How to secure a PhD

Every now and then people ask me how to get a PhD. If I’ve got enough time I usually repeat a riddle of tips and tricks that I myself have used and many of them stem from discussions with a dear friend. In addition to my rant I’d like to create this post as an extra resource that others can use. Here, I’ll give you top tips about how to secure the PhD position you want.

Why even bring up this topic?

Students are drilled with assignments and exams during their bachelor and masters studies and rush into doing a PhD. A PhD is a long-term commitment. Some people even marry more than once in their life, however almost no one does a second PhD, so take a step back to reflect and choose your PhD wisely.

Scientists like to use the scientific method when making decisions in their science projects.

However, when it comes to choosing your PhD, it often looks more like this.

Nugget of wisdom #1: you only get to do one PhD, Choose Wisely! Don’t just accept any offer. Your PhD determines the course of your career.

Step 1 decide whether a PhD is for you 

1.1 The goal is NOT:

  • to complete an assigned set of milestones
  • about the title

1.2 The goal IS:

  • to learn and follow ‘the scientific method’
  • to build a network
  • to develop significant and original research in your area of expertise

1.3 Pros of doing a PhD

  • Learning and applying the scientific method
  • Access to more prestigious jobs
  • Soft skills (time management skills, focus, patience, problem solving)
  • Friends & network
  • Explore different countries

1.4 Cons of doing a PhD

  • 3-6 years of focused work
  • Losing out on other job experiences
  • No easy way to opt out
  • Extreme stress and frustration
  • Can be a lonely experience
  • Mediocre pay / No big financial reward
  • Potentially stalling other aspects of life (buying a house, settling down, kids etc)

Nugget of wisdom #2: show off your work ethic during your internship, but don’t overfocus on your grades or your individual project and lose sight of connecting with others in the team. Also get to know and become a part of the team.

Step 2: Find a topic and think about the next few “variables”

2.1 Figure out what interests you

  • What do you read in your free time? It only makes sense to do a PhD in a topic that you are highly interested in, as it will take 3-5 years of your life delving in this topic.

2.2 Topic-based vs skill-based?

  • Do you want to do a topic-based vs skill-based PhD? In the former you tend to answer a specific question, whereas in the latter you tend to develop a specific method and are less interested in a specific question itself. Of course if you’re lucky enough and everything progresses very neatly you could develop a specific method to answer specific question.

2.3 Wet lab vs data science?

  • Nowadays data science PhDs are gaining momentum in the life sciences space, also there many opportunities outside of science and their transferable skills tend to make them more adaptable than wet PhD students.

2.4 Appreciated field vs unappreciated field / Hot topic.

  • You can imagine that it is harder to raise money for PIs to recruit PhD students in less well-funded fields.  Also if you manage to become PI in this field your fate might be the same.  Of course, this doesn’t mean of course that you shouldn’t go for what you are truly interested in, even though it is not well appreciated. Many groundbreaking research stems from niche fields that were initially not a popular field. 
  • To check whether a specific field is a hot topic or not, consider checking and seeing how much research activity is ongoing in that field by seeing in what type of journals these papers are published and how many citations they receive. Also check out what is being  discussed in high impact reviews such as “Nature Reviews Journals” and “Trends Reviews Journals”.

2.5 What do you want to do after the PhD?

  • Also consider what you would like to do after the PhD.  if you want to work in industry, you might not even need to do a PhD. There might be opportunities for master students in industry. On the other side, some jobs require a PhD, so a PhD might increase the chance of eventually landing a higher paid job in industry.
  • Even once you found a topic for your PhD project, don’t be fully set on this, as the specifics might change in the first few months of the PhD. Many projects simply don’t work out and you will then need to adapt. So stay open to suggestions. 

Nugget of wisdom #3: Science is a small  playing field.

  • Don’t make any enemies as they might be future reviewers or lost collaborators. 

Step 3: Pick a place in the world

  • You can do a PhD in any country
  • It’s your chance to explore
  • It could be a potential gateway / getaway for life after the PhD

Nugget of wisdom #4: You’re more wanted than you think.

  • Do you have a manuscript (in progress)  that you were working on during your internship, then use it to your benefit
  • Many PIs are looking for initiative, enthusiasm and perseverance, so don’t overfocus on purely grades.

Step 4: Decide the correct PI

As a real estate agent would say it’s all about environment, environment, environment. 

4.1 University vs institute

  • In universities, PIs are usually burdened with more teaching duties whereas in institutes scientists tend to have more time to work on their science. Also research institutes tend to have more shared core facilities that might speed up your future research. 

4.2 Mentorship qualities and working style?

  • Try to identify what mentorship qualities and working style the PI and the lab members have. Ideally you want to be in a collaborative environment.

4.3 Rich PI vs poor PI?

  • Rich PIs have more money for experiments and tend to be closer to the forefront of science. 

4.4 Lab composition – PhD students vs post-doc ratio

  • Ideally you would want to have 1:1 or 1:2  PhD student to post-doc ratio so that there is plenty of help and mentorship for a starting PhD student.

4.5 Big lab vs small lab?

  • There are pros and cons to big labs and small Labs. Big labs can often move projects quicker and there is more expertise in a big lab,  however it is easier to get lost in a big lab and fall in between the cracks.
  • Small labs generally might have less momentum, however starting PIs tend to push their first few projects in their lab with more veracity as they rely on its success. So it could be worthwhile to join the lab of promising young PI.

4.6 Track record

  • Check the PI’s track record.  ideally you would like to work  for a boss who is respected in the field and has made several contributions resulting in a growing citation record.

4.7 Do your own field work

Gather the following data and analyse it:

  • Publications (last 2-3 years)
  • Lab website
  • Lab members
  • Ask for tips/advice from your mentor

Nugget of wisdom #5: Grades are of limited use

•Some PhD programmes require top 10-20th percentile

•However, the PI usually doesn’t care. And there might be other ways to get into the lab circumventing the official PhD entrance program. 


Step 5: Approach the PI

5.1 Get a good reference from your current PI (where you might be doing an internship)

5.2 Read about what the PI has published

• Read about what the PI has published and the field they work in: first read reviews —>  then perspectives —> and then specific research articles

5.3 Create your one A4 proposal

  • Your proposal should include:  background, research question, methods, future perspectives.
  • This will show your PI that you have a lot of initiative enthusiasm and perseverance to figure out what you want to work on and sets you apart from many other PhD candidates. 

5.4 Create a short 5 slide PowerPoint

•Email The PI with your attached one A4 proposal and short PowerPoint  and explain why you are the one the PI should choose as his or her next PhD student. Make sure to include the following:

  • Interest in their lab
  • Research experience (papers?)
  • Unique skill set
  • Current state of the field
  • Pitch for a project (attach the word document / attach the ppt)
  • Request for a zoom or F2F chat
  • Attach CV

Step 5: Prepare for a discussion/interview

  • Think about how you can add value to their lab?
  • Make sure to show off your enthusiasm and positive energy, interrogative and deduction skills

I hope these 5 steps will help you in your journey to find the PhD program you want.

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