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PhD Application Guide

While there are many quick guides on this process. This one takes you through the emotions of such a big decision and in sharing I hope anyone interested in this path gains something - either like my failed medicine attempts it may seem like something not worth the hassle or you may have found the final push to put the pieces together.

I believe anyone can do a PhD; the main qualifier is determination, grit and the ability to adapt at a frightening pace. It’s definitely always good to talk to previous/current PhD students and visit labs. However this isn’t always available so I would just say that a PhD is a major commitment so BE SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS


The Journey to PhD

Shortlisting applications

As mentioned earlier, there are different application types that will suit your needs. Have a look through a few examples and begin to formulate what suits your needs.

Be open - initially I didn't want a programme that did rotations and preferred to go straight into one with a defined topic as I had spent time as a research technician and overtime didn't want to “waste any more time” - But quickly was reminded its about the journey and your goals and not necessarily the time taken. My end decision to choose programmes with rotational years came from the knowledge that it takes time to build a project and having that year to really learn new skills and potentially take another different route excited me.

Deadlines- Different applications have different deadlines. Spend the summer till August scouting out programmes to get a rough idea of what your needs are. A rough guide is start prepping applications in September and October. It may seem tight but with a few focused sessions you’ll be ready to apply ! Applications for cohort programs open as early as September and deadlines as early as October. Most themed programme applications will close by january. That being said, a lot of applications also have rolling deadlines and may re-recruit . There are also project specific PhD programmes that stay open till late summer and even projects that are open throughout the year and just waiting on the right candidate. If it’s something you really want to do keep looking and check multiple sources.

The CV

The CV and personal statement go hand in hand with the CV being easier to write. Many sites will give you a guide on academic CV structures , chat GPT might even get you started . I found it useful to ask for real successful examples and pick a style that you like. Having these successful applications can take away some anxiety on whether you have enough experience or described things in enough detail. An academic CV is very long and doesn't have a page limit. Use this to the best of your ability. Really highlight EVERYTHING that you have and what you’ve done. As a general rule, it's best to not leave any room for doubt for the person reading.

The hardest thing for most people is accurately translating the work they have done for a stranger to understand and find important. Everyone will forget what they do and if you struggle to share your achievements this becomes even harder.

  • In structuring your CV, I advise you to write out everything in detail and then cut it down from there. Describe the work you did out loud to someone like you were in an interview and had to talk through your experiences. Are there key metrics that you can point out? really try and paint a picture of the work you have done and what you achieved. Even using the voice record feature on your phone to try and remember all the things you had previously done and what you got from it.

  • In Academic CV’s- a clear understanding of your ability through grades and modules taken is really important -be sure to list them out alongside all the modules, I would suggest in the order the modules most important to the programme that you are applying to. For example, the more specific programmes highlight relevant data analysis skills or modules that demonstrate knowledge for a particular research theme or group that you are applying for.

  • Don’t forget to highlight your non-academic achievements - don’t be shy to show who you are outside the grades, posters and dissertation topics. This paints a picture on who you are outside the PhD process. We aren’t these one interests humans with academia being everything ( well at least I try to not be). Add your volunteering and anything you want to share should be shared even if it isn’t in direct relation to your programme. This is nice addition to why you want to do research and your wider goals post PhD!

It can be daunting as some people may have publications but having none should’t deter you ! It’s hard to feel like you've achieved a lot without a published paper but there is always something you can draw from with your experience.

The personal statement

What type of research do I want to do ? Motivations for doing a PhD can literally come from anywhere. Similar to job applications, spending some time having conversations with people and understanding the research landscape will help break down what this means. There are many TCIM PhD interviews you can gain inspiration from.

500 words to explain yourself and show all your achievements. This will take longer than you think and especially the first one.

Your personal statement is where you contextualise your skills into a 500 word document trying to convince the person shortlisting you should be interviewed. I think this is the hardest bit, not for the reasons of applying to a competitive programme but accurately describing your skills and the decisions that led you to wanting to pursue a PhD. I often found myself stuck and wanting to write: I AM PASSIONATE, SMART AND A BAD B**** SO TAKE ME ASAP !

The number of personal statements you make and changes will largely depend on the types of places you apply to. If you focus on a specific theme, it will be slightly easier to edit once you start making applications, by simply editing a few paragraphs at a time. If you decide to go for quite different specialties, you will have to change everything to specifically suit that theme. Remember you are trying to remove any form of doubt that you aren’t capable of carrying out independent reasearch.

