Choosing physics: Postgraduate study (PhD)
So what is a PhD and what does taking one on involve? What qualifications do you need, and what sort of physics topics can you explore? We’re here to help you understand your options.
A PhD is a research degree you can complete after your Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. The PhD bit actually stands for Doctor of Philosophy, and it’s also sometimes called a doctorate.
You usually spend three or four years reading up about a topic, conducting original research under the guidance of a supervisor (or supervisors) and publishing papers in academic journals. Near the end, you write a thesis about the latest knowledge on the topic, alongside your original research, that can be abound 250 pages long.
Once you hand in your thesis, your final task is a viva voce examination. This is a defence of your thesis, and it can take several hours. It involves an oral presentation and Q&A with internal and external examiners who will ask detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.
Why take on a physics PhD?
It might be hard to imagine you can contribute new understanding to physics. The subject’s twin pillars – relativity and quantum mechanics – were first explored over a century ago, and physics has already explained complex processes and phenomena ranging in size from the most minute particles to the entire universe. But the truth is that humanity has only just begun to peel the lid off the physical world’s many mysteries. If you want to study – and hopefully help explain – some of physics’ unsolved problems, your best option after undergraduate studies is to apply for a PhD.
What are my options?
It’s important to understand that when you accept a PhD offer you are committing three or four years of your life to a relatively low-paid, highly demanding job. It’s not just a continuation of uni – although you do still get student discounts.
When choosing your PhD, the range of topics and projects you could research is vast and constantly changing. You’ll need to hunt for available PhDs that interest you through department contacts, or perhaps search individual university websites or dedicated guides like Postgraduate Studentships, FindAPhD or studyportals.
The general research area, project, supervisor(s), department, location and finances all need to be carefully considered before taking the plunge, so do your research and seek out advice before committing.
What do I need?
Most universities require candidates to have a good honours degree, i.e. upper second class (2:1) honours degree or higher. If you have your heart set on a particularly popular topic or university department, you may need a first class degree. Once you’ve chosen the project and department, you’ll need to fill out an online application form and provide a CV with references.
Evidence of your academic chops and genuine excitement about the topic need to come through both in your application form and subsequent interview, so make sure you swot up beforehand.
What’s it like?
The idea of being free to set your own agenda and work schedule is alluring – ultimately, you will be responsible for your learning, perhaps for the first time in your life.
How free you are to pursue your own research interests, however, will depend on your field and supervisor(s). Some students will have a clearly defined research topic tailored to their supervisor's wider research programme. Other students might only be given a physics problem by their supervisor, before being largely left to their own devices to try to solve it.
Whichever way the student-supervisor relationship pans out for you, to make the most of your PhD you must learn to manage your time effectively and learn to ask questions when you don’t understand something. These soft skills will help you to tackle two of the most common challenges in a PhD outside of the research: finding a good work-life balance and conquering self-doubt.
For many, making friends with people from across the world with a similar passion for physics is one of the best things about taking on a PhD. Not only will your department more than likely be a cosmopolitan melting pot, but you’ll get a chance to meet new people at conferences and physics facilities throughout your studies too.
One of the hardest things can be seeing your experiment, code or line of reasoning fail after weeks or months of hard work. The flip side to that might be your first lightbulb moment when you figure out why it failed, and perhaps discover something no one else has seen before in the process.