How to choose a PhD?
1. The supervisor
The question is quite tough to answer since it depends on the field, on your goals, on your way of working, etc… However, given my experience, what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, below is a list of what I suggest you to take care about in the process of looking for a supervisor and a PhD. It might be a bit specific to neuroscience and psychology. In order to make it easier to read, I will consider the supervisor a ‘he’ just to make it easier to read (instead of repeating he/she)
- Check how big your supervisor is in the field:
Does he often publish? In journals with high Impact Factors? Are the researches heuristic? Is his lab famous? Is he professor? It might be a better opportunity to work with someone who is not that big and has time to supervise you correctly than being with a famous nobel price who can only meet you once a year. However, on the resume it looks very nice to have such a name next to yours and also, if your supervisor is known, it might be because he is really competent thus you could learn a lot from him. I would say the most important is to find someone who is really passionate about his job.
- Check his skills:
What kind of skills does he have? I am not talking about knowledge but about technics that he can use and teach you. What background? Is he independent => is the majority of his publications done with his first supervisor or with new teams? Did he only published reviews or also experimental researches? Does he know more about statistics than p-values and T-test? Yes, people think that acquiring data is the hardest part in science and analyzing results is just about randomly pushing buttons on the computer. Well, this is dramatically changing. Thousands upon thousands of data are now openly available and p-values misused (). Therefore, be above the average: master technique and produce original data (Santiago Ramon y Cajal). To make it happen, you need a statistics guru, not a copy-paster of methods section.
- Is he emotionally smart?
Do you feel good with him. Yep, that’s important. You are going to live the next (at least) three years with him. You might have to see him very often. He will be your personal coach in a way. He might be the person that propels you through the stars or makes you go to hell. Well ok, not really but still, your supervisor will have a major influence on you, your mood and even your future thus better it is to work with someone you feel good with and who got at least a bit of empathy. Pick a supervisor you like, who inspires you, meet him in person if possible. Does his PhD students feel good with him? What about the other researchers in the lab? It’s not always easy to get an answer of these questions but asking his students and meeting him in person are really helpful to get an overall picture. You are going to live with him for the next three years, it’s a big deal.
- Other useful things to check:
Is the university famous? (Yes, it has an influence) Are his PhD students publishing? Are his PhD students first author? Basically, you can get a bunch of information from them, do not hesitate to ask them questions directly if you can. Usually, you can find their email online, on the laboratory web page for example. How much is your supervisor enthusiastic about the project? Is it something really important for his career (i.e. personal interest) or just another paper? Better it is if he is crazy excited about it than just happy. And again: will your supervisor have time for you?
2. What subject?
- “But above all, master technique and produce original data; all the rest will follow”. Santiago Ramon y Cajal.
I think this sentence sums up pretty well what you should take care of. This PhD must be a springboard for your career. So you must find a PhD that will make you get useful skills & do heuristic stuff. If you’re gonna write a review, what skills will you get apart from writing skills and literature knowledge that you would get with any other PhD whatsoever? You need to be able to sell yourself after your PhD, and basically, people won’t pay for your knowledge, they will pay for your skills.
- What’s the temperature of the area on Google Scholar?
How many publications in the field? What kind of journal publishes about this subject? Do you think this area of research has its place in the future? Or does it start to be old-fashioned? Better it is to work on a niche market in order to be able to ask for grants later on. If there is no great publication in the area since the last 5 years, doing a PhD in the field might be a great opportunity or very tricky…
- Do you feel crazy exited by the description of the project?
Try to see you directly getting the PhD after 3 (at least) years of hard work, do you feel better with this PhD or that one? Pick the one which is synonymous to much more skills, useful results and prestige. You might have to focus on this subject for the next three years or even your life, that’s a big deal.
- Read, read, read. The best source of inspiration, ever.
The best way is to see what methods they usually use in the field, also what kind of statistics. Thus read as many related scientific articles as possible. Also, by reading, you will figure out if you get completely bored or even more curious. This will help you to choose the perfect PhD for you. Don’t worry if you don’t understand every part of the articles you read, it’s actually a good point, you will have something to learn, it won’t be boring!
- Everything is possible.
You don’t have to do exactly what you’ve done so far (I would even recommend not to do so, in order to open your mind). I mean, if you did your Master thesis on animal behaviour, you can still ask for a PhD using fMRI with human subjects. This can be a great moment to take another direction, you already got a Bachelor and a Master degree, you proved that you’re able to learn, thus you can ask for working in a “new” area. However, try to find some relevant arguments so that you’ll be able to convince the board team. Basically, try to get a heavy weight for each of these variables in order to optimise your chances: Adapted skills for the project + great motivation + proofs that you are a hard worker = success!
- Manip’ can be a waste of time if it doesn’t teach you anything.
