My PhD application journey…

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I’m halfway through my 2nd year of my PhD which sounds mad, I never thought I’d ever end up doing a PhD. I recently gave a STEM Ambassador career talk to a group of A-level biology students and I thought I’d share my PhD application journey with you all. I have to say my PhD journey is not the most conventional but it worked for me and hopefully, it can work for you too. 

I really enjoyed biology and chemistry at school and college and wanted to get involved in some kind of research that would help people but I wasn’t entirely sure what. To my surprise, A-levels were a lot harder than anticipated and it wasn’t for lack of trying, I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped and didn’t get into my first choice university. At the time I thought it was the end of the world but in actual fact, it wasn’t and was possibly the best thing that ever happened to me. I went through clearing on results day and managed to secure a place to study Biochemistry (BSc) at the University of Huddersfield. I really enjoyed my time at university, I made life long friends, gained much more confidence in my academic abilities and had really good fun. As part of my degree, I undertook my placement year at the University of Leeds working on a drug discovery project in relation to thrombosis and it was then when I decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD. I got the bug for academic research and I had the opportunity to get involved with different projects. I’d never even considered a PhD until my placement year which was my 3rd year of university, I enjoyed the work and I loved being in the lab.

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When I got back to uni for my final year I undertook a research project in cancer biology, I really enjoyed this project and it confirmed my desired to want to do a PhD. I had a great supervisor and was working with a great group of people! Towards the end of my final year I applied to so many PhDs I lost count, and I also got offered a research assistant position in the lab where I did my placement year, with a view of doing a PhD in the future. I made it to the final stages of interviews for a PhD at St. James’ in Leeds but unfortunately was unsuccessful. I’m ok with knowing that the person that got the PhD over me had a Master’s and I did not, so to make it to the final stages is pretty good in my opinion. PhD programmes are exceptionally competitive! I decided to accept the research assistant position and I moved to Leeds.

After a year of being a research assistant I still really wanted to do a PhD but unfortunately, the group I was working in didn’t have any funding for me to pursue a PhD. I’d lost the focus and passion for the current work and I told myself I’d give it a year before applying for PhDs. I was open and honest with my supervisor at the time about my decision to apply for PhDs elsewhere. I learnt so much during my time as a research assistant and I also got the opportunity to present my work at a conference. This experience was invaluable and I wouldn’t change a thing. I think there is a lot to be said about working before jumping straight into a PhD. I was very lucky as I was still able to keep my research assistant position while applying for PhD programmes. I was scared and conflicted, I had my life in Leeds, and I was for the most part happy here. I wanted a change but nothing too radical, then I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do. Did I want to do a PhD because it was naturally the next step? Or did I want to do a PhD in an area I was truly passionate about?

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Anyway, I applied for the 4-year PhD programmes to give me the chance to find something new I was passionate about (probably not the best reason). The downside of these 4-year PhD programmes is that they are super competitive and the people you’re up against typically have Master’s degrees. I know I didn’t want to do a masters, I thrived in the lab and I hated written exams. Plus, they’re expensive and I wasn’t in the position to do so. I believe I have enough work experience to match a Master’s, and this is what I highlighted in my applications. I got rejected by most, the University of Edinburgh gave some really good feedback unlike the others and I made it the interview stage for the University of Bristol. In the midst of applying for PhDs, I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that I was already working in a research institute with a big focus on cardiovascular research, which I was heavily interested in. I sought out to go to talks and seminars by PIs at the institute and I went to one particular talk by a professor in the department I was currently working in. I really enjoyed his talk and in that moment I thought ‘I want to speak to this person’. I plucked up the courage to speak to him, I introduced myself, told him I enjoyed his talk and his research. I spoke about my current situation and that I wanted to do a PhD in cardiovascular research. He was very open and happy to help me, despite me looking bright red and pretty flustered as I was so nervous about speaking to him. He told me to keep applying and he’ll have a look to see what he can do. I was essentially networking without even realising. 

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

I must have made an impression because about a month or so later I got offered a fully-funded PhD with him to start in January 2019. I immediately accepted and it was exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t have have to move, it was in a subject area I was interested in and I have relevant work experience. I felt so ready for this PhD, more so than ever! 

The hardest part was telling my boss at the time. Thankfully it went ok and she was very understanding which is all I could ask for. I felt extremely guilting but at the same time, I had made her aware that I was applying for PhD programmes. I was ready for a change and this was it. We work in the same building and still catch up from time to time which is nice. I gained a lot from my time working in that group and I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

I’m so pleased I plucked up the courage to speak to my current supervisor. I’m really enjoying my PhD project and I’m happy that it worked out well. Nothing is perfect but this PhD project is right for me, from the subject to the group, right through to the supervision and not a lot of people can say that. It’s certainly not the most conventional way of getting onto a PhD programme but I do firmly believe speaking to PIs and showing them who you are will get you to where you want to be. Most PIs are happy to help young enthusiastic scientists, it means they have people that are passionate about the science they want to continue. Speaking to a PI that I’ve never spoken to before was scary but also really good experience for the future, it’s good networking experience and it landed me in this great position I’m in now. 

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you want to know why I chose to do a PhD in cardiovascular disease go check out my blog post about it here and if you want to know more about my PhD project check out this post (link).

How did you get onto your PhD programme? Did you speak to your PI first? Did you just apply? Let me know – there is no right or wrong way you’ve got to do what works for you! 

Thank you for reading.

Stay safe,

Beth x


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3 thoughts on “My PhD application journey…

  1. Thanks for sharing your journey to a PhD offer! (A late) Congratulations to you, Beth 🙂

    I’m about to begin a 4-year PhD in cancer research, based in London! I applied to this program and project before meeting my (now) supervisor at interview. As this program had PhD project proposals listed, I did some research into the subject areas and potential supervisors before applying (they also helpfully provided videos of supervisors explaining the projects). In the end, this project was a great match for me based on my current interests and experience. I also enjoyed conversing with my supervisor at interview and it’s going well so far so fingers crossed… (Any advice on getting through first year?)

    I would also highly recommend reaching out to PIs you’re interested in, as I did this during my PhD application process which led to interview offers – show your enthusiasm and interest!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! Congrats on securing your PhD programme, what an exciting time ahead. My advice for first-year is to just be a sponge, absorb any info/learn new techniques and ask lots of questions. I’d also say get involved in things outside the lab like a journal club and attending courses, and even outreach activities. You get to meet lots of people and it’s all good experience 🙂 Good luck and I can’t wait to follow your journey!


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