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A few tips to apply for a PhD


The supervisor

Given my experience, what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, below is a list of what I suggest you to take care about in the process of looking for a supervisor and a PhD. In order to make it easier to read, I will consider the supervisor a ‘she’.

Does she often publish? In journals with high Impact Factors? Are the researches heuristic? Is her lab famous? Is she professor? It might be a better opportunity to work with someone not that big who has time to properly supervise than working with a big shot who can only meet you once a year. However, on the resume, it looks very nice to have such a name next to yours. Furthermore, if your supervisor is famous, it could be because she is really competent thus you could learn a lot from her. I think the most important is to find someone who is really passionate about her job.

What kind of skills does she have? I am not talking about knowledge but about technics that she can use and teach you. What background? Is she independent => is the majority of her publications done with her first supervisor or with new teams? Did she only published reviews or also experimental researches? Does she know more about statistics than p-values and T-test? Yes, people think that acquiring data is the hardest part in science and analyzing results is just about randomly pushing buttons on the computer. Well, this is dramatically changing. Thousands upon thousands of data are now openly available and p-values misused (replication crisis). Therefore, be above the average: *master technique and produce original data* Santiago Ramon y Cajal. To make it happen, you need a statistics guru, not a copy-paster of methods section.

Do you feel good with her? Yep, that’s important. You are going to work (at least) 3 years with her. You might have to see her very often. She will be your personal coach in a way. She might be the person that propels you through the stars or makes you go to hell. Ok, not really, but still, your supervisor will have a major influence on you, your mood and even your future thus better it is to work with someone you feel good with and who got at least a bit of empathy. Pick a supervisor you like, who inspires you, meet her in person if possible. Does her PhD students feel good with her? What about the other researchers in the lab? It’s not always easy to get an answer of these questions but asking her students and meeting her in person are really helpful to get an overall picture. You are going to closely work with her for the next three years, it’s a big deal.

Is the university famous? Yes, it can eventually have an influence. Are her PhD students publishing? Are her PhD students first authors? Basically, you can get a bunch of information from them, do not hesitate to ask them questions directly if you can. Usually, you can find their email online, on the laboratory web page for example. How much is your supervisor enthusiastic about the project? Is it something really important for her career (i.e. personal interest) or just another paper? Better it is if she is crazy excited about it than just happy. And again: will your supervisor have time for you?

About the topic

But above all, master technique and produce original data; all the rest will follow Santiago Ramon y Cajal

This sentence sums up pretty much what you should take care of. This PhD must be a springboard for your career. So you must find a position that will make you get useful skills and do heuristic stuff. If you’re gonna write a review, what skills will you get apart from writing skills and literature knowledge that you would get with any other PhD whatsoever? You need to be able to sell yourself after your PhD, and basically, people won’t pay for your knowledge, they will pay for your skills.

How many publications in the field? What kind of journals publish on this topic? Do you think this area of research has its place in the future? Or is it almost old-fashioned? Better it is to work on a niche market in order to be able to ask for grants later on. If there is no great publication in the area since the last 5 years, doing a PhD in the field might be a great opportunity or very tricky…

Imagine getting the PhD after 3 years of hard work. Do you feel better with this PhD or that one? Pick the one which is synonymous to much more fun, skills, useful results and prestige. You might have to focus on this subject for the next three years and maybe even your life, that’s a big deal.

What methods they usually use in the field, also what kind of statistics (classical, Bayesian, machine learning?). Read as many related scientific articles as possible. You will figure out if you get completely bored or even more curious. This will help you to choose the best fitted PhD. Don’t worry if you don’t understand every part of the articles you read, it’s actually a good point, you will have something to learn, it won’t be boring!

You don’t have to do exactly what you’ve done so far (I would even recommend not to do so, in order to open your mind). I mean, if you did your Master thesis on animal behavior, you can still ask for a PhD using fMRI with human participants. This can be a great moment to take another direction, you already got a Bachelor and a Master degree, you proved that you’re able to learn: you can work in a “new” area. However, try to find some relevant arguments so that you’ll be able to convince the board team. Basically, try to get a heavy weight for each of these variables in order to optimize your chances: Adapted skills for the project + great motivation + proofs that you are a hard worker = success!

By manip', I mean the tasks that have to be done in order to collect data. Let's say you need healthy participants scans. You need about 6 months to learn how to make the scanner work. Then, you're not learning anymore. You do it automatically. You might need 2 years to get enough data which means 1 year and a half potentially wasted. There might be a way to avoid collecting new data and use another dataset instead. Think about how much time you'll save and the programming and statistical skills you could get instead.

About the cash

Two reasons why I would reject such an offer.

1. If your family can't pay and you don't have any savings, then you will have to find a job to pay for your flat, food and so on... You cannot then focus on your PhD as much as you could otherwise.

2. A project that is not founded sounds tricky. Why is it not founded? Is it a serious one?

Best choice ever. So you can entirely focus on your project while not getting anxious about how to pay the bills.

Don’t be too picky with the salary (as soon as it is sufficient to live). You’ll be rich later don’t worry. Whatever the quality of your desk or the beauty of the building you’re working in, the most important is to know what you will get out of this experience.

About the location

You decide to work at your university, continuing your Master thesis project or something similar. I think that is the easiest way. I love this quote: *easy choice, hard life, hard choice, easy life*. Except if the project is really new, really challenging and is a great opportunity (Your are studying at Harvard University), then you should really consider to look for a position elsewhere.

