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After the PhD

After the PhD

Diagram from “The Scientific Century” by the Royal Society. Their caption reads “This diagram illustrates the transition points in typical academic scientific careers following a PhD and shows the flow of scientifically-trained people into other sectors. It is a simplified snapshot based on recent data from HEFCE, the Research Base Funders Forum and for the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s annual Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. It also draws on Vitae’s analysis of the DLHE survey. It does not show career breaks or moves back into academic science from other sectors.

Source: Dr. Emily Cross, Bangor University – “Getting the most out of your PhD: Expectations, Organisation & Strategy” (presentation)

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December 16, 2013 · 9:34 pm

Interview Questions

Hi Ninjas, as you may or may not have noticed yet, this week’s posts are all about preparing for interviews and presenting yourself. As part of this I’ll be talking about the types of questions you might get asked in an interview and why you’ll be asked them and giving you a few tips on how to respond.

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Unfortunately there’s no way you can ever prepare for every possible question you might get asked, but practising on similar style questions will make it much easier to interpret and answer such questions in your interview. So my advice to all of you is to find a friend you’re comfortable with and practise asking and answering interview questions with each other; even if it’s really informal and degenerates into silly answers and giggling, if it gets you thinking about the questions then it is all good practice! Also, if any of you have any examples of super-tough interview questions, or want to share your own interview stories, then please go ahead and comment. We’d love to hear them and your fellow ninjas may find it useful.

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Interview questions can often sound very challenging but most of the time each question will have a specific aim that can be identified by simply breaking it down and considering exactly what qualities that question is trying to assess. Take the classic example: “What is your greatest weakness?” This is a tricky question to answer as you will probably feel as though admitting to a fatal flaw could jeopardise your chances of getting the position, but nobody is going to believe you if you say you don’t have any weaknesses.

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What an interviewer wants to find out with this question is whether you can honestly and accurately assess your own abilities AND also to take steps to reduce the impact of any weaknesses on your work. An ideal answer to this question would be to identify a real weakness of yours and either talk about what you do to overcome it, or how you have turned it into a strength (or both!).

Broadly speaking there are five main types of questions you will get asked during an interview:

  • Questions to assess your academic knowledge/skills. These will depend on the PhD you are applying for, so make sure you swot up on the main topics and methods in your area beforehand. It is also worth bearing in mind that, depending on who is conducting the interview, your interviewer may not be as familiar with the topic as you are, or they could be an expert in the field. So try to pitch your answers at the right level; avoid using lots of jargon as it may not be understood by a non-expert, but also don’t skim over important or difficult concepts as an expert may think that you don’t really know your stuff.
  • Questions about why you want this specific PhD, or why you want to work in that specific department. These questions are designed to assess both your passion and your knowledge, so again make sure you do your research about the course and the department. They want to know that you’re interested in them and their work, not just any PhD you can get your hands on. They may also want to know about how you plan to approach your research should you get the PhD, so make sure you’ve considered things like: the time course of your project and how you will complete it on schedule, some details of the methods you want to use, what you will do if you don’t find what you’re expecting, and what sort of resources you will need. This is where having to write those darn research proposals will come in handy!
  • Questions all about YOU. (For example, about your personality, work ethic, experience, academic/research skills, ambitions for the future etc.) Think ahead about the qualities you want to portray and some instances when you have displayed those qualities or skills. While it can be ok to use examples from your personal life, they are likely to be more interested in examples from a university or work setting as they will want to assess how you will deal with the challenges of a professional, academic environment. Having said that, interviewers will of course want to get a sense of your personality during the interview as well, so some personal touches wouldn’t go amiss as long as they are appropriate for the context.
  • Scenario-based questions. (Such as: ethical dilemmas, problem solving, dealing with challenging work situations etc.) This type of question will almost definitely come up if you are applying for a PhD that involves working with a clinical or vulnerable population or one that will include some teaching duties. For the former, I would recommend familiarising yourself with general ethical guidelines for the type of work you would be doing as this will help you to give a more informed answer if you are presented with a scenario involving an ethical dilemma. For the latter, try to think ahead about: how you would approach teaching and motivating students, what sort of teaching strategies you find effective as a student, or whether you have had any experience teaching others and how you approached it. For example, if you have worked as a tutor before or even just helped your friends when they have had trouble understanding a topic, think about what sort of methods you found most effective and how you could apply them in a classroom situation.
  • Oddball questions. These tend to be more common in job interviews than PhD interviews but you might still get a couple, so it is worth being as prepared as you can for them (luckily these ones tend to be the most fun to practise with friends!) Some of these sorts of questions may sound strange but there is usually a reason the interviewer is asking them. A good example I heard recently was: “Explain your undergraduate research project as though you were talking to your grandmother”.  For an interviewer this is a great question as it allows them to assess your ability to think on your feet and your ability to present relevant information in a way that is accessible to everyone, whilst also giving them some insight into your previous research experience.

