Tag Archives: PhDNinja

Necessary Skills for a Successful PhD student

So you have got the PhD checklist and you have brushed up on your time management skills but what other skills are you going to need to get through this PhD?


So that chart may look a bit scary (particularly as this is not even an extensive list) but here’s the good news – you must already have some of those skills otherwise you would not have come this far in your academic career.

However it is a good idea to identify any weaknesses you have at the START of your PhD. That way you can you can:

a)      Plan for where you have difficulties / tasks will take you a bit longer to complete

b)      You will be less stressed when it comes to the really important stuff like doing the data analysis, writing up and getting published.

c)       You will finish your PhD with more and / or stronger skills than you had before

One way of improving your skills (particularly IT skills) is through sessions that your University might provide. Although you may be tempted not to sign up to these sessions because they can take time out of your working week, they will be worth it in the end. So if you sign up to these early (in your 1st year) then at least these sessions won’t be eating into precious time to write up your work.

The careers service at your university should also be able to point you in the direction of workshops / seminars etc. both internal and external to help you with your personal development.

Sounds like a good idea? But wondering how you are going to fit it all in and keep track of it all?

Well there are tools that can help you with improving your skills and help you keep tabs on your progress!

One of the good resources that I know of is the Vitae Researcher Development Framework Planner


This tool allows you to identify areas of improvement and keep records of what you have done to make improvements. What I really like about it is that it allows you to set deadlines for improvements which helps motivate you to actively change your skill set so you do make improvements at your own pace.

Alternatively you could set up plans / time scales using programmes such as Excel and Project planner*.

Well that’s it from me. I hope my final piece of advice is useful to you, putting you ahead of the game before you have even started. Have fun and good luck!

-Dr Fran-kenstein

*other programs available.

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Pr                                                         es

ent                               ation



(Moving on swiftly..)

So Dr. Fran-Kenstein’s already addressed quite a few practical presentation tips, and I won’t labor the point! Instead I’m going to talk about a couple of secrets I’ve learned from my experience giving multiple types of presentations, and evaluating my fair share too, in the hopes that I can alleviate some presentation jitters.

During my undergraduate course we had to attend a class, led by a fellow student, whose sole purpose was to enable presentation and public speaking practice in an academic environment. I spent two years leading some of these classes, and I can easily name the one thing that stands out to me as the most hair raising, cringe worthy faux-pas a presenter could ever do. Cue the “I’m sorry I’m just a little nervous”. STOP right there. You NEVER start a presentation by telling your audience that you’re nervous. The same goes for nervous fidgeting, sighing, or any overt behavior that displays nervousness. It is completely unnecessary to inform your audience that you are feeling nervous. I can tell you there is not a single person out there that doesn’t know what it feels like to address a room full of people, and the terror it can induce! Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t be feeling nervous, it is a completely natural and justifiable experience in this context. However, this is precisely why when you tell your audience that you are feeling nervous; it’s like admitting that you are more nervous than is expected. And this can easily be interpreted as lack of preparation, a lack of practice, or a lack of confidence in your abilities. And if the first thing you do before you’ve even started, is tell your audience that you’re going to try to convince them about something you can’t even convince yourself about, you’re not getting off to a great start. “But I hate public speaking!” I hear you cry. Well, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to love it, you just have to BLAG it!

B: Be Prepared. If you’re a nervous speaker, you want to make sure you know your presentation like the back of your hand! If you don’t rely on cue cards, you can move around freely, look at your audience, point to the screen, and generally allow yourself the freedom of being fluent in your topic so as to create a more confident appearance.

L: Leave Room for Error. Sometimes, things just go wrong, and it’s important that you don’t let technical errors, word finding problems, or a difficult question spin you into an irrecoverable panic. Again, your audience is not alienated from you, they have all been in the same position as you, and they have all probably encountered some issues whilst presenting before. They really are more forgiving than you give them credit for! Smile, laugh it off, take a deep breath, apologise for the error, just say if you don’t know something and carry on with your presentation.

