Since first starting this blog just over a year ago, I’ve had a number of people tell me they saw my posts before applying to my PhD Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT), ART-AI. Fortunately, none of these people have told me that they applied for a PhD in spite of that fact.
Like many PhD hopefuls, I had many ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ and ‘oh gods’ about deciding whether or not to pursue the big investment that comes with doing a PhD. ‘PhDs are for super smart people’, or ‘PhDs are for people with a laser-like focus on their topic’, or ‘You need to already be published to get onto a PhD’, are all hurdles I worried were too high for me to overcome in my indecision. While I still went ahead with it and have managed to persist on the course a year later, with no plans or suggestions to run for the hills just yet, these doubts were still blockers to going through with it.
Since I do like encouraging people to follow their ambitions, and I love sending my own brand of wisdom out to the world (for better or worse), here is my dedicated post on applying for PhDs. Whether you’re not sure about the process, or just wanted to add another blogger’s point of view to your no-doubt staggering pile of articles, hopefully the information here may help you with your thought process. I’ll be talking about applying to ART-AI in particular in case you’re interested in joining the centre that I call my academic home, but you may find relevant information on any PhD application here.
Should I do a PhD?
I’ve sifted through dozens of posts on the internet discussing this question, some from PhD recruiting sites, others from hopeful researchers unsure of their next steps, and more from active PhD students like myself. Across these various founts of wisdom, I’ve seen all sorts of perspectives and tidbits on what makes someone cut out to be a PhD. From all of them, I’ve tried to put together a cohesive set of guidelines for deciding if you should do a PhD.
If you’re not sure if you should do a PhD, I can not answer this question for you. No-one could answer it for me, either. I was fortunate enough to have plenty of people encouraging me to do a PhD, but ultimately, I had to decide myself if I was not just willing, but wanted to take the plunge into the deep dark pool of academia.
While I would love to have an “Answer these five questions to confirm if you should do a PhD!” test, particularly since developing frameworks is becoming my research bread and butter, that would be a gross overgeneralisation of the PhD process, with zero consideration of your own circumstances. I will say what about a PhD makes me happy with my decision though, and maybe you’ll find something relatable in there that clicks with you.
A PhD is a big undertaking, there’s no doubt about it. No, it will not define the rest of your life by any stretch, but it will still take up a significant chunk of it. Three to four years may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but that’s between 1000 and 1500 days you have to spend with the PhD on the burner. Not every day will be a full throttle day, and there will be days off, but you will have your PhD in the back of your head that entire time. Believe me, it is hard to get away from it.
At the same time, a PhD is a very rewarding experience. It has its highs and lows, and plenty of times when you want to crawl into bed and spend the day crying, but it is an experience that sticks with you. You will meet many interesting people, get opportunities to learn new things and visit new places, and (best of all in my opinion) have a very strong grip on how you spend your day for the duration of the project. If you want an alternative to the 9-5 routine at the behest of senior management, a PhD is definitely a different way to spend your day. That doesn’t mean less hours, far from it, and you still have to balance the expectations of supervisors, funders, and all these commitments, but they’re ultimately your hours.
Perhaps most importantly, a PhD is your project. It might not be your r’aison d’être, and that’s fine, but for some people it absolutely is. You will have supervisors whom you need to negotiate with, and compromises do exist, but ultimately the PhD is your chance to contribute to the global collective of research. It may not be a huge contribution, and it’s more than likely it will get swept up in the tsunami of research that comes out of academia and industry, but by golly it is still your research. Not everyone has a definitive piece of work that they can point at and say “Yeah, I made that, and it passed judgement from the experts. Take that, posterity.”. If that’s the sort of thing you’d at least like to take a shot at, then a PhD could be right for you.
Am I suited to doing a PhD?
Please refer to my previous answer about the millions of pre-existing posts and being unable to answer this myself. They’re practically the same question, but I appreciate some people may feel they want to do a PhD, but be uncertain if they’re qualified to do so, and vice versa.
The good thing about this question compared to the last one is that you don’t need to judge this for yourself! That’s what the entire application process for PhDs is for: letting people who know what a good PhD candidate looks like do the heavy lifting by considering whether you’re suited for the job.
A very important thing that I must emphasise here: a rejection does not mean that you are not, or never can be, suited for a PhD.
Would you like to know a fun fact? ART-AI was the fifth CDT scheme I applied for, and that’s not counting individual PhD projects I expressed interest in (of which I’ve lost count).