Basically, you learn how to do it in few weeks and then, it becomes an automated task that you have to repeat and repeat. Manip’s are really important but you have to think about your future. Will the manip’s make your resume shinier? Will it be useful to talk about it during a job interview? Does it make you more skilled? Will the manip’s themselves take more than two years? (remember that you have to publish at least 2 articles… That’s a big deal). Think about it.
- Founded or not?
Even worst, you might have to pay for it. In the US, basically a PhD is for 5 years (it usually includes the Master) and you have to pay the tuitions (can be crazy expensive) each year. You can apply for a scholarship, or work as a TA (teacher assistant) but it usually doesn’t cover all the expenses and you have to find more money elsewhere. In France, it’s allowed to do a PhD without founding in social sciences. But still, you have to pay the tuitions and the cost of life (flat, food, etc…). And clearly, a project that is not founded can be tricky. Why is it not founded? Is it a serious one?
- Founded PhD
Best choice, ever. So you can entirely focus on your project and live a normal life.
- “Do it for love and the rest will follow”
Don’t be too picky with the salary (as soon as it is sufficient to live). You’ll be rich later don’t worry. Whatever the quality of your desk and computer, the beauty of the building you’re working in, etc… The most important is to get a plan: Why doing this PhD? What skills will you get? What will you do next?
- Play at home
You decide to work at your university, continuing your Master thesis project or something like that. I think that the easiest way. Ce n’est pas le chemin qui est difficile, c’est le difficile qui est chemin which means something like it’s not the way that is difficult, it’s the difficulty that is the way. Except if the project is really new, really challenging and is a great opportunity (Your are studying at Harvard university), then you should really consider to look for another position.
- Stay in your country:
At least, you will have to adapt to a new environment which will improve your cerebral plasticity but still: same culture, same language, and probably, same way of working. You won’t learn as much as being in a completely new environment.
- International PhD (co-supervised)
In your country and abroad. Hum… Definitely better, especially if you spend at least half the time abroad. Be careful though with co-supervision, can be tricky (pass-the-buck excuses)
- Go abroad
1. It’s good for your brain (adaptation, language, culture, challenge, novelty, etc…).
2. It’s good for your resume (abroad= openminded, risk taking, international collaborations, etc…).
can be will be the time of your life!
4. You’re gonna stay there for at least three years, this is the best way to experience a culture, therefore a wonderful way to travel.
5. The future is international.
6. Same risk ratio of having a bad supervisor, bad subject, etc… BUT you will at least improve your language skills, and you might be able to sell your “failed” international experience during an interview way more easily than a “failed” experience in your own country.
7. What a honour to say that you spent 3 years in another country.
8. It opens your mind (and opportunities).
9. You are really likely to be back way stronger, smarter, tougher, more open, happier, etc…
10. Just do it
How to postulate?
1. Find offers
- Depending on your field, you might find offers in scientific journals websites (nature.com/naturejobs, pnas.thejobnetwork.com, etc…), directly on the websites of the laboratories and universities (ex: ucl.ac.uk/npp/NeurosciencePhD for London or mpg.de/jobboard for a Max Plank Institute)
- Use your network: ask the PhD students and professors you know, and tell them that you are available 🙂
- Basically, just Google “PhD position in neurosciences”.
- a few links:
2. Get a motivation letter and a resume
- A bunch of websites can help you doing it the good way, just google “how to make my resume look great”.
- Looking at students’ & professors’ CV is also a very good idea.
- First copy it and then adapt it with your own style.
- Ask for feed back from as many different people as possible. Your family, professors, friends, students, unknown random people. Every feedback might be useful.
- Adapt it to each of your application
- Even when you’ll get the position, keep it on a USB key and update it regularly
- Keep all of your motivation letters too, some sentences might be helpful later on for another one.
3. Send an application
- Adapt your letter and resume to each application.
Don’t spam email boxes, you are applying for a contract that will at least last for three years, it’s a big deal. Supervisor won’t hire a “copy-pasted” candidate.
- Send an email with the needed documents
Usually: CV + motivation letter, transcripts of your grades (with a translation in english, ask the international relations of your university), 2 recommendation letters, details about your last supervisors).
- Ask Google for writing a good application email.
Here is an example:
“Object: Applying for the PhD position in (be specific enough)
Good morning Professor …..,
I am ……., a (French) Master student in ……..
I am contacting you about the PhD project in …………
This PhD project is perfectly matching to my interests.
You will find my resume, a motivation letter, contact details of two referees with a recommendation letter of Professor ……. (the internship that I did under his/her supervision is the most related to this PhD project), and all of my academic results (with a translation of all courses) in the attached documents.
Please, let me know if you are interested in my profile.
I am also at your disposal to answer any questions you may have.
Thank you for your time.“
4. After you sent the application
- Wait for an answer.
Ask again if no answer after 2 weeks (first, check the sent email, did you correctly write the address? Is it the good email? is he the actual person in charge of recruitment? Did you really send it? Was the email well written? etc…).
