Advice from a recent PhD applicant

A friend of mine recently asked for some tips on attending their first PhD interview. I thought if any advice was useful for them then it might be useful to someone else. I’ve modified our conversation into this post – hope it helps!

applications

Applications

Generally October to April is the ‘prime time’ for PhD studentship applications (in the UK), following the academic year. However this is by no means exclusive, new PhDs can be advertised at any time.

By far the most popular site is findaphd.com. I suggest signing up to for weekly emails and/or checking this website every day to keep and eye on what’s new.
Also recommend is jobs.ac.uk. This site contains more adverts for studentships abroad and you can combine your PhD search with a search for a job in a lab while you’re there.
If you have a specific institute or lab group in mind keep an eye on their recruitment pages or email directly to ask about any upcoming funding options.

I really recommend using your contacts. Don’t forget that like every industry ‘it’s who you know, not what you know’ – yes you do have to know some science, but you get what I mean! It’s worth alerting previous tutors and supervisors to your PhD/science job search. This helped me a lot, I received additional advice, interview practice and some funding leads, it also helped strengthen these important connections.

In general applications are either submitted via the universities own online system, or simply by sending a CV and cover letter/personal statement to the lab or department in question.

There are reams of advice available about putting together an effective CV and personal statement. If you’re still at university definitely take advantage of the careers service, they can look at what you’ve got and suggest improvements.

The earlier you start the application the better. If you have any queries about the project or funding you can email the prospective supervisor in plenty of time. It can often be deceptive how long it takes to go through the university system and referees can be asked to upload their references before the application can be submitted. This is something you DO NOT want to be organising the day before the deadline, trust me.

N.B. In the UK most applications are free EXCEPT for Oxford and Cambridge who charge £50 per application through their system.
UPDATE 09/10/2014 – I’ve been informed that UCL have also started charging £40 per application.

Interviews

The type of interview usually depends on how the PhD you’re applying for is be funded.

For these reasons I’ve found that interviews tend to be either:

With your prospective supervisor, co-supervisor and a collaborator/member of department.

If the supervisor in question holds the funding themselves (after applying for a grant from a charity/research council) then they are in charge of who gets the spot in their lab. This can be a little less daunting as there are less people in the room and also gives you and your prospective supervisor the opportunity to see if you think you’ll work well together and will fit in with the group.

OR

A panel interview consisting of 4-5 other individuals from the faculty/postgraduate school, this may not include your supervisor and will likely include the head of postgraduate research and heads of department.

If the funding is held by the department/school, it is ‘group funded’ or ‘competition funded’. It can be in the form of a departmental scholarship or as part of an ongoing research programme, for example most 4 year PhDs. This means that a prospective supervisor can put forward a project a PhD project to be carried out in their lab but since they do not hold the funding, the decision on who gets the position may not lie entirely (or at all!) with them. It can be a longer interview with additional preparation needed for a presentation but otherwise a similar experience.

Usually interviews are accompanied by a lab tour so you can see the environment you’ll be working in and the equipment you’ll be using. Hopefully you’ll also get the chance to speak to students already there which will give you more information about research life in that group and university. If you are not offered either of these opportunities I strongly suggest you ask for them.

The interviews my a have a slightly different structure but some questions will always bee the same. It’s definitely worth writing down a list of questions that are likely (guaranteed) to come up and preparing answers- i.e. Why do you want to a PhD? Why here? Why this project? This will make answering those questions ‘easy’ and give you confidence for the questions you can’t predict.

There will nearly always be a question you can’t answer, don’t stress it, don’t bluff it, just say so. This is part of the process, the panel want to push your knowledge to it’s limit, I figure it’s part of the interview and part of the PhD.

Presenting

Not all interviews will ask you to present research, though it does appear to be getting more common and required at most competition funded panel interviews.

It’s usually at 10-15 minute presentation followed by questions. It’s likely you will have already presented the project as part of your degree/masters assessment, so this can be modified and practised again. Definitely make it concise and clear rather than trying to get across all the fine points- the panel can always ask for more detail afterwards if they want. Remember many, if not all those present will not be familiar with your particular research area.

As with all presentations- practice, practice, practice and make a list of questions that are likely to be asked. This is where flatmates/labmates can come in handy – even if they know nothing about science/your research as they can be more objective about the slide material, body language and talking speed.

Your turn

Always ask at least one question at the end.

For example: about techniques used, if you’ll need a home office license or about PhD student support and development offered. It’s your chance to get the information you need to make and informed decision if you are given an offer – don’t waste it!

I’ve been surprised several times on what has been left off adverts and follow up emails.

If you haven’t been told when you should hear about the outcome, ask now. This means you can promptly contact the department and ask about the result (if you’re yet to receive it) and for any feedback.

Twice I have made contact after the interview and asked about the decision. If I hadn’t done this, I would not have heard anything and had to draw my own conclusions- this is never a nice situation to be in.

Bonus section

Some things I’ve noticed coming up:

  • Think about your future in science. With limited funding, institutions will likely want to hear that you have thought beyond the next 4 years and are not about to take on a PhD because you can’t think of other options.
  • The last few interviews I’ve been asked questions relating to my wider knowledge of (neuro)science, such as recent news, big projects and Noble prizes.
  • I’ve also been asked what I thought was the most influential new idea in my research field. This was quite interesting as it can lead to other questions and some debate.
  • In the places where I felt the most connection, I was asked about my extra-curricular science communication and outreach work, for example interning, mentoring and volunteering. These questions are great as they give you a chance to big up yourself and also demonstrate a commitment to science that stretches beyond the lab. It’s also nice to have the interview panel recognise you as a more rounded human being.

And finally…

Good Luck!

Remember – All applications and interviews are different – this is just a snapshot of what I picked up during my lengthy application process. This may not reflect your experience at all!

If you have anything advice to add, or questions to ask please leave a comment or talk to me on twitter.

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2 Responses to Advice from a recent PhD applicant

  1. Pingback: Has getting a PhD changed? | NeuroRach

  2. Pingback: How do I get lab experience?! | NeuroRach

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