Does that mean I wasn’t suited in my earlier applications? Probably, for any number of reasons. Does that mean I could never qualify for a PhD? Apparently not, because I’m on one now. Either I’m exceptionally good at fooling the senior management behind my CDT, which I’ve just ruined by stating as much, or more likely I was just appropriately qualified to do one by the fifth application. Between all those individual attempts, I went out and got myself a master’s degree along with experience working in a research role, and those probably helped in making me a stronger candidate.
If you’re not sure you’re qualified, but you think you want to do a PhD, I would suggest applying for a PhD. If you don’t get in, ask for feedback. If the people running the application have a heart, they’ll say where you came up short. Sometimes they won’t, perhaps because they get so many applicants, or perhaps because they’re just cold and unfeeling, but you won’t know if you don’t ask. If you do get feedback, show gratitude, respond to the feedback, and keep on applying as long as you’re committed to doing so.
I say committed to, not want to, because you probably won’t want to apply again after a string of rejections. This is normal: rejection hurts. However, being able to push past the negative feelings and do something just to spite those who doubted you is half the fun of doing a PhD, so you might as well start now.
If you do get in, you don’t have to take a specific offer if you decide it’s not for you. You won’t be the first to turn one down by any stretch, even at the most prestigious institutions, and you can always apply again later if you change your mind. If you’re uncertain whether you should accept due to not being clear on something in the program, don’t hesitate to ask. You’ve already gotten through the hard part by being offered a place, so don’t pass up a good opportunity just because you were worried about asking for more details.
Ultimately, the best way to find out if you’re suited to do something or not is to just give it a go. The worst thing that will happen is you find out you’re not, and you can move on with your life, richer for the experience. The best thing is you find out you’re actually suited to do something you’ve really wanted to, possibly for many years, and you get to enjoy all the satisfaction that comes with it.
I’ve decided to apply to a PhD! What do?
If you want to apply for a PhD, you need an idea for what your research will be. Now let’s dispel what this doesn’t have to be:
- You don’t need an exact plan for the project, with every stage perfectly lined up.
- You don’t need to have an exact research question(s), which has never been considered ever before in the whole wide world.
- You don’t need to already know the field inside and out, back to front, and be able to quote every big name in alphabetical order.
- You don’t need to have previous publications in top conferences or journals to show your research is already competitive (though it can help).
The main thing you need in applying for a PhD is to convince the people managing the application, at least one of which will probably be your future supervisor, of the following:
- You have a good enough understanding of the topic under consideration, for someone just starting research on it.
- You have the potential to do research, supported but independently.
- You have a rough idea of where you want the project to go.
Everything else can, and if all goes well, will, be sorted out in the course of the PhD.
One piece of advice I will give however, and this was echoed by my colleagues Todd van Steenwyk and Madalin Facino, is to consider your supervisor in your application. I would even go as far to say which supervisor would be a good, if not the best choice, for your project should be your primary consideration in where you do your PhD. From my own experience, I’ve found my research accelerating by leaps and bounds since getting a supervisor I’m in sync with for the work I want to do. It really does make all the difference.
This won’t always be straightforward, as you may only have a very rough idea of your project at this stage, making it’s difficult to associate it with a particular supervisor. In this case, reach out to potential supervisors. Be honest about where you’re at and what your idea looks like and see how the conversation goes with them. Remember to be concise when you reach out, as this makes it easier for them to respond. Unless they ask for it, they’re unlikely to have time to read through a multi-page plan just out of tentative interest.
Having said that, do be sure to do your due diligence before reaching out to a potential supervisor. Approaching someone to supervise a project that has nothing to do with their own research field is unlikely to earn you much of a response. Just saying to someone that you want to do a PhD and nothing else is not going to raise much interest from them either. You don’t need to know someone’s work inside and out, but you should at least take the time to read their academic profile and some of their publications so that you can express why your topic is relevant to their interests.
If they don’t reply in fair time, they may not have the availability to be a supervisor, or they may just not be interested. Take it gracefully and keep looking. Like interviewing for a job, you should consider what your working relationship is going to look like before you commit. Like being in a job, make sure you don’t burn bridges by acting entitled or rude towards these people, even if they make you wait ages to hear from them.
