15 tips for nailing your PhD application

With each passing week, I am edging nearer to the end of my PhD journey. I have learnt so much along the way about stem cells, about myself but also about being a PhD student over the past four years almost. So, I thought it would be great to go way back to the beginning โ€“ before even I was a PhD student โ€“ with a series of posts to help share my PhD wisdom and what Iโ€™ve learnt from my mistakes and triumphs โ€“ mainly mistakes โ€“ along the way. So, there is no better place to start than right at the very beginning โ€“ the PhD application.

One of the most common messages I am sent through my blog and social media is advice about PhD applications and cover letters, so I thought it was about time that I compiled them together to share with all the PhD students of the future. If youโ€™re a final year undergraduate student or a Materโ€™s student, the thought of applying for a PhD might seem like quite a daunting and scary process. But hopefully these 15 top tips of mine will help you to navigate through this exciting time!

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#1 Start early!

While the majority of PhD application deadlines are in the autumn, there are projects open all year round so there is no problem with getting started early โ€“ after all the application process could take you months from start to finish. Even if you just start out by seeing whatโ€™s out there โ€“ I used findaphd.com to hunt down all the projects I applied for โ€“ the more time you have to digest the information, assess the situation and practice these applications the better! It will be tough to be studying for finals, applying for PhDs and doing whatever else you like to do all at once, so the more time you give yourself the easier it will be.

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#2 Decide what you want to specialise in, but keep an open mind!

You are going to spend the next three years at least of your life researching one very niche question so it has to be a topic that you are passionate about and committed to make a difference in. Take the time to suss out exactly what you want to specialise in. But not only consider the theory of your topic but the practical side of things too. In science for example, do you want to be getting your hands dirty โ€“ not literally! โ€“ in a lab, or are you more fascinated by computational models for example. Do you want to spend more time inside or out there doing fieldwork? All are important considerations you need to make. But donโ€™t be too niche because PhD applications are super competitive! If you read the latest ground breaking paper in your field of interest and decide that is what you want to work on, you are limiting yourself to the number of PhD projects you can actually apply to. I knew that I was interested in stem cells, developmental biology, genetics and epigenetics โ€“ so I was applying for PhD that I was interested in that fell into any of these categories. I ended up with a stem cell PhD but more a focus on metabolism. But over time I have managed to evolve it to have more of an epigenetic influence too.

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#3 Contact your prospective PhD supervisor informally before hand

Deciding who to do your PhD with is just as important as what you do your PhD on in my eyes. So, itโ€™s really important toย  spend some time looking up the person or people who might be supervising you. I also think it helps to connect with your potential supervisor before even submitting your application. Email them introducing yourself and asking any questions you might have about the project. Show you are keen, but donโ€™t make the emails too long and rambling. Academics receive hundreds of emails every day so make them want to reply to you, and remember they might not reply to you instantly. If you can visit them before applying is always a good option too. It all helps put a face to the name when your application lands on their desk.

Stay tuned for a blog post in the future about what to look for in a perfect PhD supervisor.

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#4 Do your background research

You have to be prepared and up to date with the area and what excites you before you sit down to answer all the questions and write your cover letter and personal statement. Itโ€™s going to take time to do your background reading, especially if you are keeping a really open mind with your project, but it will be worth it to impress those reviewing it on the other end.

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#5 Think about your non-academic life too!

A PhD is obviously the time where you are going to develop into a researcher with skills and contacts that will help you in your future career. But itโ€™s not all work, work, work! Maintaining a work-life balance during your PhD is crucial to your mental health, motivation and ultimately happiness during your study. Make sure to consider what there is you can get involved with should you get accepted and onto that PhD program. Think about whether you would enjoy living there without making substantial changes to your social life and normal routine.

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#6 Tailor your application for each specific project

Not showing your passion for that area of research that your potential supervisor has dedicated at least 10 years of their life to probably is not going to get you in the good books. Submitting the same generic cover letter and personal statement to every single PhD project you apply to is not going to get you noticed! I didnโ€™t have to change my cover letter drastically, but just highlighted different modules that were more relevant and discussed my passions for that area. Of course, have a template cover letter but edit to each project and let your passion shine through.

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#7 Use keywords from the project description in your application

There is a reason why the project supervisors used specific words in the job description or person description because that is their ideal candidate. So, if they want someone who has done animal work before, highlight that in your application. If they ask for someone who has done Western blotting before, tell them that you have! Use as many of the keywords they have used in your application as possible! Of course, if you donโ€™t have the experience for one characteristic โ€“ you can always go and get that experience. This is where starting early can help too! A PhD supervisor isnโ€™t expecting you to have all of the desirables they have listed, but the more you have, the more you may be suited to this project. And the better your chances.

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#8 Save your answers to generic questions in a Word document

We live in a digital age where all applications are electronic. Some even have a system where you input your answers to a series of the generic questions such as โ€˜Tell us about a time you worked well as a teamโ€™ for example into boxes where you can save your application and continue it later. Write all your answers to these questions in a Word document. The last thing you want is for the system to crash and you have lost all your work! Plus these questions come up again and again, so it can save you some valuable time by using the same answers. But obviously, like before, make sure they are not too generic and if they can be tailored, tailor them! Always double check what the question is asking for too!

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#9 Consider the funding

How is the money situation? Is that project funded, part funded or will you have to self-fund? There is no point applying for a project that is self-funded if you donโ€™t have the money to support your research and yourself for 4 years plus. But if you have the capability then it might be worth it as funded PhDs are much more competitive to get for obvious reasons. For me, there was no chance that I could fund any of it โ€“ so to stop myself falling in love with a project that I simply couldnโ€™t do, I made sure to only search for funded opportunities from the get go!