The key points to take from the above list are: researching your topic, course and department is vital for an interview; and learning to break down questions (and practising doing this) will help you to give the best possible answers in an interview.

A few other quick tips:

  • Dress appropriately!
  • Prepare key qualities and skills you want to mention along with examples of times you have shown them.
  • Try to build a rapport with your interviewer, but remember to take the lead from them. If your interviewer is being very formal then cracking jokes may not be a good idea, but if they are treating more like a friendly chat then you should treat it the same way.
  • Avoid just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question as it doesn’t demonstrate any further knowledge, thought or skill and it won’t help the conversation to flow smoothly.
  • It’s ok to disagree with your interviewer. They will want know you have your own opinions and can back them up with facts and research and they may welcome a certain amount of friendly debate about a topic. Just remember to keep it as a FRIENDLY debate; getting into a fight with the interviewer is not the best strategy…
  • Come with your own questions about the course or the university (though preferably not questions you could have easily found out yourself!)

To help you get practising I’ve listed some example questions below along with some links to other articles on preparing for interviews. I hope you have fun practising with your friends and I wish you all the best of luck for your future interviews!

-Dr L

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Example Questions:

Give an example of a time when you showed initiative.

Give an example of a time when you showed resilience.

Why this course?

What are your greatest strengths?

What makes you different from any other candidate?

How do you cope with failure?

How would your undergraduate/masters supervisor describe you?

How would you handle a disagreement with your supervisor?

Describe the statistical analyses you used for your undergraduate research project.

Is there a place for social media in academia?

How would you approach teaching statistics to an undergraduate class?

How do you cope with time pressure?

Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

Are you applying for other PhD courses?

What do you think you would find most difficult about this PhD?

Some useful/interesting links:

http://www.postgrad.com/editorial/advice/phd/interview_dos_and_donts/

http://www.studential.com/postgraduate/study/PhD/interviews

http://studylink.co.uk/postgraduate-advice/the-top-10-interview-questions-and-how-to-answer-them/

Also, when saying “I don’t know” in an interview can be useful: http://business.time.com/2013/10/21/three-little-words-to-never-ever-say-in-an-interview/?iid=obnetwork

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Presentation, presentation, presentation!

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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.

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– 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?

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Yourself

–          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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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.

STEP 1: DON’T PANIC!

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:

CAT_1_scared-cat

 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.

STEP 2: READ THE GUIDELINES!!!

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!

CAT_2_cat-reading-1

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

STEP 3: RESEARCH & GENERATE IDEAS

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!!

STEP 4: CONTACT SUPERVISORS

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

STEP 5: PLAN -> DRAFT -> WRITE

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.

STEP 6: SEEK FEEDBACK

 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.

CAT_8_reading-cat

STEP 7: REVIEW

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:

http://www.findaphd.com/advice/finding/writing-phd-research-proposal.aspx

Some examples of different university’s proposal criteria:

http://www.southampton.ac.uk/sociology/postgraduate/research_degrees/apply/how_to_write_an_MPhil_PhD_research_degree_proposal.page

http://www.lums.lancs.ac.uk/phd/PhDproposal/

http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/edres/study/postgrad/proposals.htm

http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/law/research/postgraduateresearch/writingaresearchproposal/

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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?

Education

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?

Formatting

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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Finding the Fun in Funding! (Unfortunately it is not quite that easy, but hopefully this blog will provide you with a useful start in the hunt for funding).

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Generally advertised studentships already have funding. But not all of them, so you may need to look for funding if it is not already sorted for you. Some studentships will only cover tuition fees but not other aspects such as living expenses, training, conferences etc.  Therefore you still might need to look for funding.

This can be tricky. One place that you can start your search is by looking on the websites of research councils. There are not that many different councils (in the UK) if you want to do a PhD in Psychology / Social sciences / Neuroscience. Therefore these can be competitive so start looking ASAP!

Some research councils that may be of interest:

Research Council UK

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Medical Research Council (MRC)

Another option is applying to be funded by a charity or a business. This may be a great way for some people to get funding. Usually this route means that in order access funding (if your application is successful) you have to work for the organisation that is funding you. This means that on completion of your PhD you will also be able to put work experience on your CV and you may even be offered a position at the company you worked for!

