Undertaking Postgraduate Research

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This article is designed to offer advice to anyone applying to do a postgraduate research degree or looking for employment as a researcher in the university sector in the UK. It will cover:

Research qualifications
Careers in research
Challenges faced by researchers

Research Qualifications

For many people the first serious research project they undertake will be as part of a masters or doctoral degree. There are many different research qualifications depending on your chosen field, including MA, MSc, PhD and DPhil. There is not time to explore the benefits or downsides of doing these sorts of qualification here, but instead this white paper will offer advice to those who have already decided to embark on that path. For many students the progression to doing postgraduate work will come immediately after finishing a bachelor's degree. In this case, the research project you choose to do will probably be influenced by the subjects enjoyed while at undergraduate level. For example, Justin Dyson completed a BSc in Computer Science and his Warwick University based PhD project involved an exploration of similar technologies to those he studied for his practical work when he was a final year undergraduate.

In order to choose a suitable postgraduate project, you will need to discuss your ideas with your undergraduate tutors and your proposed supervisor. They will also be able to recommend sources of funding, a subject which will be touched upon later in this whitepaper. Sometimes the project you propose to do at the start of your degree programme will not be the one you present at its conclusion. Perhaps a tangential area of interest will suddenly become centrally important or the findings of others will influence a change in direction. Flexibility and adaptability are important skills to have when undertaking a research project. The application process to do a postgraduate degree is often minimal, provided you have the support of your future supervisor. Patrick Williams had this experience when applying to do a PhD in fluid mechanics. He writes ‘the application process was found to be relatively simple, consisting of an application form with the usual information followed by a 100-word summary of my project proposal. I had to also personally acquire two references from academics within the department'. It is advised that you make personal contact with your intended supervisor before applying as he or she will be able to help you with this process.

There will probably be some sort of assessment after your first year or so, to check that you are on track to successfully complete your project. Depending on your field, passing this assessment could result in your being put forward for a higher degree, or it may mean your funding award is confirmed. In the arts faculty, the interview after the first year often takes place with colleagues from your department who suggest future areas to develop the research. It also results in your elevation from working towards an MPhil to a PhD.

Obviously the research process is going to be very different depending on your chosen field. Scholars in the arts faculty often spend much of their research time in libraries and archives around the world, whereas scientists usually do much less travelling and instead work long hours in a laboratory based at their university. Although not a general rule, it seems to be the case that science postgraduates work more closely with their supervisors, perhaps co-authoring work with them, whereas supervisors of arts scholars are often just that, supervisors of the work of an independent researcher.

All doctoral degrees are awarded only when the candidate has successfully passed a viva voce examination. This takes slightly different forms in each institution, but an example is that you are asked to ‘defend' your research in front of an audience comprised of one internal and one external examiner. This process is very different in Europe, where in some countries candidates defend their research in front of a large public audience, including family and friends!

Careers in Research

In order to pursue a career in research based at a university many institutions require that you have done a masters or PhD previously. However, this is not always the case. Some are willing to accept students with a good undergraduate degree and then put them forward to do a part time PhD. This then becomes an alternative to doing a postgraduate qualification while fully funded. Justin Dyson found himself in this position, having been offered a three-year research associate post while simultaneously undertaking a part time PhD. However, this sort of post is very competitive with scholars worldwide applying for such jobs after seeing them on websites such as jobs.ac.uk and New Scientist.

However, in the arts faculty, this process is often very different. Research posts awarded before postgraduate work is completed are very rare and even those offered to scholars in the final stages of their PhD are very competitive and extremely difficult to get hold of. Applications for Junior Research Fellowships at Oxford or Cambridge for example have an international field, which is accompanied by very strong internal candidates, so it is a real challenge to even get an interview. Large-scale interdisciplinary awards to senior academics mean that the occasional short-term research post is advertised, although to be a successful candidate, you will be expected to be a specialist in that field or methodology.

