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Food for thought for prospective and beginning PhD candidates

A PhD is a challenging project which generally takes several years and a high degree of self-initiative, self-responsibility, endurance, and self-organization. A PhD demonstrates the ability to independently generate and communicate new academic insights. PhD candidates thereby make an essential contribution to the advancement of academic knowledge. Whether or not your PhD project will be a success depends on your motivation and your surroundings.

We would like to share some food for thought with you which should help you reflect on your motivation to pursue a PhD, find a suitable supervisor and work group, and ultimately help you successfully shape your doctorate.

Should I pursue a PhD?

The decision whether or not to pursue doctoral studies should be well thought out. Take your time to get enough relevant information to make an informed decision. Get a realistic idea about pursuing a doctorate, reflect on your motivation and inform yourself early on about what it takes to successfully achieve a PhD. Talk with PhD candidates and people who have already achieved a PhD. Read one of the many handbooks and guides for PhD candidates and those interested in pursuing a PhD (see 6. Literature recommendations). These contain valuable information and advice.

Questions which should be resolved during this phase

  • Why do I want to pursue a PhD? What is my motivation?

  • Is a PhD a necessary step for my career?

  • What expectations do I have concerning my time as a PhD candidate?

  • Do I have a realistic idea about my time as a PhD candidate? How well informed am I about doctoral studies and everyday research?

  • Do I have the right personal requirements for a PhD?

  • Do I know how I will finance my Ph

How do I find a suitable supervisor / work group?

If, after thorough consideration, you have come to the conclusion that a PhD is the right step for your future, then you have an extensive project ahead of yourself, which generally takes several years. During this time you will be working intensively with your supervisor and research group in which you will write your dissertation. The success of your PhD depends considerably on whether the work environment you are in is suitable to you or not. Reflect openly on your wishes and expectations and inform yourself about people with whom you would like to work with. Prepare yourself professionally for a possible interview and take the opportunity to clarify mutual expectations.

Important questions for choosing a suitable supervisor / work group

  • What do I expect from my supervisor?
  • How do I envision our collaboration?
  • Is the professor an expert on the area which interests me?
  • Is he or she actively engaged in research?
  • Does he or she actively participate in international conferences?
  • Who are his or her research partners?
  • Does he or she have an international academic network?
  • Is the work group productive?
  • What kind of positions have his or her PhD candidates been able to take on right after achieving their PhD?

What does it take to successfully attain a doctorate?

As with other projects, a good start is half the battle. Achieving a doctorate is a project – take it on as such. Create transparency with your supervisor at the very beginning about the requirements and criteria which you must fulfill in order to complete your PhD project and document this in your doctoral agreement. Participate in conferences and conventions and present your work there. Make yourself and your work known and network with your scientific community as early as possible. Identify people with whom fruitful collaboration is viable. Go on a research stay abroad. Visit courses which expand your competencies.

A PhD is rarely achieved without problems and challenges. In general there will be ups and downs - even if you have the best possible supervision and are working together with a very supportive group. Do not let yourself get discouraged by these difficulties – instead, prepare yourself for such difficulties.

Questions which should be resolved during this phase

  • What can I expect from my supervisor?
  • What can my supervisor expect from me?
  • How do I network within the scientific community?
  • How do I make my work visible?
  • How do I successfully publish my work?
  • How can I use my time more efficiently?
  • What can I do in crisis and conflicts? Where can I get help?
  • Which qualification courses should I visit during my doctoral studies?
  • Am I familiar with the offices of UZH which are responsible for the promotion of junior researchers?
  • Am I aware of opportunities to apply for funds for projects, conference travel, research stays abroad, etc.?
  • Do I know my rights and obligations?
  • How do I successfully manage my PhD project?

You are not alone during your PhD at UZH

The University of Zurich provides a broad array of targeted measures and activities for the promotion of early career researchers. Various offices accompany you throughout your doctorate at the UZH – from matriculation to the conferral of the doctorate (and beyond).

Literature recommendations

The following books, brochures and articles (in German and English) are only a selection of the vast literature concerning the pursuit of a PhD.


  • Phillips, E. M., Pugh, D.S. (2010). How To to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors. McCraw-Hill: Maidenhead Berkshire.
  • Stock, S., Schneider, P., Peper, E., Molitor E. (2009). Erfolgreich Promovieren. Ein Ratgeber von Promovierten für Promovierende. Springer: Berlin, Heidelberg.
  • Knigge-Illner, H. (2009). Der Weg zum Doktortitel. Strategien für die erfolgreiche Promotion. Campus Verlag: Frankfurt/Main.
  • Peters, S. (2012). Gut beraten durch die Promotion. Best Practice für Promovierende. Springer Gabler: Wiesbaden.


  • Qualitätszirkel Promotion (Hrsg.) (2012). Shaping a doctorate together. Guidelines for doctoral candidates. Onlineprinters GmbH: Neustadt a.d. Aisch.Download (PDF, 255 KB) (PDF, 249 KB)
  • Mentoring Deutschschweiz (Hrsg.) (2015). Erfolgreich promovieren - Leitfaden für Doktorierende (2. Auflage). Luzern: Universität Luzern, Fachstelle für Chancengleichheit.Download (PDF, 982 KB) (PDF, 959 KB)


  • Dr. Vater

    (Lilith Volkert, Zeit Online, 6/2013)

  • PhD survival guide

    (Leonardo Almeida-Souza und Jonathan Baets, EMBO repoerts, 13/2012. DOI: 10.1038/embor.2012.15