Getting a PhD

February 19, 2016, by Carla

How I Got Onto a PhD Programme

By Jordan Thorpe, PhD Medicine

Getting a PhD position is a mentally challenging and highly competitive process. For many students it’s the ticket to their dream career, be it in academia or industry.

After completing a BSc Biochemistry, I submitted a series of PhD applications that were rejected. I decided I needed to do something more to succeed. I ended up taking a year out to work and then returned to complete a course in MSc Stem Cell Technology. It turned out this was the competitive edge I needed, obtaining me several interviews and eventually two PhD offers.

So how did I get my PhD?

1. The very first thing to consider is the field your PhD applications are directed at. Is the field particularly popular? Or are your interests more niche, something outside the limelight?

Certain fields, such as cancer research, attract a huge number of applications and the competition will be fierce. From personal experience a BSc alone will not be sufficient to compete, other applicants will likely have a related masters or work experience on their CV. Don’t be discouraged if you fall into this category, there are plenty of excellent masters and forms of funding that will help you level the playing field.

2. Don’t get hung up on a single place or project, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. The reality of PhD hunting today requires you to look widely and be flexible in the type of project you’re willing to do. Keep an open mind when searching, sites such as are extremely helpful, but remember to look directly on university websites also.

3. When writing your CV or covering letter always customise for each specific project and university. You’re often given this advice when applying to normal jobs; however, it is equally important when applying for PhDs too. Supervisors are looking for how your skills and experience fit with their project. By directly linking your experience to how it will help you in their lab, you’re making it much easier for them to put you on the interview shortlist.

4. So you’ve got the interview and you’re highly informed on the project having completed extensive background reading. Great, you’re halfway there.

Many people, including myself, fail to realise that the motivational questions are what potential supervisors are really looking for in the interview. It’s  being able to coherently and convincingly express your motivation to undertake the PhD, and specifically their project, that will set you apart from the competition. Don’t neglect to sit down and think out your answers to these questions.

5. Finally, get to the interview with plenty of time to spare; double check you’ve uploaded your presentation onto your memory stick and don’t forget to smile.

Those are my top tips for obtaining your dream PhD, best of luck!

Thinking about a PhD? Take a look at our guide to investigating your options or book a one-to-one session with one of our careers advisers.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Posted in Early Career Researchers