A-Huntin’ We Will Go – Tips For Finding a PhD

I’ve a few friends who are currently trying to find a PhD, and hearing about their efforts to find a good project for themselves, it reminded me of my own search. I’m in the final year of my project, and whilst I’m enjoying it, there are a few things that I wish I had thought about or known to make a good decision about finding a PhD, and even a few things that I would’ve done differently had I the chance. So, if for no other reason than to get me to write something on this blog, here’s a few tips I divulge to you, dear readers, about how to decide if you want to do a PhD, and how to find one that you’re going to love doing (or at least tolerate).

This is by no means an exhaustive list. You’ll have your own ideas and priorities, and you’ve probably heard a hundred other things too. If you fancy suggesting anything that I can add to this list, by all means do so, and I might add it to the list at some point.

Let’s begin…

1 ) So you’re thinking about doing a PhD? Don’t. Run away as fast as you can. Become an accountant.

2 ) You’re still here!? Good, because 1) was just to scare away the weak-of-will. PhD’s are hard work – not cramming-an-entire-year’s-worth-of-lecture-notes-in-a-couple-of-days-for-you-final-year-exams hard work, but real hard work. You will be a PhD “student” in name only; it is nothing like being an undergraduate student. The lazy and blag-happy will struggle. If you really want to do a PhD and embark on a career as a scientist, you’ll be able to drag yourself through the hard times much more easily.

3 ) A follow-on to 2), and a prelude to advice on how to find and choose a PhD, is that there are no easy PhDs. Every project is different, but in every project there will be problems to encounter. You will at some point hate your PhD. You will at some point hate yourself for wanting to do it in the first place. And that infamous period in the middle of the PhD where people lose motivation in their project, colloquially known as the ‘second-year slump’, is absolutely true. That project summary you found might make PhD Project A sound like a doddle, but it won’t be. That other description which makes PhD Project B sound like a proper challenge might be closer to the truth. You’ll have to tolerate the frequent bad moments to celebrate the rare victories.

So, if you’re still determined to do a PhD, but you’re wondering on how best to decide where and what to study, here’s a few pointers:

4 ) If you have somewhere in mind, go on the university or institution website and find out what projects are available. This might sound stupid, but not all projects are advertised on findaphd.com or wherever you’re looking.

5 ) You read papers, right? Check out the author list on your favourite paper in your favourite subject and work from there. You do have a favourite paper, right? (Mine’s laminated)

6 ) If you’re currently studying or working in science (maybe as an undergraduate, a research technician, a masters student, or working in industry), ask your supervisor and colleagues where to go and who to ask for a PhD. Even better, if you work at an university, ask a PhD student (those haggard ladies and gentlemen who save your lab practicals, inviligate your exams, or constantly hassle you, depending on your position). Say you’re really interested in developmental biology, with a particular interest in Xenopus. Ask someone who knows about it. Who’s publishing loads? Who’s doing great work? Even better, if it’s your supervisor, see if they’ll put you in touch with this person for a chat.

Now that you’ve found a few PhD projects that you like the sound of, spread across a few lab groups, what to do next? How to decide? Have a think about the following:

7 ) Is the group publishing? This is pretty easy to find out- put the name of the supervisor in your publication search engine of choice (PubMed, Web of Knowledge, and yes, even Google Scholar). You might have to do a bit of detective work, maybe searching for the names of lab members as well. Look at the list – How many papers? How often? And quite importantly, is it in the area that you’ll be working in? Which leads me onto my next point…

8 ) How does your project fit into the rest of the group? Is everyone working on the same thing that you will be? Or are you group’s “wolf pack of one”? Is there anything that ties your project and other people’s work together? This is pretty darn important. Joining a lab group to work on a project that everyone else is working on means that you’ll probably be sharing a lot of the same model systems, using the same reagents, reading the same papers, coming across the same problems, and as such there’ll be people there you can instantly turn to for advice. It might also help when it comes to publishing – you’ll be able to share data with your lab colleagues, and though you’ll be coming at the same problem from slightly different perspectives, there’ll be the wealth of knowledge that can make a great paper.

Joining a lab group where you’ll be the only person working on that project can be more difficult, because there might not be the same level of support and know-how and expertise to help you get through day-to-day. And of course, coming to paper writing time, if you want to bulk out the story, you’ll have to look outside of the lab group for collaborations – even your supervisor might not know much about the topic. This can all be very exciting and pioneering of course, and I don’t mean to put anyone off doing something new, but it’s best to know what research environment you’ll be joining.