I want to share more on funding opportunities for PhDs and break it down a little bit more in another blog post coming soon.

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#10 Ask questions and seek advice

You can never ask too many questions. When youโ€™re applying for a PhD, chances are that you are completing your undergrad or Masterโ€™s program. But this also means that you are surrounded by academics. It will definitely be worth your time to sit down with an academic that you know and trust to go through the project description with you. They may be able to shed light on what things you might be able to do, or highlight questions you would never have thought of asking. Also, make use of anyone who has been there and done it with advice on your applications, cover letters etc.

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#11 Inform your referees before submitting your application

Probably an obvious thing to do, but the amount of times I have heard academics say to their students โ€˜Oh I didnโ€™t realise you had applied for that!โ€™. You are asking a handful of people to write a glowing report about you to help you land your PhD opportunity that will require them to take time out of their busy schedules. Just the simple courtesy of asking someone will they be your referee will go a long way. And they wonโ€™t then be surprised when they get an email from Professor X for a reference.

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#12 Donโ€™t neglect your CV, cover letter and personal statement

Besides the generic questions asking for your experience of time management and team work and so on, your PhD applications will probably ride more on your CV, cover letter and personal statement. This is your chance to give your prospective supervisor an insight to what you will be like as a researcher, a student and a member of their lab, and a person. Show them your passion and enthusiasm and your personality. This is what is going to get you noticed.

For more tips of mine for writing CVs and cover letters, you can get them by joining the Talking Science community here or clicking on the image below. It will also get you all the other exclusive PhD advice and content from the rest of this series.

cv advert

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#13 Make sure you can get hold of any documents you might need

You might need your academic transcripts or your A-Level certificates and so on. Make sure to check the requirements in the application and know where they are or where you can get them from!

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#14 Take your time!

PhD applications unfortunately cannot be done in an hour, not even one evening if you want to do it thoroughly, so itโ€™s important not to get frustrated and take your time. Remember to triple check you have attached all the relevant documents, your contact info is up to date and that your spelling and grammar is accurate on every application before you hit that send button!

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#15 Donโ€™t give up!

If at first you donโ€™t succeed. Try, try and try again! The time when you start applying for PhDs until the time you are awarded one is a long time, and it is highly competitive. I took 9 months from start to accepting my PhD position. I also applied to nearly 30 different projects so donโ€™t give up at the first hurdle either. It will get incredibly frustrating most likely but think of it as the first test! If you have the perseverance to get through 9 months of PhD applications, then you will definitely have the resilience to complete a PhD.

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So it looks like you are now ready to apply! Good luck! Next up โ€“ itโ€™s time to nail that PhD interview!

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I hope that these tips have been useful for you. If there are any other questions you might have about PhD applications then please donโ€™t hesitate to ask them in the comments below. There will probably be someone else thinking the same thing. Also, if you are a PhD student or have your PhD perhaps you have some other tips to add from your experience. It would be awesome if you could add them to the comments too!

Science love.

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3 thoughts on “15 tips for nailing your PhD application

  1. I am PhD student myself. I would have few more suggestions about choosing where to apply:
    1) Think how well established is the lab. If it is a junior research group, then it often can mean limited funding and possibly limited technology, set ups, lab equipment. Also if there only PhDs and no Postdocs around, then one will have to figure little things/experiments out often alone without input from from more experienced people. But if the topic is really what you want then go for it. In junior group the success of it lies in 2-3 PhDs +/- 1 Postdoc. So there will certainly be a pressure.

    Large labs and Institutes might have well established procedures, core facilities e.g proteomics, imaging, histology lab, and many technicians who take care of equipment and might help PhDs if not practically then at least with advice. Many Postdocs is additional plus. They have so much knowledge, they probably now more than the PI. They have read already a lot literature and that generally can be really really useful. You can ask them anything, from simple protocols of experiments to current theories in the field..

    2) whether you will get a Postdoc, which will supervise you, figure out with you the results of your experiments, etc. Thatโ€™s actually the best. The PI might be so busy and often not in the lab, that you will be thankful that there is a person in between you and the PI.

    At the application phase, for me it really came down to that. I joined a rather large group and not a junior group. I am so lucky to have helpful Postdoc. Actually we have 9 Postdocs and 8 PhDs in our group. The postdocs have different backgrounds, so there is always someone whom I can ask.

    Anyhow these are my 2 tiny suggestions, I think one nowadays how to be really which lab to choose.

  2. Hi Enjoyed your postings, helpful too , as in the 2 year ( Part-Time ) hinterland of a 7 year project; can be explained why such a duration , yet similar issues to all PGR. Iโ€™m PGR Rep. at Bath Spa University in UK, keen to offer new students nuggets of stuff. Enjoy speaking, conversing and part of Research Roundtable where input from global folk.

    As Iโ€™m in full time employ, self funding, with no employer help Iโ€™m seeing this from many sides and also not really doing it for employment as more interested in making an archive for future use.

    Hereโ€™s Simon

  3. Regarding contacting a possible future supervisor: thatโ€™s how I got my position. I just said I wanted to do a PhD and needed advice on how to obtain that goal with regards to choosing my Master thesis subject, for instance. Then the group knew of my interest in the topic, my motivation and my skills, and offered me a position based on leftover funding from somebody who quit early.

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