Some Charities and Businesses that you may want to look at:

Wellcome Trust

The Nuffield Foundation

Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland

Waterloo Foundation

The British Academy

This is not an extensive list of charities / businesses so if you have an idea and think that a relevant organisation may be interested in funding you then contact them.

*Be careful when filling out applications for funding. Some will only give funding to specific areas of research so make sure you read the eligibility section.

Self funding

This may seem like the most undesirable option but as a last resort if you really, really want to do that PhD you might need to consider self funding.  There are two ways in which you can do this. One option is working part time. However if you are going to do this you may want to consider doing your PhD part time to accommodate for this. The second option is that you can access a Personal Career Development loan.  This allows you to borrow money for your education and usually you only pay back after you have completed your studies. However it is best to check this out yourself either on bank websites or by speaking to someone (who has way more knowledge than me) in branch about the T&C’s.

So now you know your options. You now need to decide on one, think of a back-up option and get going!

-Dr Fran-kenstein

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Approaching academics and universities

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Have you considered approaching universities and academics about doing a PhD with them or applying to one of their programs? Although cookies might not hurt your chances* there are better ways to make sure you get noticed and given a shot to apply.

First of all you shouldn’t be afraid to contact and approach an academic if you are interested in their area of research, or if you think you would like to work with them. Not only do academics expect this kind of contact but they welcome it, as it shows initiative on your part. It’s no small feat to email a researcher and ask them to consider working with you, and it is sort of a requirement before applying for a PhD with them. Many researchers meet their students before the interviews, or have communicated via e-mail to assess whether there is a possibility of working with one another both from the student’s and the researcher’s point of view.

So now that we’ve clarified that you will have to contact Dr. InMyDreamFieldOfResearch before showing up for an interview with her, you’re probably raving to go, typing emails on the side as you furiously skim the rest of this post. But hold on! There are a few things you should consider before you shoot electrical signals halfway round the world to recompose themselves into meaningful squiggles on your future supervisor’s screen.

First of all, know who you’re directing the e-mail to. A little respect can go a long way, so make sure you address the person with their correct title! If you’re not sure whether the academic is a Doctor or a Professor, find out! A short google search will quickly resolve the matter for you, and yes it does matter which you use! If in doubt, always aim high. No one will be offended if you call them Dr. when they haven’t finished their PhD yet, or Professor if they haven’t received professorship yet, but if you call a Prof a Dr some offense might be taken. Now this might seem snooty to you, but the problem isn’t just to do with the researcher’s ego, it is a direct reflection of the amount of effort you’ve put into finding out about this person’s work! If you haven’t even bothered to find out their qualifications and title, that’s a pretty bad start. Avoid Mr., Mrs., Miss, Madam etc. (unless the academic has not received a PhD and this is the appropriate title) and for Pasta’s sake NEVER address an academic by their first name!

On a related note, do your research! Read this researcher’s papers, read the papers they’ve cited, make sure you are familiar with their work and make it known that you are familiar with their work, especially if it’s relevant to your PhD research area. If there is a specific PhD question related to the post, familiarize yourself well with it, if there is a grant proposal that you have access to, do the same, if you’re emailing just to say “Hey your work is awesome, wanna let me look into this rad thing under your name and lab??” then do the research you need to for that!. It is not only flattering to the academic that you have taken an interest in their work, but it shows that you have made a well informed decision about wanting to work with them or on that specific PhD. (And yes by the way, it is perfectly ok to email an academic even if they’re not advertising a PhD program, to express an interest in working with them. You can even explore funding opportunities together!)

Notes on style: presentation matters! If the e-mail is the first thing your prospective supervisor ever sees of you, you want to make a good impression, as we know that first impressions not only matter but also last! Proof read, check your style, be professional, be formal; sign off with Kind Regards, Sincerely, Thank you (but preferably not all three at once), and your full name. Ask questions! Relevant, well thought out questions about the research post are very impressive and often can make the difference between a candidate that gets the post and one that doesn’t. Don’t ask questions that are or will be readily available in the PhD advertisement (like rate of pay, where the lab is etc.).

Finally, don’t be afraid to arrange a visit to the university and a meeting with your prospective supervisor (all previous points about emailing still apply in a meeting situation too).

So, go on, armed with everything you need to make the first contact, and wow your future supervisors with your awesomeness!

Dr. Neo

*disclaimer: there’s a small chance that this constitutes bribery, and so The PhDninja would advise you to play it safe and keep the cookies for after you’ve been accepted onto the program..

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