FAQ sheet

How do I apply for PhD study?
It is recommended strongly that you seek out the help of a prospective supervisor to guide you through the university’s requirements.

Some PhD places are offered with a scholarship, and they may be tied to a prescribed topic of investigation. For example the university may be developing research in an area such as games design, and may not be interested in a product design topic that you might want to undertake. In this case you should seek out a university that has interests and expertise in the topic that you want to study. It is however normal in design areas that PhD topics are chosen by the student, and that is assumed here.

What is a PhD?
It is helpful to have a sound understanding of the nature of PhD study. A PhD is a course of study which leads to demonstration of ability to conduct research independently. It is primarily a training in how to conduct research at a high level. Unlike a taught Masters degree the PhD is not primarily about the development of design practice, but focuses on the development of research practice.

How is a PhD study different to my previous studies?
PhD study aims to sustain a project over some years of detailed and rigorously conducted investigation that leads to new knowledge. This is often called ‘an original contribution to knowledge’. Whereas previous studies may have given you significant specialist knowledge of a field, PhD study aims to take you up to the boundary of knowledge in your chosen topic, and beyond. In order to do this, the PhD programme may consist of the following steps:

  • research questions or hypothesis to be tested
  • literature search that establishes all past and present work in your topic
  • literature review where you analyse previous work and come to conclusions about the future direction of your study
  • design of the research that you will undertake
  • collection of data through survey, observations or design practice
  • analysis of what you found

The final work is likely to be a written thesis that captures all the work done, and comes to conclusions about the robustness of what you found, and your contribution to knowledge.

The thesis will be read by a couple of subject experts who will then assess your competence as an independent researcher at a formal interview known as a viva.

You will be guided through all of these steps by one or more supervisors.

How do I choose a suitable university?
As with undergraduate and masters studies, there may be many reasons for choosing a particular university, including geographic location, fees, local social life etc. For PhD study you should consider the following:

  • is there a supervisor or supervisors that have the reputation and expertise to supervise my PhD at a high level?
  • does the intended department have the resources for my study?
  • does the department have a track record in successful completions of PhD students?

You may have to do some investigation to establish facts about the suitability of the university and its staff to support you. Always seek out supervisors who themselves have a PhD, and who are research active in your chosen topic. One way of finding potential supervisors is to browse academic papers for your chosen topic. You will find pointers to journal and conference papers elsewhere on this website.

How do I choose a suitable topic?
It is perhaps a fundamental prerequisite of PhD study that you should be curious about something. Was there an aspect of design in your previous studies that left you hungry for more knowledge. Did you not understand something well enough and would like to know more? With more knowledge of widgets, might you have designed a better one? Think carefully about what interests you, of gaps in your knowledge, or of something you are curious about. Then form some questions that you might ask yourself about this something, and do a little preliminary investigation to see if anything has been written about it.

What are research questions?
It is often very helpful to ask a question or questions about the topic that you want to investigate. These questions will be written down and subject to careful refinement during the early part of the PhD study. These questions are most important in framing and focusing the study in ways that are practical and robust. Research questions often reflect an identified gap in knowledge.

For example, an interest in furniture might focus on seats. This in turn might focus on sitting comfort. A research question such as ‘how comfortable are seats?’ would be far too broad. What is comfort? How could comfort be measured? What seats, all of them? By a process of refinement, a research question might be developed something like “what are users’ perceptions of comfort in standard class seats on Virgin intercity trains? This gap in knowledge might then lead to related questions such as ‘how could these seats be designed for better support and comfort?

Research questions are guiding statements for the study and, if refined properly, will provide clear boundaries to the study.

The investigation may be founded on research questions or hypotheses. The hypothesis is a statement that can be tested. For example, ‘seats on Virgin intercity trains are uncomfortable’ is a statement that could be tested for truth. There would be many different ways of achieving this depending on the student’s particular skills and interests, and the resources available.

There is a section of this website with resources for understanding and framing research questions.

What are research methods?
Research methods are tools or techniques for finding out something or possibly collecting data on something. For example, if you wanted to know people’s views about a product and how they use it, there may be several approaches you could take. You could look at historical records of use, you could observe people using the product naturally (perhaps by video recording), you could ask them what they think of it (by interview or survey), or you might bring them into to a closed environment and get them to perform tasks with it that you can measure in very accurate ways. The research method you choose must capture the data you want to record, with the ultimate aim of giving you a robust understanding that will stand up to scrutiny.

A tip. There are often misunderstandings about the terms method and methodology. Method refers to a technique. Methodology is the study of those techniques, though the term may also be used to refer to a collection of methods. It’s best to stick to the two former uses however.

What methods can I use?
There are hundreds of methods that have been developed over many years in various disciplines. Some of them may be useful to you, many will not. It is important to combine a general knowledge of methodological frameworks with specific knowledge of the few methods that will do what you need, and do it robustly. Each discipline generally has groups of methods that have importance to the work within that discipline, but the techniques may be satisfactorily utilised by other disciplines.

Is the PhD theoretical or practical?
Both. You will certainly use and develop theory. There will be practical aspects of the PhD including, but not restricted to, design practice. The PhD is about the development of research practice in all its many forms.

Is my proposed study doable?
This is best discussed with potential supervisors. Do remember that the study must be completed within the allocated time, usually three years full-time study in the UK, longer for part-time study. Common problems include: may be too vague (therefore nobody has real understanding of what may be involved); may be too broadly based (therefore too much work to do in the time allowed); may be linked to a company who may withdraw or have different ideas; may depend critically upon equipment that has yet to be purchased; may require too expensive materials; may involve travel or fieldwork that would be prohibitively expensive; or may be ethically dubious or dangerous.

It is important always to consider that you are using your interesting study as a vehicle to gain a deep understanding of research and a PhD qualification. It is not your life’s work, that comes later once you have become an independent researcher.

What should my initial application contain?
An initial application, the sort that you might use to make an initial enquiry about the suitability of a university or department, might contain the following elements:

  • title
  • introduction — why this topic is of interest; what is known about it; your view of the evidence that you have found; where is the gap in our knowledge?
  • research questions — try to frame the questions that will drive the study; keep them succinct
  • methods — what kind of methods might you use? You don’t have to be expert to make a guess at what might be needed.
  • conclusion — what do you expect to get out of the study? What new knowledge is expected?

It is important to find out as much as you can about the topic, the university, and the potential supervisors, so that you can make good judgements about what to present at this stage, and to inform the decisions that you will subsequently make.

Never forget that PhD study is about evidence-based reasoning, and the initial enquiry is a good place to start. If you assert something, give the evidence. For example, if you state that seats are uncomfortable on trains, how do you know that? What is the evidence for that assertion? If there is no evidence then it’s simply your opinion.

What jobs can I get postdoctorally?
The PhD was traditionally a licence to teach. Certainly there is increasing demand across the world for academics who hold the PhD. Such subject knowledge can establish the tutor as an expert at the forefront of knowledge in their field. This is good for teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and of course also for PhD supervision. It also opens up possibilities for advancement to research director and beyond.

The world of design practice is also changing. For example, as environments and products become more complex and challenging, as sustainability is addressed by design, and as companies of all kinds attempt to understand their customers better, evidence-based reasoning is increasingly being applied. Both industry and design practices are today characterised by interdisciplinary teams, working together collaboratively in understanding of the other’s position and engaging in rigorous research.

The thinking skills developed in the PhD are also applicable to a wide range of managerial posts across many disciplines.