Is a PhD for me?

Last week I was talking to a masters student who is thinking about doing a PhD- but who really isn’t sure yet. I wanted to write a post that might help those of you who are thinking about going on to study a PhD in the future- this is based on my experience– I hope it helps!

Should I do a PhD?

If you are considering doing a PhD, then you are already a good candidate! A lot don’t even get to the stage of thinking about going on to do a PhD. If you aren’t sure about a PhD I would recommend to apply to PhDs anyway.

PhDs are different from undergraduate and Masters projects- if you are doing a masters by research you will have a good understanding of what a PhD is probably going to be like.

What are the main differences?

  • You will have to be the person in charge of your project. This means you need to motivate yourself to do the work, figure out what is going on and what your next steps should be. Your supervisor is there to supervise you- guide you on what you need to do, but isn’t going to tell you what to do.
  • The data isn’t perfect. Undergraduate labs are often set up in a way so that the experiments work in a certain way to give you data that explains a key concept- and when your data is incorrect, its because you did something wrong. This is not the case in PhD research projects- experiments may work, they may not work. Data may not make sense- but this doesn’t necessarily mean the data is wrong!
  • A PhD is over 3-4 years, and so is the research. The research will develop over that time – it is not unheard of for a thesis to end up being on a different topic than that initially laid out.
  • Research can be very repetitive. This isn’t seen much especially in undergraduate labs where you get a different lab project each week. You will probably end up repeating certain experiments many, many times.
  • Troubleshooting is a big part of the PhD research experience. Rather than repeating experiments that have been done by hundreds of students before you, you will be working on ‘novel’ research- this means doing novel experiments- and troubleshooting. Working on such new areas of science is part of what makes PhDs so exciting, but be aware that behind most experiments is a lot of reading and troubleshooting.

Applying for PhDs and interviews

As I said above, if you are considering a PhD I would recommend applying to positions even if you are not yet sure about this route.

Look at all the PhDs available- what sort of areas of science are you most interested in? What are the techniques and lab skills you enjoy the most?

Have a go at applying to some PhDs- even if they come to nothing you will have the practice of application forms, CV’s, and personal statements.  I would say its not really until you get to the interview process that you know if the PhD is for you or not. I went to a few interviews at different institutes- and as soon as I started talking to my perspective supervisor I knew if the PhD was or wasn’t right for me. The interview is as you determining if the PhD is right for you as it is for them finding a good candidate.

Remember it is entirely up to you- if you are offered a place and realise actually that PhD is not for you, you can turn it down. You can’t however, apply for PhD positions that have already closed- so take the opportunity to apply to PhDs you like the look of when they are available- and decide whether its for you or not at the interview.

Finding PhDs to apply to

Use different websites- specific institute websites, funding body websites (e.g BBSRC, British Heart Foundation), and websites such as FindaPhD,  LinkedIn and twitter!  If you know someone who you really want to do a PhD with, but they don’t have a project advertised- don’t be afraid to email them. Do they have any upcoming projects? Would they be willing to take you as a student if you could get suitable funding?

I applied to a BBSRC funded project- so I didn’t need to find my own funding, and I can’t offer any advice on this. However, there are plenty of online resources around that can help you in this regard.

What to look out for at interviews

You have applied to a PhD, and you have got an interview! But what should you look out for? How do you know that the PhD is right for you?

  • Get a tour of the lab, and the institute- get the feeling of the place, could you see yourself working here?
  • If you have the opportunity talk to current PhD students and post docs. What are their experiences? How do they find the lab?
  • Go with your gut. When you were talking to your perspective supervisor how did you feel? When I went to my interview for my PhD I knew when I came out of the interview that it was right for me- I can’t explain the exact feeling. I would say its the same as when you are looking for a rental room- you know when the house is right for you!

Last of my advice:  Don’t worry if you aren’t sure if a PhD is the right path for you- I really wasn’t sure until I started my PhD that it was the right move for me. Don’t let others cloud your judgements- make your mind up by yourself. It is very easy to follow other peoples opinions about places, or research areas.

  • Don’t just apply for the big universities- look everywhere- within research institutes, universities, industry even!
  • Don’t rule places out because you don’t think you are good enough- give it a try, it might take you by surprise.
  • Spend time working on your personal statement- get friends and family to look at it, and let your current or previous undergrad/masters supervisor look over it.
  • Try to give yourself plenty of time to do applications. Application forms can be pretty long, with lots of questions. You are often able to save your work, and then come back to it at later points- I recommend doing this, and taking time to look over what you have previously written.

Happy Hunting!!

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