Choosing a PhD Programme; Which University?

The choice of department to undertake PhD study is not straightforward, although some relevant factors include:

Supervision in your chosen field

Few students are completely sure of the direction of their PhD studies before starting out. But you will have an idea of the broad field and can establish whether a department is strong in that area and able to provide good supervision.   Research strength in specific areas can be based on a few research-active individuals in a department so does not necessarily require large numbers of academics. On the other hand, the presence of a Research Centre or Research Grouping shows a strength in depth which will be helpful for looking for advice and interest in your work.

Training Programme

As discussed on the choice of route, all departments now offer a taught element in the training for PhD.  An obvious consideration therefore is the length, coherence and coverage of the taught programme offered by a department. How quickly can you begin to think about your research topic?; is the material delivered by academics from your chosen school, or from a consortium of universities, or bought in from outside?; are the modules offered relevant to your broad area of interest?; etc.

Research culture

It is important that you join a department with a healthy research culture even outside your specific chosen field. In the UK, there is a regular Research Evaluation Framework (REF) exercise which judges the quality of research in each department (in terms of the publications of the academics, the research environment and the real-world impact of the research work carried out in the department).  REF 2021 results are published here. The REF outcomes are a coarse but useful snapshot of the work undertaken in the departments and the health of the department’s research culture.

Two notes of caution:

(i) REF results are often presented both in terms of ‘GPA’ (score per member of staff submitted) and in terms of ‘Research Power’ (total scores). The GPA scores could be manipulated, at least in REF2014, by selective inclusion of staff so it is important to pay attention to departmental size when looking at REF outcomes. The Research Power measure does not suffer from this problem; and (ii) many Economics Departments submit as a group within the Business & Management Studies Unit of Assessment (UoA19) rather than as a stand-alone group in Economics (UoA18) so it is worth looking at both UoAs for information.

Other rankings of university departments of Economics include;

Department Size

The norm in the UK is to have two supervisors and a PhD can be successfully completed working with just these committed supervisors.  But there are advantages of working in a larger school. For example, a lot of advice and support in undertaking a PhD comes from other PhD students and a larger school will usually have larger cohorts of students. The quality and ambition of your fellow students thus matters a lot. Increasingly, departments list their students, their interests, and the placement of their recent graduates. This is indeed something applicants often ask at PhD interviews. Also the amount of interaction you have with students is important, so it is worth considering facilities (e.g. common room, shared spaces where you discuss your respective works at 2am, and so on).

Another important reason for paying attention to department size is that your interests will evolve over the course of your studies. It will be important for you to be able to access the widest range of expertise as your interests change. And supervisors do sometimes leave the institution or take sabbatical. It is important that the school has sufficient capacity to provide good replacement supervision and this is of course more likely in larger departments.

Work Opportunities

PhD students can deepen their understanding of Economics and gain valuable skills as Teaching Assistants on undergraduate programmes. Care needs to be taken in managing your time and agreeing the nature of the teaching. For example, 4 hours of contact time each week through a teaching term might be manageable but more could be disruptive; repeating a class four times is easier than delivering four different classes; and so on. But, if your supervisor approves, this work can be very rewarding and can enhance your research. Similar comments apply to opportunities to work as a Research Assistant on research projects in the School or to take up short-term placements/internships in government or research organisations that can offer relevant work. These are very attractive aspects of a PhD that some Departments are able to offer.

The UK has a long-standing reputation for tolerance, academic freedom and a positive attitude towards migration, parts of which has been dented in some eyes by the UK’s separation from the EU. But recent Government policy interventions – e.g. continued association with the Horizon Europe research programme, and promotion of student mobility through the Turing programme –  confirm that the UK remains committed to global education and attracting the most talented students and academics from around the world.

The UK as a place to study and work

The UK’s revamped immigration policy includes a variety of measures designed to encourage international students to study in the UK. The launch of the Graduate Route visa means international doctoral students will be able to work or look for work after their studies for up to 3 years. Applicants will not need a job offer to apply for the route and there will be no minimum salary requirements nor caps on numbers. Graduates on the route will be able to work flexibly, switch jobs and develop their career as required.  Those intending to pursue a longer term career in the UK post-PhD are likely to benefit from an expansion of the Global Talent route to a UK visa and from a skilled worker points-based visa which means individuals holding a PhD and with an offer of a job with a fair wage should have no problems in entering the UK to work.

The market for Economists is a global one and UK universities are working hard to strengthen their global presence and influence, including delivering a more welcoming offer to international students. Most important though is that UK universities offer the highest quality training. UK Economics, with its highly-ranked universities, will ensure that this remains the case and that its doctoral students receive the quality education they desire and which will deliver interesting and rewarding careers in the UK or internationally.