Student, are you interested in becoming a doctoral researcher?

As the graduation date of a university student approaches, he or she will probably begin to consider different career options. One option is to become a doctoral researcher. What are doctoral researchers doing in their work? Reading and writing all day? Well, they do that too. But there's a lot more to their job description.
Picture of Annu Perttunen and the tree of science.
Annu Perttunen looking at the doctoral theses displayed in Trees of Science.

In addition to reading and writing, research work includes project planning, teaching, teamwork and practical research, such as data collection and analysis. The job also includes travelling to conferences and organising various events and participating in them. Applying for funding as well as marketing your own research is also part of the job.

Does that sound interesting? At the University of Oulu, doctoral training is coordinated by the University of Oulu Graduate School (UniOGS). However, in different faculties the path of how to become a doctoral researcher is different.

“There are different traditions of research in different faculties,” says Annu Perttunen, Director of the UniOGS.

According to Perttunen, the first major step in applying to the Graduate School is to find a principal supervisor.

“The doctoral researcher and his supervisor create a long relationship with each other and it’s therefore important that the supervisor himself decides who he takes over. The doctoral researcher must demonstrate to his supervisor that he is genuinely interested in what he intends to research.”

It is important that the doctoral researcher is happy with the subject of the research since the doctoral training corresponds to four years of full-time work. The subject of the research may be something from the researchers own interests, or a predefined entity from which one of the research units of the university wishes to receive more information of.

“In both cases, it is important that the subject is personally relevant and important to the author. It directly affects to motivation, which is important for the progress of work,” says Perttunen.

Research has social relevance

For Olli Loukola, who is a behavioural ecologist at the University of Oulu, research on the cognitive abilities of different species and information use within and among them has been a passion since 2010. After his doctoral thesis was accepted, he went to be a postdoctoral researcher in London, where he got interested in studying bumblebees. He is currently conducting similar research at the University of Oulu as a grant researcher.

Loukola studies not only the intelligence of bumblebees but also what influences the welfare of them. Loukola and his research group have considered, for example, how the herbicide Roundup affects the learning and memory of bumblebees.

“It is important to study the topic, as it also provides important information to decision-makers. The EU's new Pollinators Initiative is on the way, and the results of the study we have carried out may have an impact on it,” says Loukola.

Like mentioned above, research can have such great effects. Moreover, the fact that research is based on a broader meaning is important. This will ensure that research will continue to receive funding in the future. Funding often steers the direction of research.

“It is important to think about what kind of research attracts media attention. If people are interested in the subject, it will put pressure on the funders and the research can be continued,” Loukola mentions.

Only few doctoral researchers receive funding covering the whole process, so time must be taken to consider how the funding will be organised.

“The doctoral researcher can work as a paid member of a research project throughout the research project or part of the time. Some doctoral researchers work independently with a grant, where funding has been sought from external actors and foundations. Grant researchers who meet certain conditions may also receive part-time employment from the university. The doctoral research can also be funded in other ways if the work is part-time research carried out in conjunction with your own work. Financial questions may be a concern for the doctoral researcher, but the supervisor will support him in applying for funding,” Annu Perttunen says.

The skills learned in doing research benefit also in other professions

According to Perttunen, the career of a doctoral researcher teaches many skills that are also useful in other professions.

“The job teaches project management and communication skills, for example. In addition, you can gain teaching experience, create diverse networks and gain social visibility. These skills can then be used at later stages of the research career or at another job outside the university,” says Perttunen.

Do you need to know already during your master's studies if you want to become a doctoral researcher?

At least it is good to take into account that a previous degree must be completed with good grades. However, it is not necessary to start a study as soon as you have completed your degree. According to Perttunen, many doctoral researchers may have gone to work, for example, and then come to do research.

“Of course, if you realise during the process of your master’s thesis that you are interested in doing a doctoral dissertation, it will make the career path as a doctoral researcher easier. It makes it easier to become visible to the supervisors and find the needed people. It also helps the planning process of the work,” Perttunen says.

Currently, there is demand for doctoral researchers.

“The large age groups are also leaving the arena in this field. It is important for the society that research is done,” Perttunen says.

Are you interested in getting a doctoral degree at the University of Oulu? See the application instructions of the University of Oulu Graduate School

Text and photo: Vilma Lehto

Last updated: 9.12.2022