Stephanie (Steff) Ashby is part-time PhD student within the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University. While in the initial stages of her research, she intends to explore the efficacy of implementing Lean Six Sigma within a Higher Education environment. Prior to this she attained a BA in Mathematics and a BSc in Computer Science from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MBA from Durham University. As her ‘day-job’, Stephanie currently works full-time as an Admin Officer predominately involved in postgraduate student recruitment also for the School of Management and Languages.

Having made the decision to pursue a PhD, you now have the dilemma of choosing the university and department which best suit your individual preferences and requirements.

There are the obvious factors to be considered, such as in which country the university should be based, in which language you wish to study, access to funding and supervisor availability.  There are also a number of other factors that should similarly be a part of your decision making process.  These factors are not always obvious but can have a significant impact upon your PhD experience.

The research culture of a department and how that department treats its research students is worth attention.  A quick look at a department’s website will give clues as to whether students are encouraged to attend conferences, publish academic papers, participate in dedicated workshops or are allocated their own office or workspace.

It is also worth investigating whether the ethos of a PhD programme within a department is in line with your own PhD motivation, academic needs and future ambitions.  It might be that a research only degree is right for you.  Alternatively you might prefer to find a programme that encourages you to also attend courses, gives you the chance to learn new skills, or enables you to have teaching, research or consultancy opportunities.

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Many students discover that undertaking a PhD can be a lonely experience and if this is something which you think will be a problem for you, then finding a department which facilitates a vibrant student community is vital.  Not only will your fellow students provide social diversions, but they will be the ones to show you around when you arrive, help you navigate the administrative processes and perhaps even proof-read your work.  They will be the ones with whom you can practice your academic arguments, swap ideas and collaborate.  In short they will form your first academic network and many of them will become your friends for life.

The location of the campus can also be important.  If you need to support yourself through a part-time job, you might find more employment options available should you chose a city based institution rather than one based in a small town.    Similarly those with family commitments should note the whereabouts of childcare facilities or local schools.  Keeping travel to a minimum can reduce stress and save considerable time in the long-run.

Campus facilities that are in-line with your personal needs can also improve your enjoyment of student life.  Such facilities might include whether the library provides the key journals appropriate to your area of academic interest, whether there is separate provision for research students, whether the institution provides facilities particular to your sporting abilities, social requirements, food preferences and medical needs.   While these later points may have previously influenced your undergraduate decisions, don’t forget with time and maturity your priorities will have changed.

Many of these factors might not be immediately apparent from an Institution’s prospectus.  However a search online, both through the Institution’s own website and other student related webpages, should provide the information you need.

Picture by Lauryn under CC license.