- Positive answer:
Congratulations! Now, get ready for the interview. I will assume that it’s a Skype interview. See below to get prepared.
- Negative answer:
Ask for feed back, it could be useful: Why isn’t he interested in a wonderful profil like yours? Nevermind, congratulations! You tried, you did your best. Now move on, look for another position.
5. Positive answer, what steps should you expect?
- Basically, here are the steps that you will have to successfully pass:
_Get a first interview (around 100 candidates)
_Get a second interview(around 20 best candidates)
_Get a physical meeting (around 3 best candidates).
- Don’t worry, you will fail.
Especially if you’re postulating in a university where nobody knows you, where nobody can boost your application, you are not a native english speaker, the position is challenging, the university is famous or if you are asking for a position where your background is not completely related. But that’s the good point actually => fall seven times and stand up eight! (Come on, you don’t want a life that’s easy). The 8th attempt might be the good one. Just remember to write down what you learned at each failure. Stay optimistic, you are awesome, don’t harbor on a missed chance, move on, you will make it.
6. Skype interview
- Congratulations! Ok, now focus. You passed the hardest step but there is still a long way to go.
- First, send him/her a Skype request to be sure to get the good Skype pseudo, and that s/he’s got yours.
- Have a professional Skype pseudo
- Test your Skype connection: Microphone, headphones… Skype with someone else to test it.
- Before the interview:
_Take care about the background, yes, take off the tattooed skull poster on your wall.
_Know about the subject: read articles, Google it, know the most famous names, the most famous mainstreams, the basics of the field.
_Know about the supervisor: read his/her articles, his/her resume (usually accessible online)
_Know about the place: Where it is.
_Prepare (at least) 3 pts: why under his/her supervision?
_Prepare (at least) 3 pts: why this subject?
_Prepare (at least) 3 pts: why you? “Because I am awesome” might not be enough 🙂
_Prepare (at least) 3 pts: why there?
_Prepare (at least) 3 pts: your main qualities&defaults (I know, so boring. But better it is to be prepared, don’t lie but make the reality be your ally).
_Prepare (at least) 3 pts: What can you bring to the project? to the team? to the city?
_Prepare (at least) 5 questions to ask: specific and broad ones.
_Orally practice the interview: Repeat two times alone. Repeat two times alone and record you. Repeat two times with someone from your field. Repeat two times with a friend. And repeat alone again.
_If possible, try to find a video of the interviewer online to get ready with his/her accent, the sound of his/her voice in order to be sure to understand him/her the J day.
_Be prepared to be in front of several people (and not only the supervisor). Sometimes, there are many interviewers.
_Be prepared for 10 to 45 minutes of interview: basically 5 minutes you introduce yourself, 5 minutes they talk about the institution and the project and 20 minutes for questions
_Have a glass of water next to you (Do not hesitate to drink during the interview, it shows that you are organised)
_Cheat: yes cheat, they can’t see what you see, so get the most important points in front of you, behind the screen. It will be easier in case you don’t remember certain points like basics neuroscience knowledge for example.
_Take it easy. You’re gonna be stressed, that’s ok. You might fail, actually you will fail, that’s ok. Because you’re tough, you will move on until you succeed!
7. During the interview
- Be concentrated
- Set up ahead of time (you can even send an email to your interviewer saying that you are ready and he can call you whenever he wants to)
- Check your Skype connection, microphones and headphones one more time
- Check your background one more time
- Are you dressed up like hell?
- Close every other apps (facebook, etc…)
- Take it easy: even if you miss stuff, try to feel confident, acknowledge your weakness but emphasize on your strength
- Drink water: it shows that you are organized, help you to relax and give you energy
- Try to lead the interview: Not too much but take initiatives, ask questions, fill the vaccum
- Be dynamic
- Take care of your body language (make eyes contact, “stand up” straight)
8. After the interview
- Send a thank you email within the next 2 days (not directly after the interview though) .
This e-mail is short, you thank the employer for the interview. You remind him/her the most important and related part of your resume, how motivated and confident you are and what you think you can bring to the project and team.
9. Other points
- Celebrate your failures and successes.
- Understand your failures and successes.
- Start with the end in mind, be optimistic and believe in yourself, you can and you will!
- Take your time, you’re not in a hurry, there are PhD offers all along the year, and they are all potentially worthy.
10. Points that you should consider to improve or add to your software
- Perseverance & tenacity for years
- Focus/concentration for hours
- Self discipline
- Social skills
- Toughness (failures, rejection and self doubts are included in the package)
- Organisation skills
- Be open minded
- Critical thinking
- Analytical mind
11. It is worth it
Whatever the job you want to do, doing a PhD means having the opportunity to focus on a specific subject for many years. It can be an amazing experience but it can also be tricky. So take your time, choose well and go for it! If you find one that is not exactly like you would like it to be, then adapt it. Creativity is very important in science, be creative and you’ll find a way to adapt your PhD and make it completely fit your ambitions.
Now, make it happen!