'What subject should I do for my doctorate? And how can I use my passion for science?'

Second chance

Q. I have sold my company and will soon be able to do other things. I would like to do a doctorate – I decided against this 20 years ago, although I was offered a place. I have narrowed my subjects down to three or four but don't know who to ask for advice.

A. It is excellent that you will have the time and opportunity to study again. To make the most of the experience, however, it is vital to think carefully about whether a postgraduate degree is the right course for you now.

You say you have narrowed your options for study down to three or four subjects. This suggests that you don't have such an overwhelming passion for one that you really want to spend a minimum of three years digging ever deeper into it.

Doing a PhD is demanding and intense. The best way to find out if it would suit you (and the process has changed and become more focused in the past 20 years) is to pick one discipline and research it. Look up the relevant academic material, see whose work interests you. How would you want to develop that interest, and what would be the focus of your research?

Talk to universities and see if you can find anyone who can give you an insight into what the work would be like. There is plenty of information available to give you a flavour of the way things have changed – look up www.grad.ac.uk and read Estelle Phillips' and Derek S Pugh's very useful How to get a PhD (Open University Press).

Consider whether you would get a sense of satisfaction by first pursuing a Masters degree – in research or in one of your chosen subjects. This would both prove your academic credibility and enable you to move on to a doctorate if you still wanted to do so.

At a loss

I'm totally lost. I loved science and took a science degree. I went to work on a newspaper but left after a series of difficulties, going on to do an MSc in science communications. But freelancing was difficult and I am now working for a telecommunications company, with a job in technical writing that I don't like.

Maybe your passion to tell people about science has allowed you to overlook the realities of working in the field. All the jobs you mention have constraints – circulation figures, deadlines, and, in the case of technical writing, tightly prescribed and unvaried subject matter. Freelancing is a difficult option early in a career because it relies on people to think of you when they want work done, and also to have faith you can deliver. That often means freelancers have considerable specialist expertise and a large network.

It's time to take stock. Do a careful review of your jobs so far, noting exactly what it is you like or dislike about each and what skills you want to use in the future. Teaching, for example, is based on communication. Would your love of science and the desire to communicate it to people make that a good option for you? Would it be the sort of environment you would enjoy? Look up www.tda.gov.uk for more information.

Using the results of your review, try a diagnostic tool like Prospects Planner www.prospects.ac.uk/links/pplanner, which allows you to create a profile of your skills and interests and match them against jobs.

For more ideas, news and blogs on science careers look up http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development.

Send your queries to Caroline Haydon at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or email to chaydon @blueyonder.co.uk