Getting Advice for your personal statement

“ Too many cooks spoil the broth”

This is quite tricky, choosing people that will support you and understand you as an individual to give quality and useful feedback. In my experience, people have their personal opinions that even though highly successful may not align with your own. I suggest having a good balance of academic and personal friends and family. Two people is generally sufficient to read the changes and make corrections. Having a good relationship with someone in academia will add that extra value to your applications.

In the TCIM interviews and from personal experience having a PI or senior academic interested in your success as a potential PhD student makes a difference to your application. This isn’t a time to be shy or “humble” about your achievements. I also had examples of people that had successfully applied and that gave me a gauge of how much detail, the tone and the language. I found this very beneficial as I had worked up in my head on how to make things more “ personal” . On that note, remember that not all advice is good advice and that's why you should keep the eyes on personal statements to a minimum. I wouldn't recommend more than 3 opinions and vary them based on the scheme and expertise of the person. Senior academics understand that “hidden academic language” and have probably interviewed many PhD candidates, they know how to get the technical details out of your experiences. As always TCIM profiles really highlight important steps in many different career journeys.

The rapport I built with my BSc final year project supervisor enabled me to land a PhD a year later! This showed me the importance of genuinely enjoying research and building genuine connections as they can change your life! This also showed me the importance of having great mentors and supervisors, as the lab culture and student-supervisor dynamics played a major role in how I enjoyed & perceived research, which further increased my passion for science.

- Deyl Djama, Neuroscience PhD student.

The interview process

The interview process can take a range of formats and should be shared with you prior to interview. Being familiar with common aspects of interview processes should hopefully make this experience as smooth as possible. While this isn’t a comprehensive list of questions as the questions themselves will vary from programme but the themes of what programmes look for doesn’t . Here is a list of what to expect :

  1. A 5 min presentation of your work ( with or without slides)

  2. A 10 min presentation of your work with clear emphasis on what YOU HAVE DONE and YOUR CONTRIBUTION TO THE WORK:list out and explain techniques or at least focus on one.

  3. RESEARCH ARTICLE : be prepared based on the programme, simply put the articles will reflect the projects in the selection and the techniques theme about. So apply to programmes you are familiar with and not just interested in what they do. A huge tip for the articles is to make written notes and practise your article summary: overview, main findings and wider impact and flaws you found in the paper as well as possible additional experiments you can think of in regards to the study based on limitations or interests.

  4. Your interests outside your main field of application: have a few articles, opinion pieces, news headlines that you can talk about.

The interview: These are the things I realised were important to get across

  1. You are an independent researcher with experience : FOCUS ON WORK YOU HAVE DONE and how you got it done even if you worked in a team.

  2. You understand scientific work and can identify aims, objectives, limitations and think of the wider context of experimentation and ethics within research.

  3. You have thought of your reasons why you want to do research : An advantage is having experience outside research as it shows you have tried other things

  4. Research ethics and working with colleagues

  5. Having kept up with research in and outside your main field of interest.

  6. Interest in the department and able to show you understand the scope of work

Before the interview : practice, practice, practice. Even the little things. Practise your presentation. Practise your answers to general questions and if you can have a mock interview session where you are allowed to have the nerves. What I didn't do was practise for my research article interview and as a result I think that was a hindrance. I did my best but practice means I would have been better. Practise what your data summary is, what are your go to points and what is your response you want to get across. Practise selling yourself and your achievements. Practise everything you will say. Have notes for when you forget.

Research the interview panel - this way you can gauge their expertise and perhaps the questions you may be asked.

During the interview - BE YOURSELF ! and allow yourself to pause. It's not awkward and they expect you to. Have a structured idea in your head of the points you want to get across, Have a mental structure for your answer and if it's online don’t be afraid to refer to notes . Even better for online interviews where you can have something to refer to on hand without being so obvious.

After the interview - try not to gauge how you did. If you have multiple, I would write down as much as I can about the interview to have some practice questions and possible ways to improve on the process. I did this and what I thought was a great interview I didn't get through and what I thought was just okay I received amazing feedback and got onto it.

The Process Summarised

PhD applications take a considerable amount of time ! Many people will spend at least 6 months to a year building the relationships that will help them get into their desired programme. This can be through courses, networking, building academic connections and researching different areas of research and programmes most interested in.

  1. Pre-application workshops or information webinars

  2. Preparing the application ( CV, personal statement, references)

  3. Deadlines

  4. Pre-interview tasks : presentations, article preparation, interview cohort presentations/ webinars, meeting potential supervisors form listed projects

  5. The Interview

  6. Accepting/ rejecting places and deadlines.


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