Deciding to do a PhD is probably one of the biggest decisions you will ever make in your life! A substantial step up in both expectation and skill from undergrad, I am all too aware that the prospect at first is overwhelmingly daunting. But unfortunately no-one can make this decision for you! It is simply a journey that you need to need to begin with as much information as possible about your path as you can possibly gather at that time. That will put you at a huge advantage and I also hope that is one reason why you read my blog for other PhD advice and tips 😛
For me though, the most important step before embarking on the PhD journey is knowing what you actually want to spend the next four plus years of your life trying to answer! Something that in theory it should be simple enough to work out, but in reality is much more difficult with the plethora of PhD projects on offer. Recently, I’ve been getting a few messages on Instagram from students finishing their undergrad and wanting to start a PhD who are looking for some advice. So I thought there must be others out there with similar questions so I thought I would share my advice with everyone else 🙂 So here it goes…
It needs to be the right topic!
Probably the easiest and most obvious place to start. If you are going to spend the next four plus years doing research trying to figure out the smallest of pieces of that particular puzzle then you are going to have to enjoy learning and studying about that field. There’s no use applying for PhDs in neuroscience if you have no interest in the brain or neurodegenerative diseases for example. But once you’ve decided on a field, you need to narrow down your interests further. So, if you are interested in neurobiology, are you more interested in finding treatments for Alzheimers or multiple sclerosis, or are you more interested in finding out more about brain stem cells work? The more specific your interests are, the easier it will be to find projects to apply for. However, saying that sometimes being too specific isn’t the best course of action either as trying to get a PhD is incredibly competitive so you might need to broaden your horizons in order to bag yourself that place.
Right topic, right supervisor!
Choosing a supervisor is tricky because you can’t really get to know a person until you start working with them and socialising with them – no matter how many emails you send and meetings you have. But having the right supervisor can make or break you as a PhD student.
But if you can’t get to know whether you will get on with a supervisor before you start your PhD, how on earth do you decide? Continuing from my last point, you have to start by choosing a problem that interests you, which may seem obvious but you will be amazed at how many students don’t do that. But to then get the most out of your supervisor during your PhD, you have to be interested in what they do. So you are already starting with something in common. My supervisor will take any opportunity to get out of the office and move down to the coffee room to talk about my results and what they mean, simply because they are so passionate about the topic. But it always devolves into more of a chat, but sometimes I learn just as much from these general chit chats than I do from just my research.
Your supervisor will be your mentor, your friend, your confidante, your adviser, your boss, your voice of reason, will always play devil’s advocate and probably several other roles. So, you need to make sure it is a voice you will want to hear for the next 4 years or more. They will be the ones encouraging you to pick that pipette straight back up again when your experiments fail yet again. They will be the ones to challenge that hypothesis you have just spent hours putting together. But they will be that driving force steering you and helping you getting over the finish line that is submitting your thesis.
Now I would say 99% of PhD supervisors are super busy. If you looked at their diaries, they have got meeting after meeting or are away on trips or writing grants plus much more, so how do they have the time to have a cuppa and a chat with me whenever it suits? To be honest, some supervisors only have 30 minutes for you every fortnight so it again depends on your needs and what suits you better, but unfortunately this isn’t something you can gauge over emails and interviews, which leads me nicely on to my next piece of advice.
Who else is in your lab squad?
Regardless of whether you see your supervisor once a day or once a fortnight, there will always be a group of guys and gals who you will see much more often who I have affectionately called your lab squad! This may be more senior PhD students, medics doing a research degree or lab technicians. They will be the ones to teach you all the things you need to know, show you the ropes for this lab, take you to the hottest spots in town and become an essential source of knowledge and tricks of the trade.