A: Act Confident! Don’t tell your audience that you are nervous or unprepared or insecure. Don’t fidget, stand your feet comfortably so that you have a firm base on the ground. Make sure your hands aren’t wringing together, or playing with something while you talk. Speak loudly, clearly and at a good pace (practice at home, film yourself and nail your presentation voice!). Look at your audience, and don’t worry, this doesn’t actually have to involve looking at anyone specifically! Scan your eyes over the room slowly and make sure you’re paying equal attention to every part of the audience, and focus your eyes on items that are in between speakers or to the back wall of the room. Engage with them!

G: Gesture, Gesticulate and Gesture Some More. Body language matters! Making sure your hands are free is important not only because it will stop you from fidgeting nervously, but also because you can then use them to emphasise your points, by employing useful, informative movements. On the other hand, don’t let your nervousness or excitedness get the better of you, if you’re flailing around the room like seaweed in a whirlpool (how’d you like that metaphor huh?), this will have the complete opposite effect, and detract from your presentation instead of add to it.

And with that I leave you with the ever inspirational Ron Swanson and his words of wisdom:


Dr. Neo

More information on giving kick-ass academic presentations:


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December 10, 2013 · 7:26 pm

Presentation, presentation, presentation!


Presentations……”yay!” Nobody particularly likes having to give presentations but we all have to do it at some point and you will almost definitely be asked to prepare one for your PhD interview. So Dr. Neo and I have a few tips to help you prepare.

So there are 3 different things you need to think about:

  1. What you are presenting
  2. How you are presenting it
  3. How are you presenting yourself

What you are presenting.

-Research what you are going to talk about.


– Have you narrowed the area down to the relevant bits? Nobody wants to hear the whole history of something (unless that is literally what the title of the project is – but even then you need to focus on the main bits).

-Put your own spin on it. Make sure that your point of view is expressed (with evidence to back up your opinion of course).

How are you presenting it?



–          Tone of voice. Keep it appropriate to the subject but make sure it shows your enthusiasm. Also if you tend to have a monosyllabic voice try to work on this. It is likely to make any topic sound dull and that you are not that enthusiastic about it when you rally are.

–          Choice of language. Colloquial terms are not appropriate and if you are going to use abbreviations explain them first.

–          Posture. Stand tall and face the interviewers. This will demonstrate that you are confident and that you know what you are going to say. Try not to turn your back to the interviewers for long periods of time when you are explaining graphs etc

–          Are the interviewers straining to hear you or are you too loud? Practice with some friends to get a feel for how loud you need to be.

You also need to think about your presentation slides:

–          Are they clear?

–          Too many words on each slide?

–          Appropriate images / graphs /tables etc?

–          Logical flow e.g intro à main body à summary


How are you presenting yourself?

You may think that this was all covered in the previous bit but there is more!

You also need to think about what you are going to wear. You may think that this is not really that important and that you have more important things to be thinking about, but you do need to put some thought into it. How you physically present says a lot about you as a person.

–          Without a doubt you need to dress in smart clothes. This means guys really should be in suits with a tie and guys should wear a smart shirt and skirt / trousers or dress.

–          Think about patterns and colours. This applies to girls and guys! If you wear colours that compliment each other and you haven’t put lots of different clashing patterns together then it shows that you have thought about your outfit and that you are a “well put together person”.

–          Make sure that no matter what you wear that it is clean, it actually fits you and that you have ironed it.

So to sum up my tips:

-Research your topic.

-Practice your presentation.

-Think about how you are coming across as a person.

And generally:

“Prepare to fail, don’t fail to prepare!”

Good Luck

-Dr Fran-kenstein

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December 10, 2013 · 7:25 pm

The PhD chooses the academic, remember?

On picking the right PhD subject

So you have decided that for the next 3-4 years of your life you want to toil over research. To pour blood sweat and tears into a huge piece of work that will be yours and that will serve as (for most of you) your initiation into the world of academia. The first thing you should know is that you have to be prepared to work hard. The second is that if this thought fills you with dread, make sure you are making the right choice to pursue an academic career! To quote Dr. Emily Cross (BangorUniversity), “If research is your passion, this [working 50-60 hour weeks] is actually easy to do. If it isn’t your passion, then you are probably in the wrong field. You should be going to work because you want to, not because you have to.”

