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Student Stories

Student Stories

Blogs and vlogs from students of the University of Edinburgh

Tips for Picking a PhD Project…

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…by Jamilla / from the United Kingdom / PhD Molecular Biology / 4th Year

It’s PhD application season! As a first generation PhD student, I know that choosing to do a PhD, let alone a specific project, can be daunting. I remember scrolling through endless lists on FindAPhD, and browsing through tons of university webpages. I didn’t understand most of what was being advertised as part of the project, but this was normal. The beauty of choosing a PhD project is that whilst some general lab experience is helpful to your application, you don’t need to have experience that directly fits any potential project. A PhD is a learning opportunity, and you can learn lab skills on the job. Don’t stress about not knowing what a certain protein does right now. Instead focus on the kinds of questions you want to answer or specific techniques you wish to learn. Here are some criteria to consider when choosing where/what project to do:

  1. Google University PhD posting pages, funding body PhD pages (e.g MRC, Wellcome Trust) FindAPhD, Twitter
  2. Apply for multiple PhD projects that interest you (I applied for ~ 7). This allows you to find the project that suits you best.
  3. Don’t be afraid to directly email a lab principal investigator to see if they have any PhD positions available. Keep the email concise but make it clear that you are interested in work that they conduct
  4. Research the projects – read a few recent papers from the lab to convince yourself and the PI that you are interested in the project.
  5. Consider location. PhDs can be tough so be mindful of choosing a city you think you will like and perhaps isn’t so far from family/friends.
  6. Get a feel for prospective labs by spending some time with the principal investigator, and arranging a chat with current lab members outside of the lab environment. Ask questions such as how many students have they supervised, do students publish papers in their lab, what do they expect from a PhD student…
  7. The interview process can tell you a lot about how the university conducts itself. If it’s an intense 4 day interview, chances are working there will probably be intense too.
  8. Think about what you need – does the environment and supervision align with your needs as a student?
  9. Pick the supervisor that you get on best with. Don’t be tempted by that cooler project with the difficult supervisor. PhD projects often change focus over time, whereas your supervisory team is less likely to.

This is by no mean an exhaustive list and is based purely on my experience whilst applying for PhD programmes. The most important thing is that you could see yourself being happy in that environment for the next 3-4 years whilst you learn how to become a researcher.

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