I’ve just completed my 2nd full week of PhD study, it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind and time is going so quickly. I am really enjoying getting to grips with the work, but I’ll admit to being increasingly frustrated with how long it’s taking to further my understanding of my research field. I’ve heard this from multiple other PhD students so I’m not too worried, I guess it just shows that I want to do well and I’m pretty impatient about it!
Anyway, a lot of people have asked what the PhD application process is like, so for this week’s blog I thought I’d take a look back on my journey to this point.
Choosing what to apply for
I was sure I wanted to apply for an advertised project that came with funding rather than a project that would require additional funding applications afterwards, and I had a rough idea of what sort of research field I’d like to go into but apart from that I was pretty open. My undergraduate degree was lab-based science but I wanted to get out of the lab and move into research involving clinical trials. I used the website www.findaphd.com to keep an eye out for projects early in my final year of undergraduate study, and then began actively searching for projects around October/November time.
I applied for just 2 projects, the first was based in Belfast and looked like a brilliant opportunity – I reached shortlist stage and then the project funding was cut so my application went no further. The second was in Aberdeen and was a much more open project, part of a new research initiative that would allow me to mould my own project. This is the project I’m currently trying to make my own.
Important! Before I submitted by application form I went to meet with the supervisor – this made the project much clearer and allowed me to understand where my skills would fit in with the rest of the team, it also ensured that my name would be recognised when my application went through. I would really recommend doing this if you are able to; if you’re not in their city email and ask if you can arrange a Skype meeting.
The application form and personal statements
Every university will do application forms slightly differently but most include some form of personal statement similar to the statement you write when applying for undergraduate study in the UK. Initially I wrote a very quick draft – I didn’t want to overthink things so I just wrote down why I wanted to work on the project in the most honest way, then I began redrafting to make the writing style more formal. I got 2 of my lecturers to read over it, edited it again and then got my Mum to read over it just to make sure. Apart from the personal statement the application form at Aberdeen University includes a CV, I edited mine and made sure I was highlighting the strengths and experience I had that was relevant to the project. Reading my personal statement and CV together really helped – there’s no way you can include every skill within each word count, so making sure they work together whilst covering different areas is a good idea.
Interviewing for a PhD
I interviewed about a month after I submitted my application – it was just after Christmas so I had a few weeks to prep for it. I read over my entire application again and then did some background reading on the research areas of the interviewers and supervisor of the project. It was really relaxed with 2 interviewers who would both have input into the project, I actually really enjoyed the interview and it made me want the project more. Some example questions it’s good to prep for are:
- Why do you want to study for a PhD?
- Why do you want to work on this project specifically?
- What are your weaknesses?
- How do you deal with deadlines and pressure?
- What’s the thing you’re most proud of?
I was really honest throughout and managed to get a few laughs which relaxed things further – it’s important to remember that a PhD is a training degree, so having weaknesses is no bad thing. I tried to make it clear that I want to learn, I want to improve the skills I have already whilst also building on them with new skills.
My supervisor emailed me 2 hours after the interview to say they were offering me the project, fully funded, and then we decided on start dates and stuff after that. There’s a lot of admin involved so it’s a good idea to get to know the graduate school too – the staff at Aberdeen have been really helpful and have responded to my squillion questions brilliantly so far!
Most of my friends that chose to go on to PhD study didn’t have such a simple application process, I think it was partly due to my research area – it’s pretty niche, and the fact that we’re not taught a lot about clinical trials at undergraduate level means graduates are usually looking for lab research or research in areas such as Oncology. I’m aware I’m very lucky with the project I secured and the fact I only applied for 2 projects – so don’t be put off if you have had a few rejections, there are PhD projects still being advertised for start dates at the end of summer, you still have time to put together a great application.