Top Tips Towards a PhD Offer

There are any ways to end up with a PhD positions, here are a few of my hints and tips from me. They are UK-centred and might contain more science flavours due to my own background, Note that these tips are based on personal experience and are (by far) not exhaustive. Use them at your own discretion!

Decide:

  • A PhD is a very particular way to spend 3+ years of you life. It does not appeal to everyone but it could be the right choice for you!
  • PhD research is often very specific to one problem. If you like working in-depth on one topic for a longer period of time, this can act as a good indicator that you could enjoy the long-term workflow of a PhD.
  • Doing a PhD means falling in love with the process of getting unstuck. A PhD means (sometimes) solving problems that no one has solved before. While this can be very exciting, it requires stamina and motivation to work through stretches that are more difficult.

Find:

  • Use specific search engines, such as FindAPhD, for projects that are already advertised, but be aware that they only contain a fraction of all PhD positions available.
  • Look into CDTs (Centers for Doctoral Training that start with a more course-based year) and see if that is something for you or you’d rather go straight into a PhD.
  • Write to academics (e.g. the ones with interesting papers) if they offer PhD positions, even if they have no positions advertised (more on that below). A huge amount of PhD offers started in such a way, so make sure you send out lots of emails to potential supervisors, even if it feels difficult at first!
  • Ask academics you’re currently working with if they can point you towards someone you could contact in an area of your interest and then email them.
  • It doesn’t have to be the most famous person of a research group to work with, sometimes more junior faculty members actually have more times for their students while providing excellent supervision. Same could go for very prestigious research groups or universities.
  • Consider the (academic) style of the potential supervisor, e.g. what kind of papers do they write and do you find that interesting, how involved are they in the department.
  • It’s okay if you don’t know a lot about the particular project yet! It would be desirable to have some background knowledge on the general area but most of the learning will be done in the first year of your PhD!

Get:

  • Get in touch by email with potential supervisors, even if they have no positions advertised:
    • 2-3 paragraphs on what you do and what you’d like to do, don’t overwhelm them
    • attach your CV
    • use an academic email address if you can to avoid spam filters
    • send a follow-up after 1-3 weeks, academics are busy, so don’t take it personal
    • immediate rejections can happen for a variety of reasons (funding, timing…), so just keep going
  • You don’t need a fully fledged research proposal, especially not at the initial contact. Your own ideas and interests are great, in particular if you can relate them to their research area. However, the proposal is something that you will work on together, so don’t stress about it right now!
  • You don’t need publications to secure a PhD position.
  • You might than hear back from a few academics to have an interview. For this, prepare well what you already know, e.g. content of your thesis. Read a few of their papers to know a few things about their research, but they are much more likely to ask questions relating to the work you’ve already done.
  • Do mock interviews where you practice answers to the most generic prompts (without memorizing them word by word):
    • Tell me about yourself!
    • Why do you want to do a PhD?
    • What area of your subject interests you?
  • Remember that it’s a two way street. You are also interviewing them to figure out if you want to work with them. You could ask about:
    • Their style of supervision (very important!): e.g. how often do they meet their students, do they meet in groups or 1-on-1, do they like to be very involved or more hands-off
    • What the day-to-day life of their PhD students looks like
    • What are their expectations in terms of duration of the PhD, working hours…
    • Opportunities to tutor, travel, collaborate…
  • If at all possible, visit the research group, talk to students (especially their supervisees in private!), and the wider university environment.
  • Be honest about funding and ask for what you need, in my opinion all PhD positions should be fully funded (= tuition fees and living costs covered).

Choose:

  • You don’t need to be best friends with your supervisor, you need someone who you could work with for 3+ years.
  • Try to find someone with a supervision style that you’d like to work with.
  • Consider all aspects of a PhD: supervisor, university, city (!), location, resources, project.
  • Keep both the supervisor and the project in mind when making your choice.
  • Really trust your gut! A PhD supervisor is the second most important person in your PhD (the first one being you), so choose wisely. However, even if it is not often done, PhD supervisors can also be changed.

Do:

  • You are more than just your PhD! Take extra care to nurture your family, friends, and hobbies.
  • Use literature management software such as Zotero from day one.
  • When using any kind of code, use version control (e.g. github).
  • Find a good rhythm that works for you and figure out when you are most productive.
  • Limit your work to reasonable hours and do not work on weekends (of course just before a deadline you might have a higher workload, but this should be an absolute exception).
  • When you realise you are not productive anymore and just keep your seat warm, stop and go home.
  • Sleep well and look after your health.
  • Actively engage with your research community and the other PhD students in your immediate area.

Closing Remarks

I truly believe that there are a number of positions out there that could be a good fit for any particular person! Hence, you don’t need to find the one and only match, just one of the good options! A PhD can and should be a enjoyable!

FAQs

When should I start the process?
Some of funding deadlines are after Christmas, so ideally you should contact people in the autumn/winter before you want to start. However, if you are doing a one-year Master this might coincide with the start of your degree, which can make it hard to think about the next thing already when you haven’t even properly started the current one. Rest assured that there are many paths towards a PhD offer, so do what works for you. You should definitely get in touch with potential supervisors, even if all official deadlines have passed. Often there are funding and positions left over until the (early) summer, so just shoot your shot.

What if I don’t like it?
There is always a way out, if you really don’t like it you do not need to finish a PhD if it is not the right thing for you. If you notice straight away you can drop out very early on – congrats, you have just saved 3+ years of your life! If you make the decision a year or two in, you can often graduate with a research degree (e.g. Mres). Hence, deciding to go for a PhD does not have to be as final as it might seem.

I am not sure if I want to stay in academia, should I even consider a PhD?
100% yes! During a PhD you will gain an immense amount of skills, both hard skills and soft skills, that will become incredibly useful when hunting for jobs outside of academia. PhDs are heavily recruited in a variety of fields and all the hard work you’ve put in will hopefully pay off ($$$). A PhD is a fantastic stepping stone for whatever is going to come!

I don’t know enough to do a PhD!
You do not have to be a PhD to do a PhD! The joy of this position is that you will learn so much, so you are not expected to be an expert already. That’s what the 3+ years are for.