This pattern is mirrored with more senior research posts. In the science and engineering fields it is possible to establish a complete career for yourself as a researcher. You may be asked to do a small amount of teaching by your university, but research will be your main focus. You would probably have to reapply to different posts every few years, but it would be possible to consider being a researcher as a fairly secure career move. In the arts however, it is very rare for more than a few posts to come up in a particular field each year. Many people who want to research in the arts also end up taking teaching jobs at universities too because unless they are lucky enough to be employed on a very lucrative project, the money for their wages will run out after two or three years. The more usual pattern is for someone who is already a lecturer at a university to apply for money to run a research project and this will give them time out from their usual teaching duties.

There is of course research jobs' working for institutions other than universities, such as in the public or commercial sector, look out for other career development advice on jobs.ac.uk in this area.


This is often the most important consideration for someone wanting to undertake either postgraduate work or become a career researcher. There are several sources of research funding to do a postgraduate qualification that will cover your living expenses. The main ones of these for UK based applicants are awards from the research funding councils, government-operated bodies divided into subject areas.


Applying to one of these councils cannot be done without the support of your supervisor and institution. You will need their input on the application form and sometimes the institution makes the entire application for you. Patrick Williams was funded in this way by the ESPRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk

Eminent institutions like Warwick would expect to secure funding for almost all its graduates in engineering because of the money available. However this is not the case in all subjects. Also research councils have tight deadlines for completion, so make sure you are able to finish your research in the time they demand or else you will find yourself without financial support and your university may be blacklisted.

If you find you are unsuccessful in your application to a research council, then there are other sources of income. Universities themselves offer scholarships and awards for different subject areas although there are often tight restrictions on who can apply for these, so again consult your supervisor about this. Other people choose to support themselves while doing a PhD by working and doing the degree part-time over five or six years. Juggling several commitments is challenging and, of course, it is preferable to be awarded research funding but do not simply abandon the idea of doing a qualification because you cannot get a full grant.

Not all funding is designed to support subsistence living. For those doing postgraduate degrees smaller awards are available to fund trips to conferences or archives or libraries so make sure you keep an eye on notice boards in your department that will usually advertise these sorts of awards. Subject bodies, for example, the Royal Historical Society, http://www.rhs.ac.uk/ also offer small amounts of money to scholars who can prove their need for it (a few hundred pounds at a time).

Once you have completed your postgraduate qualifications, the search for funding goes on and indeed is often a prerequisite for employment at the top universities even in a teaching post. There are many organisations in each field that offer funding to established academics, for example in the arts three of the most common are the Leverhulme Trust, http://www.leverhulme.ac.uk/

Wellcome Trust http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/

and the British Academy. http://www.britac.ac.uk/

If you are hoping to undertake international research collaborations, there are other funding bodies open to you, with American organisations being especially strong in this field. For example, many fellowships, scholarships and research projects in the U.S. and increasingly the U.K. are funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. http://www.mellon.org/

Research funding can allow you to take time out from teaching to undertake projects, or larger amounts of money allow you to employ researchers on temporary contracts to do research for you while you administer the award. Some universities now have administration departments that specialise in offering advice to academics hoping to win research awards. At other institutions each department has a research secretary or advisor who can assist in this way.

Challenges faced by researchers

The positive side to being a researcher is that you have a great deal of autonomy and intellectual creativity in the design and implementation of research projects. This sort of freedom is rarely allowed in the commercial research sector where the agenda is driven by business profit models. However, this work does have to be self-motivated and you have to be incredibly disciplined in order to stay within deadlines. Many researchers work long hours, especially if they are doing other jobs in order to top up their funding. Several postgraduate students described starting their working day at 9am and not finishing until 10 or11pm. Isolation can be another major problem, especially faced by those in the writing-up stages where there is no need to be in a laboratory or a library.

Other problems, especially faced by those who are doing science degrees include the negative effect of competition from other researchers and commercial organisations, some of which do not respect the work that is done by university researchers. Another challenge can be producing results that are verifiable by other scholars, whether this means statistically valid scientific experiments or fully annotated arts theses. These sorts of scholarly practices can be difficult to master, even more so when you have the time pressure of other researchers working in similar areas making constant advances. This area of research can be very repetitive and requires a disciplined, organised administration system, all of which can seem rather dull compared to the excitement of undertaking cutting edge research. And after all, this is what many researchers thrive on, the development of original thought and discovery of new ways of approaching a problem.


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