It’s nice to be spoilt for choice, and readers who are in that position should count themselves lucky. But regardless of whether you already have a list of possibilities or you are still at the stage of struggling to find or generate a great idea, read further for useful criteria to narrow your search.
PhD students are, by definition, mature students. Many must therefore take into account not just their own preferences but the needs of a partner and perhaps children. Even if you are lucky enough to land a fully funded PhD place, it can cause great disruption and cost if it means that your partner must leave his or her job, or you need to sell a property.
Start by assessing your circumstances: are you footloose and fancy free? If so, the whole world is open, and you should start by identifying the five best universities in the world for the kind of research that you want to carry out. Otherwise, discuss the options with your family: would they be comfortable with you commuting to a university in a distant part of the country every week, or would a family move be OK—or out of the question? How about an overseas move (near or far)?
The answers to these questions will automatically narrow the field of enquiry.
Follow the money
Next comes the question that is make-or-break for most: will you be self-funded or do you necessarily need to find a funded PhD place? If it’s the former, go directly to your “top five” universities and look for academics you want to work with. The rest of us, however, will need to look a bit more broadly.
In the UK, jobs.ac.uk, research council websites and the websites or newsletters of any large research organisations in your field are good starting points. If you haven’t already, join online discussion forums for professionals in your research area, as calls for PhD applicants often appear there first. And, of course, do a regular trawl for information about PhD opportunities at your top university choices. In mainland Europe most universities list funded PhD places with their academic vacancies.
Information about PhD places in the UK does not go through any central clearinghouse: many places are filled via lecturers recommending favourite postgrads: a sort of internal conveyor belt from MA to PhD. So make sure your favourite lecturers know about your PhD ambitions—and ask them directly for advice. If there’s little chance where they currently work, they may know of a colleague whose department has recently been funded in a way that creates opportunity.
Follow your bliss
The late Jospeh Campbell gave his students the following advice: “follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be” (Campbell, 1991: p. 150). This was never more true than when it comes to choosing a PhD project. When you did your MA, what areas of research did you want to give more attention to? If you are coming back to academia from the world of work, what issues excite you, what problems desperately need a solution? If you are in the sciences, what makes you want access to a lab or the right tools for enquiry? The answers to these questions should give you clear direction for what kinds of projects you should either propose or apply to join.
In many STEM subjects, any choice you may have will be between projects conceived of by someone else. Choose those that you know are the best fit for your research talents, the ones where basic parts of the research programme will be so easy and pleasant for you that there will be room to innovate. It’s only through that process that your PhD work will be really your own on this kind of funded project.
You should also pay close attention to who you will be working with: you may be able to suffer through a few years of drudgery much easier if you’ll be working alongside an intellectual heavyweight as your principal investigator. That can make an otherwise unattractive prospect much shinier, because it opens up long-term possibilities
Campbell, Jospeh and Moyers, Bill (1991) The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books.