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The Secret Files of a PhD Student

(Originally published in YourCoffeeBreak)

 

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My journey to a PhD started a few years ago. Having had a successful international career and two masters degrees on my CV, I thought there was no way I would go back to school for another 3-4 years. Boy, was I wrong! My mentors at various universities have repeatedly told me that I was ready for a PhD and that my topic was under-researched, thus, I would make an important contribution in the scientific world. With this encouragement and after careful consideration of what it would take, I decided to give it a go and apply to a doctorate programme in London. This decision was the beginning of a year-long yet exciting process.
  • Before you apply to a PhD program, there are three essential things you need to have in place: top grades and a highly scored master’s thesis, a great research proposal and preliminary agreement from potential supervisor(s). While the first one is self-explanatory, I will explain the last two in more detail. In the UK, PhD admissions committees receive hundreds of applications each year and what they are looking for is a proof that potential students are ready and capable of doing the research they are proposing, as well as delivering the results. Research proposal should be thought through, precise and feasible. And don’t forget; a good proposal is no longer than 2 pages (including preliminary bibliography), which is not an easy task!
  • Also, the program is more likely to admit students who have already identified potential advisors and have their preliminary agreement. Think of it as having an advocate on your case – if your potential advisor is interested in your research, he or she is going to support and vouch for you when the times come for the committees to make a final decision. Finding a potential advisor can be tricky though as many professors in top UK Universities are programmed to decline incoming requests. But never give up! If you’ll get a ‘no’, simply ask them politely whom they could recommend instead. The snowball of redirects usually gets you to the right person. If you are in the UK, make an appointment and meet the potential advisor to find out what they are like and what their interests are. After all, this is going to become one of the most important relationships in your life and you need to know whether you can get along with your supervisor or not, especially when things get difficult.
  • Once you have the agreement from them, half of the job is done. The other half is to collect all the necessary paperwork and submit it as early as possible (no later than the end of winter), especially if you are applying for financial aid or scholarship. I was lucky as I was admitted to every program I applied to but my choices were narrowed down by the availability of financial aid. Not many of us, especially overseas students, can afford paying tuition for several years. So, if you are looking for financial aid, it’s better to check university financial support page and apply for as many internal and external scholarships as possible. One of the great options is applying for university’s graduate teaching assistantship, which covers your tuition, pays you monthly allowance and even gives you a teaching experience!
  • Once I got admitted into a PhD program, I realized I signed up for one of the major challenges in my life. It’s hard work, blood, sweat and tears. Yet, it’s an exciting period of my life – I have an opportunity to do something I am passionate about and to be my own boss with flexibility in schedule to try other things as well.
  • If you think you are ready for a PhD, go for it! Here are some final tips on what to expect and to avoid:
    • Don’t be surprised if your PhD topic changes along the way as your research focus narrows down, but be prepared to defend it since it’s your research and nobody else’s.
    • Be prepared that your PhD is going to be a lonely experience. Outside of your supervisor and advisory committee, nobody else will understand or care about your research.
    • Therefore, have a life and expand your social networks! Try to have a good balance between your studies and social life as it will help you to be more productive with your PhD in the end.
    • Be practical and think big – what is the end goal of getting a PhD? Will you stay in academia and teach or will you go to another sector? What will you do with your dissertation? Will you publish it as a book or let it collect dust on the bookshelf?
    • Take advantage of all the resources available at the university – go to expert lectures, take a class, join an interest or activity group.
    • Surround yourself with people who are interested in your research. They will be your mentors and supporters and cheer for you all the way to the finish line!
 

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