Applying to PhD’s

So this week I was able to attend the RSC’s 50th Carbohydrate group meeting. Some good talks, interesting science as well as some not so good talks that I may or may not have dozed off through.
It was also a fantastic opportunity for “networking”. This was the kind that involved shots until the early hours and late night ping pong. The Turnbull lab are a great bunch especially.
I suppose I should offer thanks to Warwick Uni for some lovely hospitality, great venue with no problems.
It also gave me a chance to meet and thank Prof Martin Wills. About a year ago when I was applying hard to various places for PhD positions I would also contact academics directly first about getting involved with their research. He was kind enough to reply and stated very honestly that he had no funding due to those reasons I wrote about last week. We spoke about my journey and how I ended up at York as well as some mechanistic asymmetric organocat reactions. Well he spoke… I listened.
It certainly made me reflect on how hard I worked to get my interviews and offers as well as my fair share of rejections.
It also provided a unique opportunity for some more science writing as I was able to get a piece in RSC news about Sir Fraser Stoddart’s lecture.
I could write about one of the several lectures I was fortunate enough to hear over this two-day period however I don’t think it would make decent content just yet. Instead I would like to offer my advice about PhD applications and interviews from the few that I went to and got knocked back from.
Let’s start at the start. Do you want to do further work in research? Presumably you will have done a masters or a year out in placement and be considering it. In my opinion there is only one right reason to get into a PhD and a long ass list of reasons not to. The correct answer is you have done some research, maybe none of it has worked and everything has gone tits up but despite this you found the whole experience bizarrely addictive. The love of research and the challenges it throws up should be the sole reason why one would wish to pursue 3+ years of late nights, constant work and deadlines, endless failed reactions and relying on caffeine as your elixir of life to carry you on. Research, I’ve learned now is probably one of the lonelier lines of work also. It is rather isolating for many reasons even in a large group or lab. If you also move institute like I did I think it’s even tougher to find your place and settle. But as I said the love of research often outweighs all of this and this should be the driving force for wanting a PhD.
Many people will not complete the PhD journey. Many leave the process and bow out early… Who knows, I may even be one of them. Often they leave because of choosing a PhD for the wrong reasons.  This is all probably best saved for another day as it is a long topic.
So you have decided that you want a PhD for the right reasons and now it is time to apply. So I guess just a write a cover letter, update the CV then head off to and carpet bomb the ads with your CV… Easy now cowboy. This is probably a sure fire way to be unsuccessful.
You have to start early. I started my applications in October, almost a year before I was expecting to start a PhD. This is normal and you should have your cover letter and CV and an academic transcript ready by then. Furthermore, you will need at least two reference letters. These will also need to be academic. A letter saying how great you are stacking the shelves at Sainsbury’s won’t be all that useful to you.
Now you need to start applying. If you see an advertisement for a project that you feel you could be a part of, the first thing to do is craft that cover letter for that project. Tailor it specifically for that project. This is like walking the blade of a knife now. You need to sound passionate and generally interested about that area but avoid sounding desperate and corny. “I have always loved the mechanical behaviour of bio-inspired composites and often dream of highly orientated micro-structures” is a little creepy. “I have always enjoyed studying solid mechanics, particularly materials from a biological background. I recall my interests being ignited when I first learnt about the tensile strength and ductility of spider’s silk.” This is more palatable and more genuine. This is based around the first advert I found when I tabbed up
When you have a cover letter somewhat together get it checked by an academic. It doesn’t have to be one you used for a reference but one that you know you will get a timely response from.
Then before you apply, email the supervisor directly and attach your CV and cover letter. State who you are and what you’re interested in and go from there. Be prepared to never hear from them again.
Should this happen then apply anyway through their institutions website as this is often what you must do whether you receive a reply or not. I applied several institutions in this manner and I think all rejected me. The only interviews I got were from emailing supervisors beforehand.
Try to be selective about what you want and where you apply to. Do not send out emails and CVs to everyone en masse. Instead send out a few and make them impactful. Quality over quantity. In addition, don’t be afraid to apply to the megastars. There were a few academics I never wanted to write to initially because I knew I wouldn’t get a reply, I knew they weren’t interested and only wanted Oxbridge graduates, not some retard from Salford and knew I had no chance. All but one replied to me and they we all very kind and encouraging. One even interviewed me. On reflection my only regret is not applying to the States. Maybe I’d of still never have gone but it wouldn’t have hurt to send an email.
Hopefully you will get a few interviews. Probably for a CDT because that’s where all the funding goes to these days and you can pretend to be over joyed at the prospect of a year wasted learning how to get along with people over being in lab and getting work done but whatever.
Now herein, this advice is from my personal experiences. I had five interviews followed by three offers. Your experiences may be different.
First make sure you are familiar with YOUR project. Know your stuff inside out and be confident in drawing out pathways, mechanisms and you will probably be asked to put a presentation together. I had to do a presentation in all but one of my interviews. Get this presentation down. Know it back to front and off by heart. Only when you know it absolutely can you present it in a way that feels organic and spontaneous.  Also get any PhD’s you might know or an academic to listen to it first so they can pick at it, ask you questions you could expect to receive as well as get your timing down.
Also be aware of their work and their project. You will not be expected to be a master in their research but reading a couple of papers is never a bad idea. It will help you get a feel for the work and ultimately will let you know if you could spend several years in that area.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for explanations with concepts or buzz words you are not familiar with. Don’t try to be anyone but yourself and if you don’t know the answer to a question, just say you don’t know.
In my experience the technical questions were not that horrible and I don’t think I got caught out by any. My difficulties came in the softer questions where there were no right or wrong answers. “Tell me about yourself” is a common one. I always answered with my institute, my broad research topic and how my time there motivated me to continue in research. “Why this institute?” This was another question that cropped up a lot and I think my bog standard answer was always “this is where the project that I’m interested in is”. Again I’m not the best with these style of questions so I tried to memorise these answers over the technical ones. Some will be obvious to you and what not to say. “why do you want a PhD?” this is easy, research. Do not say “Well I’ve done a masters and have no clue what to do next but a tutor of mine says I could probably be clever enough for a PhD”.
If you only get one offer (which normal and not bad in anyway) then congrats and check mate I suppose.
If you get more than one offer you have to then make a decision about which one to go for. This is complicated for so many reasons. Project, supervisor, institute should take preference. You may prefer one project but it’s with a young academic just starting, yet, be less interested in another project that’s with a well-established Prof. To give an example I had one project that was in my dream field of CH activation, yet I had joint supervisors which I decided early on I wanted to avoid and these pair I simply could not get on with. I had no connection with either of them sadly. I also got offered a project with a supervisor who I felt I could talk to normally and not have to tip toe around but the project was very alien to me and outside of traditional synthesis.
In the end I chose with my gut and happy with my choice. That said I don’t believe my days dabbling in CH activation are over just yet… watch this space!
Finally during the process you may be asked for your biggest strength and weakness. And don’t say something pathetic like “my weakness is I’m a perfectionist” or “my best strength is that I don’t actually have a weakness” These are cringy as hell and you may as well say “I am a cock faced asshole with no mates, no life and no soul”. Be honest. If you’re not the most organised person in the world say so. Followed by measures you try to implement to counter this. I have no real memory. I forget almost everything. Now I own a diary and rely on the sticky note app thing on my computer. As a result I remember much more and forget less.
These are all general points and I would be happy to answer questions on this topic @LewisMGooch
P.S: My recrys was a success after trying different approaches all sodding day. #ColumnDodging


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