My tips for PhD applications

We recently advertised for two PhD students to join a new research cluster on the theme of parental care, and have now shortlisted, interviewed and offered the positions, and having recently read a bunch of applications, I thought I would share some tips about applying for PhD positions, based only on my own experience (tips for an interview coming in a later post).

PhD positions are competitive, often highly so (particularly if they involve a very popular topic, charismatic megafauna or fieldwork in exciting locations. They can attract some excellent candidates from top notch institutions, often with first class undergraduate degrees and a masters (either underway or already completed). The advert may stipulate something like “must have at least a 2.1 in a relevant subject”, but honestly, that’s unlikely to be enough. If you are a current undergraduate student, you really need to sell yourself in your application to be shortlisted when you are competing with those who have already demonstrated their academic credentials by finishing their degree, and have more experience that you because they are doing or have done a masters. Even if you already have a first and a distinction, that won’t automatically get you shortlisted. So what do you need to do?

Preparation

  1. Read the advert* carefully and decide whether it sounds like something you might fancy doing.
  2. Make an informal enquiry to the project supervisor. Ask if they can provide additional information about what the project might involve. Even better, think of some more specific questions about the project, show a bit of knowledge of the broad subject area. A bit more information can help you shape your application. If the advert suggests that you include a CV with your informal enquiry, then do so (two pages is fine).
  3. Identify the skills and experience that the project requires. Are particular skills mentioned? Are there other skills that might be relevant but aren’t explicitly mentioned, such a field skills for a fieldwork based project, or particular lab skills for a lab based project. Make some notes about how your skills and experiences match what the project is looking for. Have a look at the work coming out of the supervisors group, look at their website and find out a bit more about what they do generally. Read a couple of papers that might be relevant to the project you are applying for. Get a feel for how they do their research (what methods, what analytical tools) and how you would fit in to that. Don’t go all out at this stage though, save that for the interview.
  4. Think about why you want to do a PhD, and why you want to do this particular project. Many of the applications we looked at lacked a good description of why the project appealed. All PhDs are different and we want to know what motivates you for this particular one.
  5. Write your application. What you do with the information you have collected depends on the application procedure. We asked for a CV and a statement outlining this stuff, so my advice is based on that. It’s likely that the same information will be needed regardless of the application format.

Your CV

Your CV need to be clear and fairly academically focused. A CV for a PhD should probably different from one for a job outside academia. We are interested in your academic skills and research experience, less so in your part time bar work. Equally, tailor your CV for every application you make – which bits do you want to highlight most for this particular project? Things that should definitely be on there include:

  • Your degrees (these should come first), where they were and the years you studied them plus your overall or predicted degree classification
  • Perhaps include some relevant modules you have taken, which year they were in (first, second, third) and possibly the mark you got for those modules (although you will most likely also need to provide a transcript which has this information
  • Your research project from each degree – the title, the mark you got and a brief description of the research skills involved (perhaps in a “research skills” section)
  • Some information about other skills that you gained during your degree (“relevant skills” – think about research skills, analytical skills, communication skills, organisational skills)
  • Qualifications from school/college
  • Relevant work experience. If you have carried out any vaguely relevant volunteer or paid work, give a short description here. I might be advertising a behavioural ecology project on fish, but if you have volunteered in conservation, or science communication, or teaching in a school, that’s great, it demonstrates to me a broader motivation to work in something vaguely ecological/scientific/academic, and hey, I did some of that that stuff too before I became a PhD student. If you haven’t got anything ecological, don’t worry, but think about what your other work has given you that would make you an excellent PhD student. Independence? Rising to challenges? If you are going to mention a job in your statement (later), make sure the details of it (what, where, who, dates) are in your CV.
  • Hobbies/activities/other qualifications. Yes, list these, particularly if they are relevant to the project (applying for bird project and have a ringing licence? Definitely mention it, but make sure it’s clear why you have it and how you got it). I personally don’t find a list of your hobbies particularly relevant – what you get up to in your spare time shouldn’t have any bearing on whether you would make a good PhD student or not. Who am I to say that someone who cycles 200km at the weekend would make a better or worse PhD student than someone who makes YouTube videos about Minecraft?
  • Include the contact details for two academic referees. Make sure they can make a comment about your suitability for PhD study. Ideally, they should have experience of you as a researcher (such as your project supervisor). Your tutor might not be the ideal person for the job, particularly if you barely see them and haven’t taken any modules they teach in your final year. It is better if they can talk about you, rather than the marks you got. Contact your referees in advance, ask if they are willing and able to provide a reference for you and give them details of what you are applying for and a copy of your application.