Now that I have hammered that point home a little more, time to address a very important question that we have been requested to cover; how do you pick your area and subject for your PhD?? For a few of us, this decision might be a little easier. If you have applied to work on a specific research question, or you have already been working in a lab as an undergraduate, postgraduate student, or research assistant, you might already have the field narrowed down. In general though, even if this is not the case, you want to be able to say with certainty that there is at least one area that you know you could spend the next 4 years of your life exploring.

If however you find the possibilities are endless, and that you have no idea where to start, here are a couple of tips.

1. The first rule of Academia is: You do not talk about Academia.

Err.. I mean, read read read!

No ideas (or no good ones anyway) will come to you if you have no theoretical background to place them in. In order to be able to come up with interesting questions, you need to be aware of interesting things. Hopefully by this stage in your career you will be familiar with reading papers, and if not, make sure you start getting familiar with doing so. Read as much as you can and as broad as you can! Get to know your general area(s) of interest right from the first key papers in the field, all the way down to the newest studies that are currently making waves. Once you start accumulating this knowledge you will naturally find yourself asking questions. These are the questions you want to then continue to explore until you find yourself with a question that hasn’t already been covered. And as soon as you think that you’ve got there, go out and read some more! Change fields, browse biology, marketing and linguistic journals – make sure you have come up with something truly novel, a question just burning for an answer.


2. When life gives you lemons, come up with a badass research question!

Now that you have your golden apple, the hard work really starts. You want to look at this baby from every angle possible, scrutinizing every nook and cranny, poking holes in it and questioning everything about it, until you make sure your Helen is truly safe inside Troy’s walls. Ask yourself why is this an important question? What does it offer that hasn’t already been given? This is not the same as ‘Has this question been asked before’, your question really needs to provide the opportunity of revealing some truly valuable information. And the only way to do this is to make sure you have thoroughly addressed every part of it to make sure that the end goal is a finding that contributes to science but also has implications for real world applications.

3. Bring it all out, and then rein it back in again.

So your foundations are laid, you have your big world changing question, and you’re ready to build your own lab, employ 5 grad students and spend the rest of your life funneling millions into your wonder-project of joy! (Or, you think you have a question that you might just be interested in enough to consider studying for the next 4 years, and that someone might just consider employing you to study). Now comes the real hard work. You need to make sure that your question is actually answerable within the time frame that you have to answer it. No matter how ground breaking your research might be, if your supervisor/program/university doesn’t allow you the funds and time to carry it out, you won’t be the desirable candidate. Your population needs to be reasonable and your methods obtainable; don’t propose an fMRI study if you cannot get access to an MRI machine, and don’t propose a developmental study with 7 month old babies if your university does not have a resource for infant recruitment. Be practical and sensible, make sure you have small manageable projects, suitable for producing a good few studies (at least 3) throughout your PhD, that all tie together to address one big issue.

Next consider the topic of supervision. Here are a just a few things to consider when picking a supervisor that is right for you:

How much freedom will I have to come up with independent studies?

How much guidance will I get given with design, data collection, analysis and write up?

What methods is my supervisor able to use and what will I have to teach myself?

And most importantly, is my supervisor a researcher in my field of interest, and someone who can promote me as a new academic in this field? It is very important to choose supervisors wisely, and whether picking someone to work with is the first or the last thing you do, it should definitely influence and shape your PhD question when that decision is made, based on their interests and input.

Finally, be aware that the chances of you choosing a topic now that you will remain interested in for the rest of your life are pretty slim. But don’t fret! Research isn’t rigid and your idea will almost definitely change from what you originally have planned. Other questions will come up; other areas might become relevant, and your supervisors, research committee, peers or grandma might each offer up some insight that could help keep your interest going for the entire time it takes to finish. Also, know that all PhD students get bored and frustrated with their subjects at some point; it is natural and is bound to happen when you spend most of your time doing one thing.

So, I invite you to join me in some serious studying to find the topic that is juuuust right!