WHEN you get called to interview for your PhD, you must go on a lab tour. Usually this is part of the interview process, but if it isn’t ask before hand to be shown around the labs. But also ask if you can have a chat with the current students and lab group. Fit in around their schedules so if it means you have to arrive 2 hours before your interview or wait for an hour after your interview, do it! These guys and gals will be your source of insider info and give you a feel for whether you will fit into the lab and also whether you would get on with your potential supervisor in a day to day setting. Make sure you have a list of questions to ask your potential new lab squad as your time with them will be limited and precious, so I have thought of a couple to get you started:
What is best about this lab?
What opportunities are there for science communication?
Do you socialise outside?
How busy is the supervisor?
How much support do you get?
Have you been to any conferences or published?
Money, money, money!
Until you start studying for a PhD, I think most people don’t realise how expensive scientific research is – like one antibody can cost £200!! But you’ve got to think about where that money for your research is coming from and where the money is coming from that is going to allow you to live and eat and survive whilst you are studying.
So, how are you planning to fund your PhD programme? Are you going to be self-funded or are looking for a scholarship? If you are looking for a scholarship, do have a look at www.scholarshipportal.com that will help you in search of exciting funding opportunities from the most prestigious universities in Europe. Applying for a scholarship is always a competitive process but it is certainly worth a try. Personally, there was going to be no chance that I would be able to self fund 4 years worth of money for PhD study so I only applied for funded positions. So, make sure you know what options are available to you and what that particular PhD you’re interested in is offering. It is no good falling in love with a project that would need to be self funded when you don’t have the means to do it!
Location, location, location.
Where in the world are you going to study? Many students stay at the same university as they did their undergrad. This makes things easier as you already know the city and you might even know the lab squad and the supervisor which makes it easier to suss out whether you will fit in with that lab or not! Perhaps you want to be close to home, or perhaps you want to experience working in a lab abroad. On the other hand, if you don’t want to spend all of your 4 years of study in the United States for example but still want a flavour of international lab life – perhaps look for PhD projects that are linked between universities. For example, a girl in my lab has just spent 2 months in Hong Kong for her project and also a previous Scientist in the Spotlight Catia B was based in Portugal but is now spending her days working at MIT in Boston. These are all things you need to consider when thinking about applying for that PhD project.
For me, location wasn’t really an issue. As long as I could reach the motorway to get home relatively easily I would have gone wherever. The project was much more important for me!
Why do you want to do this?
Your motivation is an important factor that should guide you while searching for the right PhD programme. Also, you don’t instantly have to enrol in a PhD right after you have finished a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree. A break of a year or two or even more may be necessary to gain perspective and to figure out exactly what your interests are, in terms of a possible subject for your research. Many people opt for landing a job for a few years before going back to study and apply for a doctoral degree. But whichever path you took to reach the bottom of the PhD mountain, you have to know why you want to start this journey. A good idea would be to start asking yourself a few questions like:
Are you motivated by a subject interest or do you consider a PhD degree as a step towards developing your career?
Are you planning to work in academia afterwards and prefer to focus on developing research and teaching experience?
Or are you willing to develop your career in industry? In this case, you may search for the PhD programmes that involve collaboration with industry.
Whatever your motivation for doing a PhD, there will be one out there for you. I’m not going to lie, it is super competitive and you will have to do a lot of searching coupled with rejection after rejection after rejection! If you survive past this stage and get to accept a project, then you are already showing the resilience of a proper PhD student and the motivation to succeed no matter what gets in your way.
Picking the right PhD project for you is tough! There is so much to consider and even then you don’t want to be too picky because of how competitive it is to get accepted onto a program. But sink some hours into searching for that project, contact PhD supervisors or even your potential future lab squad members and ask as many questions as you can, but do remember these people are busy and allow them time to get back to you, and always be applying to multiple projects – don’t just apply to one and wait for the outcome even if it is your dream project. It is something that constantly needs to be fine tuned and adjusted and worked at, but all that time and effort will pay off in the end.
Are you studying a PhD and have some other advice about how to pick the right PhD project?? Then please share in the comments below.
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