areas through sites such as jobs.ac.uk or findaphd.com.  This is where you will find opportunities which have already been defined to a greater or lesser extent, usually as part of a wider research project.  These are generally advertised throughout the year, although it’s worth noting that many deadlines will be early in the year for a PhD starting in October. For both the second and third routes, it is also a good idea to get in touch directly with the academic who has posted the opportunity to discuss it with them before sending in an application.

Your supervisor will be your new best friend!

Well maybe not quite, but the relationship with the primary supervisor is really important. As well as discussing your own research ideas, you might want to ask questions about their supervisory style, and about other PhD topics they have supervised in similar areas.  If you are looking to do a PhD to move in to academia, you could ask them about any links with national and international groups and research projects which you might be able to get involved in. If your research idea is very industry-focused you could ask about their links with industry. At the OU, as with most universities, we expect students to have two or sometimes three supervisors; the primary supervisor is often the most involved in helping you develop the direction of your research, but you might want to ask about potential co-supervisors too.

Some final points:

  • A PhD is a long-term decision and commitment; you need to be sure that it’s right for you, and to spend some time investigating it.
  • For speculative applications, or for the AHRC OOC DTP mentioned above, you need to know what you want to research (pretty important!), and find a supervisor with the expertise and desire to support you in doing this.
  • Academics are usually pretty happy to discuss research with interested prospective students – early contact is not a way of gaining favour, and certainly doesn’t count towards a successful application, but it is a normal and expected part of the process.
  • However, remember that academics are often over-loaded. It’s worth checking individual profiles to see if they clearly state that they are interested in receiving expressions of interest from prospective students. If they don’t get back to your first email, probably worth trying a second time in case they missed the first, but after that accepting that this is an indicator that they don’t have the time or interest.
  • If you feel that the supervisor is looking for you to do something different to what you have set your heart on, or that their style of working won’t suit you, think twice about signing up to a three year relationship which won’t work for either of you.
  • Finally, despite all our undergraduate students being distance learners, the OU currently requires full-time PhD students to live within commuting distance of Milton Keynes for the three funded years of the PhD.

Do read back through past posts, and watch out for future posts, on design@open to see potential areas of research interest.








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