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How does a PhD work and how to find the right one

As part of our regular series, one of our Year in Industry students, Akemi Ramos takes a look at PhD life from before it even begins! Akemi shares with us her insights into how to navigate the maze of searching for the right PhD.

August 20, 2021

As part of our regular series, one of our Year in Industry students takes a look at PhD life from before it even begins! Akemi Ramos shares with us her insights into how to navigate the maze of searching for the right PhD.

Hi, I’m Akemi! I’m an undergraduate student just about finishing my Year in Industry placement year at the Earlham Institute (EI). My project involves analysing Miniature Inverted Repeat Transposable Elements (MITEs) in the wheat cultivar Chinese Spring - identifying MITEs in the genome and their possible effect on gene expression.

As my placement draws to a close, I’ve started thinking about the future. More specifically, about whether I should do a PhD.

However, the idea of finding one alone was pretty overwhelming. I remember being guided step-by-step on how to apply for my Bachelor Degree, yet there is nothing I can find on applying for a PhD.

To help guide myself and other people in a similar situation, I asked multiple PhD students from EI (some doing lab research and others bioinformatics-based) on their experiences - summarising their advice into ten handy points that could cross your mind when considering a PhD.

Akemi prepares to present her final seminar at Earlham Institute as part of her Year in Industry programme.

Akemi at her desk at home preparing to present her final seminar at EI

1. Should you do a PhD?

Being called a Dr is pretty cool, it’s the cherry on top to end your years in education. It is a gruelling four years though.

Ask yourself if a PhD is the path for you to get to where you want in your career? Answering whether you want to work in industry or academia may help you decide.

For a career in academia, a PhD is the obvious path, as it is a requirement for a post-grad job. Yet, you don’t need a PhD to work in industry, but it could help you start in a higher role.

If you don’t know how to pick between the two; a simple online search for ‘Academia vs Industry’ should tell you more. Either way, a PhD is good if you like something challenging that will help you learn new skills and want in-depth knowledge in a topic of interest.

2. Can you do a PhD without previous experience?

Talking to the PhD students, the consensus was that you don’t need research experience to get a PhD, although, it does definitely help.

Having research experience will help you convince a supervisor or funding body that you have directly applicable skills and will give you a competitive advantage. Experience would also ensure you enjoy research and actually want to spend four years working on the same subject.

If you’re set on a PhD and don’t have any experience, don’t let that necessarily stop you. Some of the PhD students I talked to didn’t either. Try to draw transferable skills from other jobs or projects undertaken in Bachelors or Masters.

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As my placement draws to a close, I’ve started thinking about the future. More specifically, about whether I should do a PhD. However, pretty soon after considering a PhD I got overwhelmed by the idea of even starting to look for one.

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3. Can you do a PhD without a Master's?

A misconception is that you need a Masters to get a PhD. Most PhDs have a minimum requirement of a 2:1 in a bachelor's degree. Out of the PhD students I asked, half had a Masters and half didn’t - it depends on the individual - if you know you want to do a PhD and you have a good chance of getting it, they said skipping a Masters is probably best.

However, if you are unsure on whether you want to do a PhD or aren’t sure about which area to go into, a Masters could help you decide.

Plus, a Masters could make you more competitive and confident by gaining new skills and knowledge in a specific area. A research Masters seemed to give you a better insight on a PhD compared to a taught Masters.

You don't necessarily need a Master's degree!

4. How can networking help you?

Networking is useful in any career and it’s a good idea to keep contact details of anyone who might be useful.

When talking to the PhD students, one thing I gauged was that most people received advice from someone along the way. Some got recommendations on where to apply, what experience or qualifications to get; were coached through the applications, and some just got honest feedback on what a PhD is like.

It took a while for me to have that confidence to just ask people, but I realised most people are happy to help out, especially as at some point they too would have received help.

Another useful tip from a PhD student is to follow researchers, companies, and conferences in your field of interest on social media! This is an easy way to keep yourself updated on projects and opportunities.

5. How do you find a PhD?

So how do you find a PhD; do you just search ‘find a PhD’? Well, that is one way, all the PhD students used FindAPhD.com as the main resource. Otherwise searching ‘topic of interest’ PhDs can also work.

Other useful resources are university and institute websites, social media sites, and sometimes journals that have career pages. Also, just asking any researcher you’ve enjoyed previously working with if they have a project available is another way to go.

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When I asked the PhD students at Earlham Institute what they prioritised when looking for PhD, many came up with a ranking, however they all agreed that the number one priority is to choose a project you are passionate about.

