You have decided that a PhD is the next step in your career, but how do you go about choosing where to study? Do you go to the nearest university? Go abroad? Go where your colleagues have gone?

A PhD is a big investment in time and effort, so it’s worth doing a bit of homework to make sure you get the most out of it. PhD programs also have high drop-out rates. Many people start and don’t complete PhDs and many take years to complete. The program that you choose could increase your chances of success.

Here are three steps to finding a program that works for you.

1) Understand yourself and your circumstances

It helps to know what you want out of doctoral studies, how you like to study and the constraints, like family or work obligations, that you face.

First, it’s worth noting that PhD programs follow different structures. Some are cohort-based, with a group of students starting the program together and progressing through a structured set of learning activities. After completing this research training component, students usually go on to conduct their research with one or more supervisors. A cohort-based program might suit you if you like working with others, or if you have not studied for a while and need to “get back into it”, with the help of a structured program. The alternative is a more individual model where you work one-on-one with a supervisor. In this model you undertake research with guidance from your supervisor and you learn the craft of research in the process, by working closely with an experienced researcher. This model is quite common in universities which lack the resources to support a cohort program, but have excellent individual supervisors. This model will suit you if you like working alone and at your own pace.

 Next you should think about whether you want to (or can) study full-time or part-time. Full-time study will usually be faster and easier because you can focus on your studies. Part-time studies might work better for you if you are invested in your professional work and need to keep earning while you study. To complete a PhD part-time takes enormous discipline. So don’t opt for this if you need external motivation to keep going. You might also combine these options, studying full-time for part of your PhD and then switching to part-time, or vice versa.

Finally you need to decide where you want to study. Do you want your PhD to be an opportunity to see the world, explore another culture and broaden your horizons with exposure to your profession in another country? Then opting for a program abroad could be a great idea. In many fields, having international experience will benefit your career. On the other hand, you may have work and family obligations that necessitate studying in a particular city or region. Studying locally can help you to build relevant networks that improve your professional profile. If so, you have a much easier  choice since the institutions you need to consider will be constrained.

2) Understand what is on offer

While you are figuring out how and where you want to study, you can also start investigating the options out there. A good starting point is to look at potential universities in the area you are targeting (both the physical location and the field of study). Start to collect names and web sites, doing searches and asking for recommendations. If you are aware of a program that does research in an area that interests you, you might want to start there. A useful resource for finding universities is UniRank ( I’m not a fan of university ranking systems (because the quality of departments can vary widely within a university), but the UniRank website enables you to find lists of universities (and their websites) by country, county or province and by type of institution.

Once you have found a few likely institutions, you will want to examine their web sites to see if they provide a doctoral program that is related to your professional interests. You will want to distinguish between professional programs (usually called a Doctor of something, like a Doctor of Business Administration or a Doctor of Education) and PhD programs (which award a Doctor of Philosophy in something, like a PhD in Agriculture or a PhD in Information Systems). Traditionally, a PhD is a more academic program, with a more theoretical focus, while the professional programs focus on professional knowledge and so are sometimes a better fit for professionals. (Don’t get too hung up on the distinction, they will both give you a doctorate.)

You will want to be sure that the program does regularly produce graduates (check the library for copies of PhD theses) and that there are enough, well-qualified supervisors (check the department web sites for their profiles). To complete your PhD you will want to be sure that the university has a well-resourced library and, depending on your speciality, the equipment and facilities you will need to complete your research. You will want to establish the cost of studies and whether there are any scholarships on offer. Funding for PhD studies may be provided through national research funds or through grants held by supervisors. A good university will assist you to find funding options for your studies, as well as support to attend conferences or publish your work. Another consideration is the ease of working with the university processes, which can be smooth and easy or tedious and cumbersome. Look at the website to see how complex it is to enroll and ask staff or other students about their experiences.

3) Think about your research

The final piece of the puzzle is to think about the research you want to conduct. After all, this is the real point of doctoral study. While you will be learning how to do research, and refining what you already know, you will also be laying down a foundation for the intellectual work that you will do for the rest of your career. At no other point in your career will you have the time to delve deeply into a topic and become a real expert, so what you research will shape what you do, at least for the next five to ten years after graduation.

Research is about generating new knowledge and you will be a more effective researcher, and have a more rewarding experience, in a department or research unit where there is an active research culture. You want to make see if researchers in the department are publishing papers, writing books, attracting research grants and hosting regular seminars. Does the web site announce new projects or events? Look up the staff members and see what they have published recently. If publications are not listed on the university web site, look them up by name on ResearchGate or Download some of the papers and read them to decide if you are interested in the research being done.

Another consideration is what kinds of research methods are employed in a program. Some programs will focus only on research that proposes and tests hypotheses using statistical, or quantitative methods. Others will employ qualitative methods which include interviewing people to find out how they understand and experience things. Some doctoral programs are open to using both approaches or mixing methods. While you will be a more versatile researcher if you learn both qualitative and quantitative methods, you may find you have a strong preference for one or the other. For myself, I can only really understand why someone chooses not to use a particular kind of software if I talk to them, but my colleagues investigate the same problem (of software adoption) using surveys and statistical analysis. If you have a strong preference for one research approach, it will be better not to be in a department that only does research using the other. Look at the research being done, read some research papers, check the profiles of faculty members who will often declare their preferred research methods.

4) Put it all together

Now you know what you want and what your constraints are, you have an idea of what is on offer, and you have at least started to think about the kind of research you want to do, it’s time to find a match.

I could suggest that you eliminate all the programs that don’t meet all of your criteria, but you would probably end up eliminating every program! A good PhD experience, like a good partnership, is based on compromises. So start with the programs that come closest to what you want, and then think about where you might compromise. Some things may be non-negotiable, like where you study or what you can pay, but be try to be flexible with other considerations. Having to work in a cohort when you prefer to work alone could be a positive experience as you will grow from the challenge.

I suggest you narrow down your search to about 4 or 5 programs and apply to all of them. PhD programs are competitive, often accepting less than half of the applicants, so by sending off multiple applications you will increase your chances of being accepted, at least into one of them. If you get accepted into more than one, it is always good to have a choice.

Has this helped? Tell me in the comments below what is puzzling you about the process of choosing a PhD program. If you’ve already passed this step, share your process. Are you happy with your choice? What would you have done differently?