Where to find a PhD

Everyone is different. Everyone chooses to do a PhD for a variety of reasons. Everyone wants to get different things out of a PhD project. Below is how I decided which projects to apply for.

Why a PhD?

Before even thinking of applying, you need to be sure you know exactly why you want to apply for a PhD as it is something you will be asked in application forms and interviews. Is it the next natural step in your chosen field? Are you excited to be part of cutting edge research and contributing something new to the scientific narrative? Are you up for a few more years of studying? Can you afford/do you want to live on a stipend for the next few years for the sake of research? Or do you just not know what you want to do next? Speak to people who have done/dropped out of PhDs to find out their motivation and see if you’re on the same wavelength as them.

While I don’t think I want to stay in academia forever, I knew I wanted to contribute something to research into treating cancer and a PhD is a very easy way to do that. I had spent the final year of my MChem in a med chem group and saw what doing a PhD was like and could see myself doing that in the future.

My absolutes

First and foremost, once deciding to do a PhD, I knew I wanted to do a cool project in an interesting place. This took the pressure off the overwhelming number of options to take into account. With those two criteria met, other factors can then be weighed up, such as location, discipline, university credibility etc. After answering yes to the two questions “Is it a cool project? Is it in an interesting place?”, I settled on the following checklist:

  • Medicinal chemistry with a bit of biology
  • Oncology-related project
  • Good university, reputable research group
  • Interesting location – Scotland (not Glasgow, needed a change of scene) or UK (if England, close to London for easy access to theatre etc. and friends who had moved south)
  • Applying to a project, not a Centre for Doctoral Teaching (CDT, will explain below)

Finding PhDs

Now the all important where do I find the things to apply to:

  • FindaPhD.com is where I found most of the PhD projects that I applied for. It has a very useful search function where you can search for projects based on subject, institution, funding grant and even by supervisor.
  • Ask staff at your current institution if they’re looking or can recommend people for the work you’re interested in. Academia is a smaller world than you think.
  • Good old Google. If a particular institution takes your fancy, look up what research is going on, by whom, and contact them directly for any opportunities.
  • Look up industry options – there are a number of industry-based PhD options popping up for chemists (GSK/Strathclyde, AstraZeneca/Cambridge etc.). If you’re not wanting to spend a few more years entirely in an academic environment, looking for PhDs with placements/mostly based in industry might be a good alternative.
  • Attend postgrad fairs – to be honest, I didn’t find this massively helpful as it was geared towards grad schemes but there are universities present. I had to inform the GSK recruitment staff there that they offered a PhD scheme with Strathclyde.
  • Attend Open Days – I only attended one open day (St Andrews) but it was very worthwhile. After the generic morning being shown around the university, my coursemates and I that attended got a chance to speak to academics one-to-one about potential projects. Sadly the funding for a project I agreed to fell through but it was a useful day.

PhD or CDT?

In the UK there are two approaches to offering PhD scholarships. There is the traditional route where you apply to individual projects with specific supervisors at a specific institution. Increasingly, due to the way funding is being offered, universities are setting up “Centres for Doctoral Training” which focus on offering a number of PhD scholarships dedicated to a specific topic across a number of groups/institutions. Some examples I have come across are listed below.

CDTs typically offer a first year of rotation around different research groups and projects and then you decide on your PhD project and supervisor after that period of training. This strategy is useful for candidates who know which institution or what field they’d like to work in but not neccessarily which project and allows an informed decision. Personally I decided to apply for a specific project and supervisor as there wasn’t a guarantee I’d get a project I was after once joining a CDT but I have ex-coursemates who are largely enjoying the CDT option.

I could say much more about my personal process of finding a PhD as there’s lots to take into account. Please comment below or tweet me (@fi0n0) any other questions you might have if you’re looking into studying for a doctorate.

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