Fancy a PhD?

Article by Heather Goodwin, University of Cambridge

Feb. 23, 2016, 11:04 a.m.

This article was originally published on the CDT-PV IoP Guest Blog.

With PhD application season in full swing, Heather Goodwin, compiles her advice for finding the right PhD and what to watch out for when starting one.

Speak to the supervisor

When I found a PhD position I liked the look of, I had a lot of questions. I wasn’t sure if it was OK to ask to speak to the supervisor or someone else for more information (especially when that supervisor is a ‘big cheese’ at Cambridge University). But why not? What’s the worst that can happen? They say no or don’t reply? Not so terrible. A friend who had been through their PhD and postdoc told me that whilst it wasn’t what people normally did you’d definitely be remembered; standing out for being enthusiastic and interested certainly isn’t going to do you any harm. I found it let me speak to the professor in a less formal sense – I wasn’t being interviewed, I was asking the questions. This had a knock on effect of making the real interview later on much more relaxed as we’d already had a good chat.

Another good piece of advice is that if you’re set on the area you want to go into, always apply to the leading group. You might not get it, but by not applying you guarantee that you won’t. This goes for asking professors at your own institution too, knock on the door or drop them an email, plenty of other people have before.

Speak to the team (without the supervisor)

I’ve heard this from a few sources and had it backed up personally. It’s not just about whether the supervisor is nice (or not), but about how likely they are to let you work how you want to work; like whether you want a lot of guidance or a lot of freedom. For example, if you’re someone who doesn’t like pressure you’re probably not going to enjoy working with someone who wants you to produce several publications during your PhD. Ideally, you’d get a chance to chat to the team at an interview, but if not, try emailing someone in the team – you can often find student lists with email addresses on the group website. If there are people at your current university who are in a similar field they might be able to give you an insight into what a particular supervisor or team is like. They may even warn you off a certain supervisor with uncharacteristic urgency that makes the decision process much easier

Be honest

If you intend to work 9-5, if you want a lot of support, or if you’re really keen to publish as many papers as you can, say it. If the supervisor doesn’t like it they might not offer you the position; and although that is a risk if there is a real fundamental difference in the way each of you approach things it’s probably not going to be a particularly harmonious relationship and it may not be the PhD for you. If they do still offer you the position, despite any differences, it means they really want you there and you are in a strong position from the start to decide how you want to carry out your research. If, on the other hand, you agree: fantastic! You go in knowing what each expects of the other and that takes a lot of the initial uncertainty out of starting somewhere new.

I chatted to another supervisor before taking an interview offer and found out the team had changed quite a bit since they’d written the advert. They were no longer doing what I was interested in and obviously hadn’t paid much attention to what I’d written in the application. A short chat saved me an awkward interview and a long train journey.

What do you want?

Before you can be honest you’re going to have to work out what you want from the PhD and what you want from the supervisor. I like to have my hand held and be guided every step of the way, but to allow me to gain the confidence in my own ideas and intuition I knew I needed a supervisor that wasn’t going to do this to get the most from my PhD. Also, I no longer want to have the undergraduate lifestyle of working weekends and evenings, and although I fully understand this will happen during my PhD I’d like to keep it to a healthy minimum. When I discussed this at the interview my supervisor was perfectly happy to hear it and adamant that a PhD could be done (and done well) in this way but, as he put it, ‘if you want to sit around on your email and what not during the day, you’re going to be here longer’. If you want to treat it like a professional 9-5 job you have to work like that while you’re in there.

Once you’re there – three top tips

Ask questions

Even to the point of being slightly annoying is okay, and as long as you’re actually listening to the answers you probably won’t be asking stupid questions. Talking to different people in the group will let you find out about the breadth of expertise in your group so you’ll know who to talk to when you run into a problem or want information about something in the future. A paper can’t explain the bits you’re stuck on nearly as well as a person can.

Funnily enough people are interested in their own work and quite enjoy talking to someone who is genuinely interested too. If you have the opportunity, talking to people in different groups lets you build up a whole range of interesting contacts. CDTs are great for this, especially with the industry links many boast, so make the most of it.

If your project isn’t set when you start this is also the most efficient way to find out what you might be interested in doing. However, this opportunity is often underused as people are worried they’re being intrusive or that they don’t know enough to ask intelligent questions. Even if you do ask a silly question, there’s plenty of time to correct that: ten silly questions will be forgotten with one insightful one, and being enthusiastic will earn forgiveness for mistakes.

Get a mentor

If your supervisor is super available, super friendly, super easy to talk to then maybe you’re all set, but this is pretty unlikely. It doesn’t have to be anything official, just someone (or a few folk) you feel comfortable asking questions to and getting a bit of advice from. They might even be someone who can spot whether or not you’re on track, and deliver that message in a kinder or harsher way than your supervisor. A good person could be a PhD student who’s further on, a postdoc you get on well with or even someone outside your group – just someone with some experience of what you’re doing.

I’ve been warned that parts of a PhD can be very lonely and that there will come a time when you know more about your little area than anyone else. At some point you’ll get stuck and your supervisor won’t have an answer; a comforting voice to tell you that’s normal, that plenty people go through that stage, will take away a lot of that loneliness.

Make mistakes

You will make mistakes, some really silly mistakes, and people will probably laugh remembering times they did something similar. The more you watch people in the lab the more you’ll see how many mistakes are made on a daily basis, things dropped, broken, spilled. Of course, people become better at not making mistakes, but importantly they become better at identifying them, fixing them, knowing what matters and better at not panicking when they do happen. Although, you can get yourself a rather colourful set of foreign vocabulary when working in an international lab.

So, go to the lab, make your mistakes, in fact, maybe even purposefully make a few. Mistakes are a fantastic way to build up an intuition in your work (as long as you keep track of what you’re doing); they let you see the effect each of your actions has. You’ll find out what over exposed, under exposed, overheated etc. looks like and know how to fix it when you come across it unexpectedly sometime in the future. If we all got it right first time there’d be a lot less for us to do… and there wouldn’t be half such a need for lab space.