Dr. Neo

More on picking the right poison:

Discusses practicalities of coming up with an original question http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/choosing-a-phd-subject/210079.article

Good advice both for choosing and progressing your PhD project http://www.findaphd.com/advice/finding/choosing-phd-research-project.aspx

Written for a non-psychology degree but still generalisable http://srem-mentoring.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/how-to-choose-dissertation-topic-four.html

Tips on choosing the right supervisor http://www.findaphd.com/advice/finding/choosing-phd-supervisor.aspx

*We would like to say a special thank you to Dr. Emily Cross from Bangor University for allowing us to source material from her Introduction to a PhD presentation “Getting the Most Out of Your PhD: Expectation, Organisation & Strategy”. Her presentation has served as an excellent source of first hand information on the PhD process, what supervisors expect from you, and how to make the most of it all, and we’ll be featuring a lot more of it throughout the blog.

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How to write a PhD Research Proposal – a step-by-step guide (with added cats!)

Hello again ninjas, I hope your PhD searches are going well so far! As you may have guessed from the title, my post today is going to be all about writing a research proposal for a PhD. Not the most exciting of topics I know (and its going to be a long one too!), but a solid research proposal is a really important part of your application. It’s your first chance to really show off your knowledge, academic skills, and ideas to the folks who’ll be choosing between you and all the other bright young things vying for the same PhD. So, to help you get started, here’s my step-by-step guide to writing a research proposal. Also, there will be CATS.


Now I don’t know about any of you, but many peoples’ initial reaction to having to write a research proposal is something akin to:


 maybe if I hide under this newspaper long enough it’ll go away and write itself….

But there’s no need for this fear of research proposals! Hopefully, if you’ve been following the advice in our previous posts, then the PhD’s you’re applying for should be in subjects that you’re passionate about. Writing a proposal is a great opportunity to find out more about your chosen topic and really get to grips with the research area around it. Also, your PhD proposal isn’t fixed forever based on this proposal; you will be able to refine it once you’ve started, so try not to think of this as having to decide and plan your whole PhD right now, but more as a chance to explore possible research questions in your area. You should find reading around your topic and coming up with your own ideas to be an interesting, enjoyable and even inspiring process.


If you only remember one step from this blog then please make it this one. Different Universities and different departments will often have slightly different expectations for exactly what should be in a research proposal.  Most universities will have a section on their website with basic guidelines on what they expect from a research proposal, including things like: what sections you should include, the word limit, and what features they feel are important. Remember, your ideas may be brilliant but if you submit a proposal that doesn’t meet the university’s criteria then they may think that you either cannot follow instructions or haven’t bothered to read them, neither of which are desirable qualities in a prospective student!


This instruction manual is a very moving read but so far there’s not been much on how you actually kill mockingbirds…


If you’re applying for a PhD then odds are you’re probably fairly practised at researching a given topic AND you’re probably fairly familiar with the area you’re interested in already, so I’m not going to go into loads of detail here, just a few key things to bear in mind.

The first is to try and keep your research instinct under control! Of course you don’t want to have too little research in there, but it can be very tempting to waste a lot of time searching for the elusive “Perfect Paper” and end up not having enough time to write it up properly, or not having enough words to cram all your wonderful research and ideas into.

cat laptop

Research cat WILL find the “Purrfect Paper”!

My second tip is to keep notes as you’re researching, which should include the name and authors of the paper you’re looking at, and the key points you want to take from it. This may seem ridiculously obvious but keeping notes will help you keep track of things you want to mention and where you found them. It will also help you to organise your thoughts and arguments when it comes to writing up your proposal, and I promise you will appreciate having them when you are writing your reference list. Along with scribbling down notes about what you’re researching, also make a note of questions and ideas you have as you go, as these will help you to generate your research questions.

When it comes to generating ideas for your proposal, you must make sure that your idea is both novel and testable. As you research, try to find gaps in the literature which would be within the realms of possibility for you to test/investigate, and which would bring something new and valuable to the area.

Finally, try to keep your ideas as simple as you can; if your question is too huge or complex then your application may not be accepted simply because they didn’t feel that it would be achievable within 3 years.

theory cat_cats are liquids

It’s so simple!!


