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How To Get a PhD - Ten Tips for Success

Looking for practical advice on how to get a PhD? Our current PhD students, post-docs and professors share their tips on how to succeed in the application process.

This blog post was created in collaboration with the Biomedical Postgrad Society, following their 'How to get a PhD' event which was held on 12th November. A link to the event can be found at the bottom of this page.  

phd students at work

1. Think very carefully about why you want to do a PhD

It’s important to be really honest with yourself about why you want to do a PhD in the first place.  Do you love being in the lab and want the chance to work on an exciting project with other researchers? Are you passionate about pursuing a full-time career in academia? Think carefully about why you want to do a PhD and let that enthusiasm shine through in your application. 

Don’t apply for a PhD if you’re not passionate about the science - this is what will keep you going throughout the highs and lows of your research. Plus if you’re applying for the wrong reasons then you’ll get found out eventually…

If you really want to do a PhD then go for it. But be absolutely clear as to why you want to do it. If you don’t know then that will really come through in the interview process.

Dr Antonis AsiminasPostdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences

 

2. Be persistent

Competition for funded PhDs is high. This means that even if you’re a highly-qualified student with an excellent academic track record, you’ll likely face a number of rejections before you manage to get to the interview stage. 

That’s why perseverance is key. Don’t be disappointed if you keep receiving rejections - instead keep applying, networking and building up your CV in other ways. 

Once you do get an interview - pat yourself on the back! This is a massive achievement and shows that you’re definitely worthy of becoming a PhD student. Of course, the chances are high that you’ll still have to interview more than once before you earn that coveted studentship. Just remember that it’s not personal and if you really want it then don’t be downhearted, just keep applying. 

If you really want to do it then keep going, you’re always going to get that interview that didn’t go well - everyone does. There’s nothing personal about it - it just meant that there was someone else slightly better than you for that particular PhD, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Just keep going.

Hamish RuncimanCurrent PhD student (part-time)

 

3. Make sure your application letter is targeted and enthusiastic

Application letters can be very difficult to write…but they can be equally as difficult to read for assessors if they’re not targeted effectively and positively. Above all, make sure that your enthusiasm for science comes across in your letter. A potential supervisor won’t shortlist you for interview if they don’t think you’ll be committed enough to get over the finish line after 3-4 years of research.

Furthermore, if you’re applying for a PhD in a specific lab, then make sure you’ve done all of the necessary research into what that lab is working on. You can then target your letter around that and make relevant connections to your own enthusiasm for the project. 

writing a phd application

4. Don’t be afraid to explain gaps in your CV

Nowadays, university admissions staff are much more sympathetic to the fact that not everybody can afford to do extra internships or work experience for free. If there are gaps in your CV where you’ve had to support yourself financially, then don’t be afraid to say so because people will listen. The same goes for any extended periods of illness or other issues. 

Applications often feature a box for additional comments where you can explain these gaps in more detail. 

Feel free to explain any gaps and issues with your CV. There is much more awareness that people can’t afford to spend their summer working in labs for nothing.

Professor Cathy AbbottCentre for Genomic & Experimental Medicine

 

5. Try and speak to someone in the department before you apply

It’s always a good idea to contact someone at the university before you submit your application - specifically a potential supervisor or researcher working in your lab of choice.

You could ring them up, send an e-mail or even knock on their office door for a quick chat. Whichever way you choose to get in touch, you’ll make a clear impression, which is always useful when that same person is sifting through hundreds of applications for the same PhD. 

Making personal contact beforehand also means that you can see what your future colleagues will be like! 

There are some people out there you might not necessarily want to work with. You’re only going to see that if you take the opportunity to go and speak to people.

Professor Tom GillingwaterAnatomy at the University of Edinburgh

 

6. Gather some excellent references

The people judging your application want to know that you’re trustworthy, hard-working and enthusiastic. In other words, are you worth the cost of investing in a PhD student for 3-4 years? On a more personal level, they also want to know that you’re easy to get along with…

Academics listen to their colleagues’ opinions carefully, so if you can get a mentor or supervisor to put in a good word for you beforehand then do it. Every little helps when it comes to standing out amongst other applicants!

research students at drum

7. Tailor your CV carefully

As we’ve already hinted, academics who select PhD interview candidates have a lot of applications to get through. That means reading hundreds of cover letters and CVs in the limited time they have available. So what can you do to stand out?

Make sure your CV has been carefully tailored so that the key information you want to get across is on the front page. This advice goes for any kind of job application, whether academic or industrial. Highlight your key achievements (such as prizes, journal papers etc.) on the first page of your CV, because the changes are that an assessor won’t see them if they’re hidden away on page five. 

It’s also a good idea to show your CV to someone else, just in case they notice any mistakes that you didn’t pick up on or can give you any further advice. 

 

8. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself

Many people struggle to tell others what they’re really good at. Perhaps you don’t want to risk sounding arrogant, or you might not even know yourself what your best attributes are. 

However, a PhD interview is a great place to try and get over this hurdle by confidently highlighting your key skills and achievements. In other words, don’t be afraid to sell yourself to the interviewers.  

Don’t just tell someone you did something. You have to say you did it well!

Dr Natalie CourtneyCentre for Discovery Brain Sciences

 

9. Prepare thoroughly for your presentation

During a PhD interview, you’ll probably have to give some kind of presentation or talk on the proposed research topic and how you would approach it. Make sure that you prepare thoroughly for this part of the interview and try to practice it a few times beforehand. 

This is where your scientific knowledge will really be tested, so make sure you’re also up-to-date with current literature and have done any background reading which may have emerged from the lab you want to work in. 

man preparing presentation

10. Get some advice from an academic mentor or supervisor

If you have a good relationship with a department head or supervisor, the PhD application process is a great time to build on this connection. 

They will be able to give you advice, a good reference and may even have recommendations for PhD projects you should apply for. A mentor of this kind can tell you what you are good at, and more importantly they can also tell you what you’re bad at too! This kind of information is invaluable when you’re busy tailoring application letters and prepping for interviews. 

 

Related Links

Top 10 Study Tips for PhD and Masters Students

PhD Programmes

PhD Funding options explained

Event - How to get a PhD?