9 ) Your PhD is not just the project, so try find out about everything else as well. What is the group like? If you’re invited for an interview, you might get taken for coffee with a few members of the group, but don’t be afraid to ask in advance if you’d like to. What is the lab you’ll be working in like? You’ll be spending a lot of time there, so ask for a look around. What’s the department like? What’s the university like? What’s the city like?

Try to speak to some current PhD students, preferably from the lab in which you’ll be working (again, don’t be afraid to ask – you’ll find that PhD students are more than happy to do anything that distracts them from their project). Is there any kind of PhD community or society? Do they organise social events? What other things, as a PhD student, are you expected to do? (training courses? obligatory poster competitions? talks?) What opportunities are available for you to do? (teaching? demonstrating? outreach programs? wine tasting?) Like any job, you’ll have a lot more fun if you enjoy going to work, so try to imagine yourself as PhD student in your chosen institution. Top tip: If it is possibile to live on free food from conferences, symposia, and meetings held at your place of work, you’re onto a winner. Free food is everything.

10 ) Find out about the funding situation. Sometimes there’ll be some money already allocated to your project, so if you get accepted, it’s all green lights. Othertimes, there’ll be a pot of money with which the department will fund, say, 15 studentships, but there are maybe 30 PhD projects competiting for this funding – in this case, your potential supervisor will put your name forward, but you might not actually end up getting to do the PhD. The structure of your time at the instituiton can vary too. Some studentships will have an industrial partner (often called CASE studentships), which means you’ll probably get some more money, and in return you might have to do a work placement with the partner for a few months. Many PhD studentships in the UK give you 3 years of funding and pay, with an unpaid year afterwards available to you to write up your thesis. Some 4-year studentships give you money for writing, others force you to do a Masters course before your PhD; some will require you to do some short rotations in other lab groups before the start of your PhD project proper. Know what you’re signing up to!

11 ) Don’t dismiss PhDs abroad.  If you’re happy to travel and live in a new country for several years, it might be worth having a look around, as there are some mighty fine universities all over the place. If you’re an EU national, you’re in luck, as there are a lot of studentships available for EU students within europe. I don’t personally have any experience in this, but I have friends who do, and they’re having the time of their lives working in excellent european universities. Maybe in the future I’ll have a feature about what it’s like to leave our fair shores in search of a PhD.

Hope this all helps – best of luck!

~CCPB

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3 Comments

Filed under advice, career

3 responses to “A-Huntin’ We Will Go – Tips For Finding a PhD

  1. Great advice! I would also ask about the direction the lab is going in. If you’re interested in joining a lab because they have just published some amazing work in a specific area – lets say dendritic cell biology – and that’s what you want to work on, ask if it is an ongoing and expanding area. Cause if the post-doc who did all that work is leaving the lab and taking most of that area of interest with them to start their own group elsewhere – that will be handy to know. A kind of a “where do you see the lab heading in the next five years”, in terms of which projects are coming to an end and which projects are just beginning.

  2. Matt

    Very nice advice, particularly the part about finding out about the social aspects when choosing a research group.
    I’d add to step 2 (You will be a PhD “student” in name only; it is nothing like being an undergraduate student) that despite this, most people will be unaware of, or just entirely ignore, this fact.
    A surprising number of people do feel quite comfortable telling you in an oddly smug manner that you’ll have to get a ‘real job’ and join the ‘real world’ soon enough! You can’t stay a student forever! etc. The socially acceptable response to this seems to be to smile in an abashed manner and wait for them to tell you that they would have done a PhD but they’d get sick of just reading all the time.
    People may also ask you what your project is on. The slight movement of the jaw you’ll see as you reach the second sentence is a stifled yawn. This is typically followed by a polite protestation as you try to change the subject, and your conversation buddy will either have a stab in the dark about what they think the project is about, or they’ll try to relate it to an entirely disimilar topic. It is not socially acceptable to disagree with them on either count, just turn the subject to anything else as quickly as possible. I’d recommend having a cover story ready. I tell people that I’m a part-time florist.

  3. Matt – True on both counts. So so true. I still get asked how many hours of lectures I have per week, and what I’m doing over the summer.

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