Your statement

This is where you explain to the supervisor why you would be an awesome PhD student, why you are perfect for this PhD and why this PhD is perfect for you. My top tip is NOT to start with an “Ever since I was a child, I have always been inspired by the natural world. From watching David Attenborough as a two year old…”. Why does this make you better for the PhD than someone who thought they wanted to be an accountant but saw the light and made the decision later? It doesn’t. Focus instead on the recent experiences that make you great for this, I need to be convinced that you can carry out research, not that you like watching nature documentaries.

The recent crop of applications were very varied in length, but I would aim for about a page, no more than two (single spaced, sensible sized font) unless something else is specified (like a word count). In this page you want to convince me that you can and want to do this particular PhD. Convince me that you are interested in the topic, but you don’t need to convince me that the topic is generally interesting (I know that, or I wouldn’t be looking for a PhD student to work on it). If you have already worked on something similar, great, if not, it doesn’t necessarily matter as I am very aware that the little niche I want you to work in might not be the same little niche that you fell into as an undergraduate.

Tell me about the research you have done, but focus on the outcome and skills, rather than the method. A good summary might be something like:

“My project focused on testing the hypothesis that behaviour X occurs more frequently under condition A than condition B. I found that generally, my hypothesis was supported, but larger males were more likely to carry out behaviour X than smaller males under condition B. During my project I gained a number of skills that are relevant to this PhD project. I was responsible for the husbandry and feeding of my animals, I designed and piloted my experiments, then adjusted my methods to improve the accuracy of my data collection. I gained skills in animal observation, method X, method Y and method Z. I analysed my data using linear models in R, and produced a project report for which I was awarded 86%.”

Do similar things for modules where you gained relevant skills, but don’t make sweeping statements about having skills that you did once in a practical in first year and never did again. Make sure you tailor your application to the project you are applying for: Molecular project? Highlight those skills. Behavioural observation project? Highlight that experience. However, you can and should certainly mention any other skills you have but be honest with yourself as to whether you have the skills, or you once did a practical that used them but can’t really remember. Don’t think all your skills have to come from your studies – think about ‘softer’ skills you have from work, volunteering, clubs and societies etc, particularly your communication or organisational skills.

If your study of the advert and any extra information you have been sent has identified particular skills that you need, make sure that you clearly state that you have those skills and where you got them. A statement that says “I have experience with R” is not nearly as convincing as “I took a module in Research Skills which included statistical analysis in R (GLM and GLMER), and carried out the analysis for my project in R, where I learned to write simple functions to sort my data”. There will likely be enough applicants that I don’t need to dig to find out what you can do, so make it obvious to me. If you don’t have a particular skills but are awesome for the project in other ways, then indicate to me that you could learn the skill: “Although I have not yet had he opportunity to learn R, I have experience of statistical analysis including mixed effects models in SPSS and have programmed using Python during my module on X”.

Finally…

Get someone to look over your CV and statement. Preferably, this should be one of your lecturers or someone who has appointed PhD students in the past. Get some tips from them as to how to improve and what they would look for. Proof read several times. Make sure you have included everything required by the application (a completed form, a CV, a statement, your transcripts, your English language qualifications, whatever is required by the University you are applying to). Hit the submit button and cross your fingers.

Good luck!


*These are tips for applying for advertised PhDs. If you want to find a supervisor and convince them to help you write a funding advert, that’s possible too, but it’s a bit of a different process.

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