Has getting a PhD changed?

I love science and as a result I’ve spent the last few years perusing a funded PhD studentship researching neurodegeneration. My effort has paid off – I have secured a place in a lab with a project I’m interested in, and I hope to (at least partly) enjoy the next 3 years.

I’ve given advice for applicants in a previous post, and these are some of my thoughts on applying for a science PhD.

Applying for PhDs - courtesy of the amazing PhD comics

Applying for PhDs – courtesy of the amazing PhD comics

Throughout my lengthy applications I often felt alone and frustrated. I knew very few other people applying for science PhD’s and when I did there was an air of competition which meant things were never discussed in detail. I have gone back through my saved CV’s and cover letters and over two years I applied for 24 PhDs and had 6 interviews, resulting in 2 offers (over 1 year apart). I feel like I had a hard time finding a position, but I may have been ‘unlucky’ or this may be normal.

The point is I have no idea how common my experience is and that is why I’ve written this blog.

The good ol’ days?

I have been told on several occasions (often at interviews!) that only a few years ago I ‘could have walked into a PhD’, but now things have changed.

It’s no secret that science funding has taken a hit in recent years. Despite this the number of PhD’s started and completed has steadily increased and it seems like getting on to a funded PhD is only getting more competitive. This may be for several reasons including more people continuing to study as the alternate options, such as graduate schemes and industry jobs, are no longer as plentiful as before.

While completing my undergraduate project and Masters I shared the lab with many PhDs, several students were funded by schemes that were no longer running. Some were offered funding at Master’s level (now a rarity) and asked at their Master’s interview if they would like to do a PhD, this does not seem to happen any more. This can be both good and bad, having to fight for funding means seriously considering your decision to take on a PhD with every application, while being offered it earlier may well forgo this.  This is not ideal and I have encountered students who ended up doing a PhD because it was offered to them and have regretted it. That said, to have the knowledge that funding is available could make the difference between a stressful masters and a happy one. I learnt this from a friend who got onto a 4 year programme and described their MRes as a enjoyable experience with no pressure, just the freedom to learn and decide on their final project.

It must also be remembered that with ‘too many science PhDs‘, the postdoc problem and few faculty positions, getting on to a PhD is only the beginning. UPDATE 27/10/2014 – For further reading on the debate around reducing biology graduate students check out this article.

Grades and experience

Getting a 1st and a distinction is undoubtedly a good idea no matter what career you want to enter into. I and many other applicants don’t have top grades, but do have 2:1 degrees, that qualify for research council funding, and lab experience- lots of it.

The more ‘prestigious universities’ and any 4 year PhD programmes seemed out of reach, however I always applied and believe that it’s always worth a try (you’ve got to be in it to win it!). I was put off when I first started applying to 4 year PhDs as one of my referees said that they didn’t believe that the right people were being chosen for the programme. Of course selection is always subjective, but I think I can assume that my referee was implying that my grades were not enough to get me through the door. I was referred to a funding programme by another supervisor and told that my grades were below what they would usually accept, but if I had outstanding references I might have a chance. This definitely seems to be the norm, and if you don’t have the grades (or contacts) to get you in, any experience and outstanding referees may not be considered.

On one occasion when speaking about applications with a prospective supervisor, they said that ‘one of the best investigators I know got a 2:2’. Well as I see it, getting a funded PhD with a 2:2 in this environment would be pretty difficult impossible. Having said this, while completing my Masters I met a PhD student from another London university who did get a 2:2, then entered a masters programme after impressing at interview. Despite struggling to get funding because of their first degree, they have now graduated with a PhD. So it is possible, you just need a supervisor who believes in you and who has a knack for writing grant applications.

I believe experience is vital, and I feel that’s why I was invited to interview and offered positions. Without time spent in several labs I would not have known which PhD projects to apply for or have a depth of practical experience, but this is not the only reason why lab work is valuable. If it weren’t for the support given by helpful PhD students and encouraging supervisors who I met whilst working and studying, I may have given up on my search.

Application and Interview

The selections process at some points seemed long winded, though still much simpler than many high demand graduate programmes. This may be for the best, but it feels unintuitive that the PhD supervisor doesn’t have as much say as perhaps before.

One process involved selecting a supervisor whose project I suited my interests and experience. I then applied through a centralised system with reference to said supervisor. This supervisor was then given all the applications that named them and sifted through to pick out those they were interested in seeing. This was then passed onto a board who select who they felt deserved the funding. This whittled the applicants down to 6 people who were invited to a 45 minute panel interview. None of the panel were the PhD supervisors and only one person is on the funding committee. This committee then fed back what they thought to the mysterious funding committee and 1 candidate and supervisor pair were offered the money.

This may well be a good way to decide who gets the limited funds and scholarships available. I did however begin to find it annoying that the selection procedures were never explained up front or at all. I only found out from my prospective supervisors who kindly explained the situation so that I could appreciate what getting to the interview stage had meant.

Comments welcome

This is a recent applicants view on things.

I’d be interested to see if those doing the hiring. so to speak, feel that they are getting the best candidates through?

Is this the best way to ensure funding gets to the best students and supervisors?

What are have other applicants experienced in the selection process?

Do you identify or disagree with points I’ve raised?

As always, comment below or find me on twitter

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One Response to Has getting a PhD changed?

  1. Pingback: Advice from a recent PhD applicant | NeuroRach

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