Top 10 tips for applying to a lab-based PhD

By Nicola Faramarzi, University of Westminster

Applying for a PhD can be tough. It is unlike other types of job applications and often candidates are not prepared for or aware of the desired formalities involved. Particularly for lab-based PhDs, sending a generic CV and personal statement just will not do. These applications can be lengthy and ironically require lots of research on your topic of interest, potential supervisor and university. Below are some top tips for applying and steps that are advised in order to have the best possible chance of getting to interview stage or impressing the professor.

1. Start early

From my personal experience, PhD projects are advertised at various times in the year, and some may be listed up to a year in advance of the start date. If you are thinking of an academic career, give yourself plenty of time and start thinking about what projects you would be interested in as early as possible.

Also, thorough PhD applications are not whipped up in a few hours. Make sure (if possible) you give yourself plenty of time to research your project, write your application before the deadline, and don’t leave it until the last minute!

2. Gain lab experience

For those of you who don’t have sufficient lab experience, try to gain experience before you start applying to PhDs. Although a PhD is a learning journey, potential supervisors like to know that you have at least some experience in the field or an awareness of what lab work entails. Plus, the competition is strong and many applicants will already have this. If you are thinking about applying for a PhD, try to get as much lab experience as you can in your undergraduate or Masters degree, or even by doing voluntary summer internships at your University.

3. Speak to your referees

It is common to have at least one academic referee from your University, so make sure to speak to them before you start applying, as they can give lots of helpful advice and may have some useful contacts.

4. Make sure you are a good fit

It is essential that you have some background knowledge or experience in the field that you are applying to; although many academic and laboratory skills are transferable, it is very hard to transfer to a completely different field. Try to select an undergraduate or postgraduate project that could build you a good foundation for future PhD work that you would like to undertake.

5. Get in touch

It is SO important to get in touch with your potential supervisor beforehand. Once you find a project/subject that you are passionate about, email the supervisor or schedule a phone call before sending in your application to introduce yourself and express your passion. Try to do this a few weeks before the deadline, as academics can be busy.

6. Tailor your CV

A very rooky error is to send the same CV and personal statement to every project that you apply for. It is good to keep the same general structure, but for the best chance of success, tailor your personal statement to each project specifically.

7. Don’t underestimate ‘soft skills’

Of course it is important to emphasise your amazing lab skills or grades, but don’t forget your soft skills. Extra jobs or work that is not ‘PhD related’ such as retail work, or playing a sport, gives you very important transferable skills. Being able to show that you are organised, adaptable, independent and a good communicator is extremely important for a PhD and academics do look for evidence of these skills.

8. Outline your career objectives

As with any other job or course application, it is worthwhile expressing your goals for the future – this helps to demonstrate that you are serious about a career path, and may be a long term asset to your potential supervisor’s lab.

9. Research proposal

This is to show that you have knowledge of the field, you can make an original contribution to the subject area and you have realistic expectations of the project. Take time to read lots or papers and resources to prepare this and make sure to reference many sources to demonstrate that you have read around the subject well.

10. Get it checked!

Finally, ask a lecturer, friend, colleague or family member to check your application. It helps to have someone proof read in case you have made grammatical or factual errors and to check your work reads well.

About me:nicola pics

I am a PhD student researcher at the University of Westminster, investigating the molecular basis of breast cancer. I am also the founder of the science and academia blog, Fresh Science. You can find me on Twitter at @fresh_science.

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