A signpost with the word PhD pointing left and another signpost with the word industry posting right

November 27, 2020, by Joseph Walters

A PhD or Industry?

By Joseph George Walters, PhD Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy

How would you even begin to know if a PhD was right for you? Testing the waters of both working in industry and academic research helped me to decide.

An Uncertain Future

As a second-year undergraduate, I was not sure what to do after my degree. At the time I saw two options:

Option 1: Working in the civil engineering industry.

I felt a lot of pressure to pursue this option from my peers and because of the vocational nature of a civil engineering degree. Many of my course mates had already worked for an engineering company in the summer of our first year. I had been sat soaking up the British sunshine.

Option 2: A PhD.

I initially thought of this as an option to take the pressure off the first. However, I knew very little about academic research or even how to start getting into it.

I decided to put my two remaining summers to good use and explore both options.

My Summer in Industry

Through a friend I got a job at a civil engineering consultancy.

I initially spent a week learning how to use a drainage modelling software. Once proficient, I then spent most of my time advising other employees on their drainage models. This was a very rewarding experience both technically and socially in a professional setting, and I enjoyed the challenges that came with it.

However, there were some aspects of working in industry that were less appealing to me.

It quickly became apparent that contracts, money, and timescales governed everything. I felt that this often created a tense and constrained environment.

Further, as an undergraduate at university, I was repeatedly told that I would become a future leader (in engineering). When shadowing a team leader for a day in industry we spent all day sending emails. Whilst I love a good email session it got very tiresome very quickly.


  • I was capable, useful, and valued
  • A varied and educational experience
  • I contributed to real-world engineering projects


  • Work was constrained by contracts
  • Money and time ruled
  • Progression to a leader role was uninviting

My Summer in Research

The next summer I successfully applied for the Nottingham Summer Engineering Research Programme (NSERP).

From a list of proposed projects, I choose one based in architecture. I saw this as an opportunity to do something different having spent all year studying civil engineering.

The project was to send surveys to professional architectural institutions across the Commonwealth of Nations. The aim was to assess the capacity of nations to cope with rapid urbanisation and climate change challenges.

My role was to analyse the primary survey data and bring in complementary secondary information about each respondent country. I then compiled and visualised the data into a report. This report was later presented and published at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018.


  • Flexibility and freedom
  • Overcoming an uncertain challenge
  • Research that addressed a real-world problem and has had world-wide reach


  • Initial project uncertainty
  • Waiting for survey responses
  • Repetitive tasks

A Decision

The independence and control I had over the summer research project were pivotal factors in my decision to pursue a PhD. There are of course many other factors and career options to consider, and many more blog posts available that explore these.

Comparing these summer experiences helped me to decide what the next stage in my career would be. Now, as the end of my PhD approaches, I remain keen to test the waters of further career opportunities.

If you are in a similar situation to Joseph, why not read our Thinking about a PhD page or check out our resources on choosing your career? If you want to discuss your options with a careers adviser, book an appointment with your Careers team.

Posted in Choosing Your CareerFurther studyPhD StudentsStudent BloggersWork experience