Contacting potential supervisors before applying is a great opportunity to check how well your research interests match up with theirs and whether they would be interested in your ideas about the area.  Discussing your ideas with potential supervisors will also help you to narrow them down into coherent research questions, and it will give you the opportunity to begin articulating them in an academic style, both of which will help you when you come to writing them up.

prof cat 1

So tell me more about this ‘Liquid Cat’ theory of yours


This is another point that you’ve probably all heard before but I really cannot stress enough how valuable planning is to academic writing, and this is especially true when there are defined criteria you need to meet and a word limit to keep to. Try sketching out your plan within the framework of the guidelines for the proposal, so that you have some idea of what you will be writing for each section. Then each subsequent draft will simply involve fleshing out your original plan more and more.

Most universities will expect you to include the following sections in your research proposal:

  • Title: Your title should give the reader a clear and concise view of the intent of your research (i.e. remember to include key words and make it obvious what you will be focusing on)
  • Overview: This section should give a BRIEF overview of the key issues in your research, why they are worthy of investigation and what sort of approach you will take. Many universities will also want you to include in this section why you want to work in that specific department or with a specific researcher (they want to see how your project will complement the strengths of the department or supervisor).
  • Brief literature review: This should ground your ideas in the previous literature and show the context of your ideas. This section should be structured so that you go from broad to narrow, beginning with a review of the major topics in the field and then slowly narrowing the focus until you arrive at your research question. You should also make sure that your argument highlights the novelty and importance of your question; a research proposal is a lot like a persuasive essay in that your aim is to persuade the reader that your research will be valuable, so you want to make it very clear what new and interesting things you will be bringing to the area with your work.
  • Proposed Design, Methodology & Timescale: Generally this section would include: the exact questions/hypotheses, the main research methods you plan to use, the main stages/timescale of your investigation, and any problems, challenges or delays you may face.
  • References

 learnings cat

Don’t forget that part of the reason universities want you to write a research proposal is so that they can assess your academic knowledge, critical thinking/analysis skills and writing skills. They will be looking for you to display a good academic/scientific writing style, a cogent analysis of previous literature, and a well-supported and well-argued proposal. They will also expect it to be clear, concise and coherent. Planning and drafting your work will help you to achieve this, as having something in which the order and flow of your ideas is already decided makes it much easier to focus on your style and tone when writing up.


 Find some people you trust to give you truly honest feedback and ask them very nicely to proofread your work (here is where it really pays off to have made good contacts in your time as an Undergraduate or Masters student). Ideally, you would want both: someone who is familiar with the field (such as a lecturer or previous supervisor) and someone to whom the area is completely new (such as a relative or a friend from a different department) to read your work. This will allow you to get feedback both on how good your academic content is and on how clearly you have expressed yourself.



Before you send your proposal off, always be sure to make time for a final proofread. I personally like to leave it a few days/a week between finishing a piece of work and proofreading it, as it allows me to look at it with fresh eyes and makes it easier to spot mistakes.

Think about:

  • Have you met all of the university/department’s criteria?
  • Have you addressed any problems that came up when you were getting feedback?
  • Is everything referenced properly?
  • Is my spelling and grammar absolutely perfect? – this is especially important as at PhD level you will be expected to have extremely good writing skills. A research proposal that is littered with typos looks sloppy and will make you stand out for all the wrong reasons.

computer cat

This is not the cat you’re looking for.

literacy cat

This is the cat you’re looking for.

STEP 8: SEND! And breathe a sigh of relief…

Your proposal should now be ready to send off with the rest of your application, so be very proud and put your feet up for a bit. Unless this was only your first proposal of many you have to write… in which case: back to work you sluggards!

happy cat

One helpful link:


Some examples of different university’s proposal criteria:





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Writing a CV

graduates with honours cant write a cv

So you are filling out that application form and a CV is being requested. As if there are enough ways of formatting your CV it’s slightly different when applying for jobs in academia. For jobs academia (including PhDs) you are really being asked to produce your academic CV. As I’m sure you have already guessed this type of CV should be focused on the academic work such as your undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations and any relevant experiences.  This is not to say that you cannot mention a part time job that wasn’t in an academic environment such as being a sales assistant, but that this type of work should not take priority on your academic CV.

So what should you include?


For your undergraduate and / or postgraduate degree(s):

-What was your degree?

-What degree classification?

– Title of your dissertation

– Who supervised this project?