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6. How the application process works

Depending on the type of PhD, the stages of application can look slightly different. This is because some PhDs will be advertised with funding already secured, while other projects still need to gain external funding - though there is normally a funding body in mind to apply to. You can also self-fund your project, but this is very expensive and isn’t recommended.

In general, the PhD students said they needed to submit an academic CV, a statement of interest about the project, a cover letter, and sometimes a project proposal.

If you are selected by the supervisor, (one PhD student said it could take from a few weeks to a few months to hear back), you would be invited to an interview with supervisors and an informal interview with the research group.

Here, the PhD students stress it is important to be just as happy with the supervisor and group as they are with you. Without the correct environment, it is unlikely you will thrive and enjoy your time during the PhD.

Once there is a match, you have secured the project. If at this stage the PhD has funding, then congratulations it’s yours. Otherwise, you might have to do a panel interview with the funding body to prove the project is worth funding and you are the right person for it.

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It is important to be just as happy with the supervisor and group as they are with you. Without the correct environment, it is unlikely you will thrive and enjoy your time during the PhD.

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7. Do you get paid to do a PhD?

We’ve already talked about funding, and this generally covers the cost of the project. If funding is acquired, a stipend is normally included. The average stipend is around £15K a year outside of London.

While this is not much, most PhD students I’ve talked to agreed that this is enough to live relatively comfortably, as long as you don’t have to support anyone else. For those working, this could mean a significant drop in income for four years, which is something to consider.

PhD students know this going in, yet for most this doesn’t deter them - wanting to learn and develop new skills trumps the below-average wage. Plus, don’t forget as a student, you don’t need to pay tax, and you can take full advantage of your student discount!

8. Which PhD do you choose?

When I asked the PhD students what they prioritised when looking for a PhD, many came up with a ranking.

All the PhD students agreed that the number one priority is to choose a project you are passionate about. Following this, the ranking will be personal preference.

Things to consider include location, finance, publishing reputation of the group and centre, the dynamic of the supervising team, available training opportunities, and types of PhDs.

While the traditional route to a PhD is by thesis, where you do your own original research, there are other varieties of PhDs out there. Integrated PhD, Industrial Doctorate, PhD by publication, and PhD by distance are also options.

Integrated PhD includes a one-year Master’s course, while an Industrial Doctorate includes experience with a commercial company. PhD by publication is for researchers who already have published papers that contribute original work to a field. PhD by distance allows students to perform their own research remotely, useful if you have other commitments or are an international student.

With all things considered, you would have to be lucky to find something with everything you want - so making a ranking will help you personally choose which to apply to.

In the end, it’s important to only apply to a place you would be happy to accept.

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At the end of the day, doing a PhD is tough and it is normal to have worries. All the PhD students I talked to had doubts about applying.

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9. How to incorporate applications into your day-to-day life

Let’s face it, most of us are busy, and PhD applications do not sound like the most fun and easiest process to go through.

I asked the PhD students how they juggled applications with day-to-day life. Most PhD students were able to find a time to sit down and write their applications, this could be on weekends, in the evenings after work, or between lectures if you’re in uni.

Perhaps, if you know you are tight on time, the best tactic would be to only apply to a few and focus your energy on those.

Some students were lucky enough to get accepted into the first PhD they applied for – which is quite rare. You could choose to play the number game and apply to a lot, just remember to only apply to those you’re passionate about.

10. When should you apply to do a PhD?

You need to feel confident about doing a PhD and that you’ve done enough research to know you would enjoy the next four years.

Make sure you know the answers to: what is the city like, how are the people, what are the living costs, will you learn relevant and a significant number of skills? All these things are essential for a good fit and for you to be happy and successful.

At the end of the day, doing a PhD is tough and it is normal to have worries. All the PhD students I talked to had doubts about applying.

These included living with a low salary; staying motivated for a long time; not choosing the right field, or being worried that they didn’t have the content required. However, all the PhD students said choosing a project they were passionate about made them realise it was worth the challenge.

With this in mind, if there is a conclusion to take from this blog, it is to follow your instinct.

As Akemi's year with EI draws to a close, thoughts are now turning to her next career step.

Akemi is shortly due to finish her Year in Industry at EI and begin her search for PhD's

Akemi is a Year in Industry student at Earlham Institute. The Year in Industry programme is a great opportunity for two science undergraduates to join our team for a year-long placement. Find out more information over on our information page.

If you're interested in undertaking a PhD, keep an eye out in the Autumn for the next round of PhD recruitment opportunities.

Akemi Ramos

Article author

Akemi Ramos

Year in Industry Student