At least, you will have to adapt to a new environment which will improve your cerebral plasticity but still: same culture, same language, and probably, same way of working. You won’t learn as much as being in a completely new environment.

In your country and abroad. Hum… Definitely better, especially if you spend at least half the time abroad. Be careful though with co-supervision, can be tricky (pass-the-buck excuses)

YES. 10 reasons why:

1. It’s good for your brain (adaptation, language, culture, challenge, novelty, etc…)

2. It’s good for your resume (abroad= open-minded, risk taking, international collaborations, etc…)

3. It can and will be the time of your life!

4. You’re gonna stay there for at least three years, this is the best way to experience a culture, therefore a wonderful way to travel

5. The future is international

6. Same risk ratio of having a bad supervisor, bad subject, etc… HOWEVER, you will at least improve your language skills, and you will be able to sell your “failed” international experience during an interview way more easily than a “failed” experience in your own country

7. What a great feeling to say that you spent 3 years in another country

8. It opens your mind and horizons (and opportunities)

9. You are really likely to be back way stronger, smarter, tougher, more open, happier, etc…

10. Just do it


Find offers

Depending on your field, you might find offers in scientific journals' website (nature.com/naturejobs, pnas.thejobnetwork.com, etc…), directly on the laboratories' and universities' website (e.g., ucl.ac.uk/npp/NeurosciencePhD for London or mpg.de/jobboard for a Max Plank Institute)

Use your network: ask the PhD students and professors you know, and tell them that you are available 🙂

Use Twitter: follow you favorite potential supervisors and see if they have any offer

Go wild: send an email directly to the supervisor you want to work with and ask her if it is a possible scenario that you do a PhD under her supervision

Basically, just ask the internet: “PhD position in psychology/neurosciences”.

A few links: risc.cnss.fr, fens.org, jobs.sciencecareers.org, scholarshipdb.net, findaphd.com, phdportal.eu, researchgate.net/jobs

Get a kick-ass motivation letter and resume

A bunch of websites can help you writing a great letter and resume. Just ask the internet: “how to make my resume look great”.

Looking at students’ and professors’ resume is also a very good idea. First copy it and then adapt it with your own style. Ask for feedback from as many different people as possible. Your family, professors, friends, students, unknown random people. Every feedback might be useful

Adapt your motivation letter to each of your application. Even after getting the position, keep your resume and letter on a USB stick and update them regularly. Keep all of your motivation letters, some sentences might be helpful later on for another one

Send an application

Adapt your letter and resume to each application

Don’t spam email boxes, you are applying for a contract that will (at least) last for three years, it’s a big deal. Supervisor won’t hire a “copy-pasted” candidate

Usually: resume + motivation letter, transcripts of your grades (with a translation in English, ask the International Relations Office of your university), 2 recommendation letters, contact details about your last supervisors)

Here is an example:

Object: Applying for the PhD position in (be specific enough)

Good morning Professor …,

I am …, a Master student in (field and university).

I am contacting you about the PhD project in ...

This PhD project is perfectly matching to my interests.

You will find my resume, a motivation letter, contact details of two referees with a recommendation letter of Professor … (the internship that I did under his/her supervision is the most related to this PhD project), and all of my academic results (with a translation of all courses) in the attached documents.

Please, let me know if you are interested in my profile.

I am also at your disposal to answer any questions you may have.

Thank you for your time“

After you sent the application

Ask again if you didn't get any answer after 2 weeks (first, check the sent email, did you correctly write the address? Is it the good email? is she the actual person in charge of recruitment? Did you really send it? Was the email well written? etc…

Congratulations! Now, get ready for the interview. I will assume that it’s a Skype interview. See below to get prepared.

Ask for feedback, it could be useful: Why isn’t she interested in a wonderful profile like yours? Nevermind, congratulations! You tried, you did your best. Now move on, look for another position.

Positive answer, what steps to expect?

Basically, here are the 3 steps that you will have to successfully pass:

1. Get a first interview (around 100 candidates)

2. Get a second interview (around 20 best candidates)

3. Get a physical meeting (around 3 best candidates).

Don’t worry, you will fail...

Especially if you’re applying in a university where nobody knows you, where nobody can boost your application, if you are not a native English speaker, if the position is really challenging, if the university is famous or if you are asking for a position where your background is not completely related.

But that’s the good point actually => fall seven times and stand up eight, Come on, you don’t want a life that’s easy! The 8th attempt might be the good one. Just remember to write down what you learned at each failure. Stay optimistic, you are awesome, don’t harbor on a missed chance, move on, you will make it.

Skype interview

Congratulations! Now focus. You passed the hardest step but there is still a long way to go.

First, send her a Skype request to make sure you get the good Skype pseudo, and that she got yours.

Have a professional Skype pseudo as well as a professional avatar.

Test your Skype connection: Microphone and headphones. Skype with someone else to test it.

Before the interview:

During the interview

After the interview

Send a thank you email within the next 2 days (not directly after the interview though) .

This e-mail should be short, you thank the employer for the interview. You remind her the most important and related part of your resume, how motivated and confident you are and what you think you could bring to the project and team

A few more points

Points that you should consider to improve or add to your personality

It is worth it

Whatever the job you want to do, doing a PhD means having the opportunity to focus on a specific topic for many years. It can be an amazing experience but it can also be tricky. So take your time, choose well and go for it!

If the one you find is not exactly as expected (and it won't), then adapt it. Talk to your supervisor, take initiative to shape it as you want it to be. Creativity is very important in science, be creative and you’ll find a way to adapt your PhD and make it completely fit your ambitions.

Now, make it happen!