30. Masters: Mapping it Out (5) – The Transition from Masters to PhD

Nearing the end of a Master’s degree can feel like you’re approaching the end of student life as you know it. No more lectures or taught classes to attend. Very few seminars or tutorials lined up in the calendar. Indeed, the transition from a Masters to a PhD – or to the world of work – can seem like you’re facing the gigantic jump from school to university all over again. Those on a research degree will have already crossed this hurdle. But for others, life on the other side appears to be rather opaque! And so this week, we’re asking our fabulous RGS postgraduate committee to share their experiences of transitioning from a Master’s degree to a PhD and probing them for their top tips and tricks. For if they can’t assuage our fears, no one can…


Nina Willment – Royal Holloway, University of London. I was really shocked at the transition from Masters to PhD. I thought a PhD would be at an even faster pace than the Masters but really the PhD is far less intense. You have a bit more time to focus on academic life away from writing, which I have really loved. I felt the transition between Masters and PhD is more pronounced in terms of responsibility with elements such as teaching coming into play during the PhD, which were absent at Masters. Although this has been the scariest part of the transition, I felt it has been the part that has helped me to grow in confidence the most.

James Brooks – University of Manchester. The transition from Masters to PhD was intense, but with the support network and friends around me, was more than manageable. My recommendation would be to note down anything important, as often a lot of information gets mentioned around you, and you can feel a little stressed out! If you are confused or want help, always shout. Just because you are a PhD student doesn’t now mean you are an expert in everything – we aren’t perfect!

My PhD was in a very different field than my Masters, so it was quite a big change with regards to the literature, but I kept calm and made sure I kept a work-life balance. Do not feel consumed by the large quantities of reading – take one article or textbook at a time and enjoy it!

Chris Martin – University of Leicester. I found the transition from Masters to PhD has been hard, but I have been loving (nearly) every minute of it. I was a bit of a lazy Masters student and my results reflected this, but I decided to get serious for my PhD. Developing better study habits and organisational methods has been the hardest thing, although so saying this the intellectual challenge has been pretty intense at times and I’ve really struggled to get my head around some of the concepts. It doesn’t help that I’m really into poststructuralism and I really have to think hard to try and get it to make sense – and it still doesn’t always! For me just putting in the grind means I get there in the end, and this to me (complemented by the Eureka moments when stuff just suddenly falls into place), works. I didn’t do an undergrad and went straight into my Masters after years of working, and while it was challenging it was manageable. I’ve found doing a PhD is at a completely different level – sometimes scarily challenging but one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Jo Hickman-Dunne – Loughborough University. I did a year of work between my Masters and PhD, which was enough time for me to realise that I wanted to get back into academia! I didn’t find it too difficult as I enjoyed having the freedom to take my work in the direction I wanted to. It can be overwhelming when there is no one telling you exactly what to read and which key questions to consider, but again, a good supervisor will help to guide you. My advice would be, don’t be afraid to set out with your supervisor at the beginning: How you like to work, do you want to be micro-managed? Do you want to be left to it? Do you need specific deadlines? Etc. This way you can both understand what you expect from each other from the start, and it makes the transition a bit easier.

Dan Casey – University of Sheffield. The main thing is that at PhD level there is a lot less structure, the emphasis is on you to get the work done. At Masters level there are more lectures and set assignments with deadlines. With the PhD, the only main deadlines are usually a confirmation review (a progress review usually in the first or second year to see if you can progress and are likely to complete the PhD on time) and the thesis itself. That’s one thing I’ve found pretty challenging … as I can find myself drifting off into other activities and roles, which are interesting and useful to have … but, as my supervisors say, at the end of the day if you don’t have a thesis you won’t have a PhD in the first place! So, self-discipline is needed. You’ll probably thrive on this though and it’s a good way to experience whether academia is for you going forward. I also love teaching!! I have a Graduate Teaching Assistant role at Sheffield and this is something I never got the chance to do at Masters level. I’ve taught on a Masters field class in Tanzania (which included teaching our own ACTS co-ordinator, Martin Watts, at the time), led seminars, delivered workshops and next term I’ll be giving my first ever lecture to 180 first year undergraduates. You get helped with training for these and also aided with developing your professional skills base.


So there we have it! Top tips and advice from those who have made the daunting transition from Masters to PhD level. I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone on the committee who has given up their time to share their tips and suggestions over the last few weeks. If you have any questions at all about life as a Masters student or applying for a PhD, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! My email is: alice.watson@seh.ox.ac.uk. Thanks for reading and do keep your eyes peeled for future posts in my blog series, ‘Masters: Mapping it Out’.

Alice Watson

MSc in Migration Studies, University of Oxford

@aliceewatson