Throughout your undergraduate and masters degree (the latter is required for most PhD programmes) you’ll develop knowledge about your chosen subject area, and acquire skills that will help you if you go on to do a PhD. There are other things that you can do alongside your degrees to better prepare you for PhD study, and to ensure that it’s the right path for you.
Explore different areas of scholarship and research
Use the essays or projects you do for your degree to try out engaging with different ideas and areas. Do you notice anything that the scholarship hasn’t covered that you find surprising? Think about how you could potentially contribute towards filling these gaps, and make a note of them, as you might want to come back to these ideas later. It’s often the case that things you aren’t able to cover in one project can become the foundation for further work, such as a dissertation, or even a PhD project.
Make the most of your relationship with tutors and lecturers
Speak to your tutors and lecturers about your interest in doing a PhD. They will be able to give you lots of advice about preparing and applying for a PhD, as well as what it’s actually like to do a PhD. It’s important to have strong relationships with your tutors as you’ll need them to provide academic references for any further study applications you make. Tutors working in your area of interest will also be able to help you decide the best place to do your masters or PhD, and might be able to introduce you to potential supervisors. Tutors might help you to write your applications or proposals for further study. You can also go to careers for advice on further study, and for help with your application.
Get involved with your department
Attending department events such as research seminars will not only be interesting, but get you known in the department. Through doing this you will be able to establish links with researchers at different stages of their careers who may be able to offer valuable advice.
Many conferences will also put aside a small number of free (or reduced) tickets for taught students, particularly when they are happening within the university. Going along to conferences in your area of interest will help you to learn more about your area, network, and get a sense of this part of academic life. See if you can present your work at an internal conference. You might get the opportunity to give a paper on your dissertation in the final year of your undergraduate, or during your masters degree. This will be great experience for giving papers and presenting at conferences during your PhD.
Get some academic experience beyond your degree
Many departments have schemes which employ you as a research assistant to help an academic with their work. This is a good way to gain insight into what it’s like to be an academic, and to do research at the level of those working in academia. There might be additional courses that you can do through the university alongside your course, such as training in digital humanities, or programming skills. Think about what skills might benefit you later on, and look for opportunities to develop them.
Get experience outside of academia
It’s a good idea to try out different career areas and gain different experiences alongside your undergraduate degree. This will help you to decide if further study really is the right path for you, and if it doesn’t work out, it gives you other options to pursue. You can also gain experiences which might help in a PhD. For instance, if you’re interested in doing a PhD in History, museum volunteering might give you opportunities to work with objects, while some corporate engineering work could generate ideas about the real-world impact of research.
It can be beneficial to take time out of university before starting the PhD. Doing this will give you more time to develop your PhD application, rather than going through the application process alongside all your other deadlines. Your masters research may also inform your PhD proposal, so it can be helpful to have this completed before deciding what you want to do your PhD on. Taking a break will also help you to decide whether doing a PhD is the right option for you. Remember, there’s no rush to do a PhD, and you can come back to academia later on.