As the British Summer (?) comes to an end and the air becomes (even) crisper, the start of a new academic year is signalled. For the past four years the start of my year has coincided with October rather than January, simply because thats when term time starts at university. This year will be my last to start in October. PhD’s are full time, and whilst they are not classed as employment in the UK, they have most* of the features of a full time job.
Choosing to do a science based PhD used to require you to have a pretty good idea of which lab/s you were interested in before applying. Typically you would apply to a few labs and see if they had a position available. Things have changed a bit since then and I hope I can shed some light on what it’s like to apply for a PhD in Biological sciences today.
1+3 PhD programmes
Over the past few years, PhD programmes, in which you have the opportunity to try typically 2 or 3 labs out before starting your PhD, have become more and more common place. Once I had decided to do a PhD I had to figure out whether to apply to a programme or apply directly to a few labs. As I wasn’t 100% sure which area of biology I wanted to go into I chose to apply for a programme which offered the chance to try out 3 different labs from a range of fields. This meant that I would need to chose 3 labs from a pool of around 30 and do a 2 month research project in each during my first year, before choosing one for a 3 year PhD.
Where do you want to live?
Another really important thing to consider is where you would be happy to see yourself living for the next 3/4 years. This might sound obvious, but it’s something that can really help you narrow down which labs or programmes you want to consider. If you want to stay in your home country for example, then there’s not much point looking at international programmes. Cambridge seemed to offer the more relaxed lifestyle I was looking for after spending three years in London . The college system sounded great for meeting people and the research at Cambridge is renowned, so applying to a programme there made a lot of sense for me. Now my morning commute involves cycling in a peloton instead of cramming into the tube…
Narrowing down your field of interest
Whether you decide to apply for individual labs or for programmes, it will help if you can narrow down the field you are interested in. For example, biology is a huge field. There’s evolution, stem cell biology, developmental biology, biochemistry, and many more branches to consider. Whilst a lot of these branches overlap with each other, there’s likely to be one branch in your field of interest that draws your attention more than the others. Personally, I was always more into the overlap between physics and biology, which narrowed down things quite a lot**. The project I’ve ended up working on for my PhD is focused on investigating the ability of mechanical forces to influence biological processes, such as a cells’ ability to differentiate into different cell types. Once you’ve narrowed things down enough, the list of labs/programmes that accommodate your interests should be more manageable to go through.
At the end of the day, you will end up doing (at least the majority of) your PhD in one lab, so it’s really important to find a lab that you could imagine going to. Programmes offer you the opportunity to try out a lab before signing up for the long haul, something that can be extremely helpful when you’re trying to figure out if your personality fits with the other personalities in the lab, and most importantly, with the group leader’s. Your supervisor (typically the group leader) will (hopefully) teach you the skills necessary to become a scientist over then next few years, meaning you will see them quite often. So as well as being someone you respect for their research, its also important they are someone you feel you can talk to and learn from. At the end of the day, a PhD is about learning.
*with the exception of contributing to a pension, as your salary is not taxed.
**whilst physics and biology have a lot to lend to one another, ‘biophysics’ is still an up-and-coming field, so labs focussing on this area are limited.