– What grade were you awarded for your dissertation?

Relevant Employment

In this section you need to mention any paid employment that is relevant to the job. For example if the PhD that you are applying for is in the field of Dementia then you would want to mention any relevant experiences such as working in care home for people with Dementia.

–          Position held

–          Name of organisation

–          Start – end of employment mm/yyyy  e.g  June 2013-December 2013

–          Brief description of your role. Note the emphasis on keeping it brief. Potential employers will have several CVs to read. Therefore you want to make sure that they have a good idea of who you are and what experience you have without having to trawl through pages and pages of info!

Other Employment

This is where you can mention part time / summer jobs that you have held but aren’t relevant to the field of work that you are trying to enter. It’s still important to mention this type of work because usually they demonstrate that you have other key skills such as working in a team or using supervision effectively. However as previously mentioned you don’t want to end up with a CV that is more than 2 or 3 pages at the most*! So if you already have your CV filled by the above sections and your contact details then consider not including this section.

Academic Achievements

This is actually quite an important section. This section is where you need to include conferences that you have presented your work at, any publications or if you were awarded any scholarships for your undergraduate postgraduate degrees.

Voluntary Work / Other Achievements

So if you have done some voluntary work that’s great! It’s a great way of gaining some experience and may give you an advantage when you are looking for paid work. But it is generally not rated as highly as paid employment. Therefore this is another section that you may not wish to include if you feel that it does not add anything to your CV other than to the length of it.

(You can format this in the same way as you have done for paid employment).

Contact details and Referees

that awkward moment email address

So hopefully you have a professional email address by now! If not now would be a good time…

Your contact details are important – so make sure you get them right. You want them to contact you, particularly if they are going to invite you to an interview right?

You may want to include referees on your CV but you need to think about this. First of all if you want to list referees and contact details make sure that the referees are happy for you to do this beforehand. Second, by doing this you are basically giving out the message to potential employers that you have referees that are

a) going to give you a good reference

b) happy to be contacted at whatever stage in the application process – meaning that the potential employer could assume that you are giving them consent to ask for references. Therefore employers may not notify you that they have done this until afterwards. This works for some people but others may want to check that they are still going to get a good reference first. You may want to check this if it was some time since you worked with that person. Do they still remember you?  Are you still on good terms? If you are using a referee you worked with a some time ago are they still appropriate?


As if knowing what you should / should not put on your CV, how you should / should not phrase it (and actually having the motivation to do it) wasn’t stressful enough, there is the issue of formatting it.

Key point of your CV – It’s to get you SHORTLISTED for an interview. Therefore you want to make sure that the format that you use makes your CV clear, simple and easy to read. Let the information do the talking not the format. That means don’t do things such as using different coloured text to make your CV “stand out” or to make you appear “creative”. (Yes people have been known to do this for these purposes and it has made them stand out as UNSUITABLE)!

There are some pretty cool websites out there like visualresume.com that can help you build / format your CV. Although it may be tempting to go for one of those funky looking formats they are generally not suitable for academia.

Just keep it simple:

-Black text, 12pt in fonts that are widely used such as Times New Roman, Arial and Calibri.

– Separate section with spaces (not too large though) or with horizontal lines (they don’t need to span the whole way across the page).

-Make headings / titles clear using bold or making the text slightly larger.

Finishing touches

Finally when you have developed enough motivation to write your CV, using a checklist (such as the one below) may help you feel that you produced something that you would be proud to show others, a sense of achievement and confident that it will shortlist you for that interview.

CV Checklist:

-Is your name is on it? (Ideally at the top)

– Checked it for grammar and spelling?

– Do you have a copy to keep?

-Does it accentuate your skills?

-Does this CV give an overall positive impression of you?

– Should you get shortlisted for interview would you be happy be asked questions about the information on your CV? (You haven’t lied have you)?

Hopefully this has inspired you to get writing your CV for that application. So open up that word document and get typing!

-Dr Fran-kenstein

*Once you get into the world of academia then longer CVs are acceptable (as long as it’s all relevant info). This is because the length of your CV should have increased if lots of you work has been published! Also be careful when looking for any other info regarding academic C’s – it might be more relevant for after you have completed your PhD.

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