You may feel self-conscious about reaching out to potential supervisors, especially if you don’t know them or are applying to a different institution from where you’ve previously studied. This is understandable, but again, something you need to push through. Most academics are very happy to discuss interesting research topics, and in my experience are welcoming to ambitious researchers. Putting your foot forward is also a great way to build your network early on in your career, and makes you look like someone willing to take the initiative. All good traits for a potential PhD student!
What is applying to ART-AI like?
For those of you considering joining ART-AI at the University of Bath, this section is just for you. If you’re looking to apply to another CDT, or general PhD project, I can’t guarantee that the application process will be that similar. You might still find some useful information here though, so give it a look over just for kicks.
You can find information on applying for ART-AI here, so I’m not going to spend too long rehashing what has already been better expressed by our centre staff. Instead, I’ll try to give some advice framed around what I consider the big pieces: the personal statement, the research proposal, and the interview.
Your Personal Statement
Your personal statement is your chance to summarise yourself as a candidate, and what makes you suited to the project you’re proposing. While this may be intimidating if you haven’t done them a lot before, there are fortunately already a lot of guides on creating these out there, and if you’re still a student, your university’s career service can probably assist you in writing one of these.
With that in mind, my advice would be to make sure your personal statement is tailored towards what you’re applying for. Resist the urge to create a form version that you reuse in a dozen applications: it will make it sound generic and come across as not particularly interested in the place you’re applying, which makes it that much easier to reject you. ART-AI had around 250 applicants in my intake, of which only 18 were successful. You need to do what you can to stand out as an enthusiastic, relevant applicant.
The trick to tailoring the personal statement is to focus on the values that the centre is looking for, and how you can meet them. ART-AI stands for Accountable, Responsible and Transparent AI, so you want to sell yourself as valuing those in the first instance (and if you don’t, you may prefer a different CDT). Beyond that, interdisciplinarity, diversity and inclusion are also high priorities, so anything you can do to demonstrate an interest here is another plus. Finally, the personal statement is a great chance to show what skills and prior research experience you have, and how it relates to the project you’re applying for. Show the people reading your statement that you’re not just qualified, but uniquely qualified for the place and project you want to join.
For the research proposal, try to focus on being realistic. Suggesting a project that’s going to need an additional £200,000 of funding with no ready source for this money is unlikely to fly. Suggesting that you are going to interview the leading scientists of Silicon Valley, but have never even sent an email to Google, is also unlikely to pass muster. At the same time, a project still has to have an interesting, novel aspect to it. This novelty may fall short during your literature review, when you find out that someone has already done something very similar, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on you. If it’s obvious at this stage that your project just consists of reinventing the wheel, however, then it isn’t going to be much use or of interest to anyone.
Make sure to set a reasonable length of time aside for this proposal. It doesn’t have to be a very long document at this stage, and unless you’ve been preparing the project in advance with good support, it probably won’t be. However, the last thing you want to do is get caught with your pants down and have to throw something together in just a few hours, as this isn’t going to help your chances or make you feel confident about your application.
Remember, this is an initial plan. Vaguery is reasonable, as long as it has some grounding. The important thing is to convince the reader that you have an initial, high level idea for your research, and you’ve put thought into how you would undertake it. Placing it in the literature with some relevant citations also never hurts, but don’t stress about making these perfect. Your research project will almost certainly change drastically between now and when the time comes for submission, and the application committees know this. The key thing is to demonstrate an area of interest, a goal, and the ability to do some initial thinking towards it.
If you’ve made it through the written stage and you’re up to the interview, congratulations! This is already a great achievement, and you should feel proud of yourself, whatever the outcome. Having said that, you probably want to pass the interview, so how can you do so?
It’s going to sound very frustrating if you’re not good at it, but a key thing in the interview is to try to relax. You will be nervous, because this is an important conversation, but you don’t have to feel threatened. The purpose of this interview is to follow-up on your written content and get to know you better as a candidate.
This isn’t to say that you should treat the interview casually, however. As with all interviews, preparation is the key to success. A good start is reviewing your application, particularly your proposal, and making sure that you can discuss and elaborate on what you’ve said already. The interviewers want to know how you think, and how you see your research as fitting in with the centre’s goals. ART-AI in particular wants to know what about your research is accountable, responsible and transparent, so make sure you can link this in.
For any difficult or probing questions you get, which you will, don’t worry too much afterwards if you found yourself hitting a wall. The idea behind these sorts of questions is to find the limits of your knowledge, not expose you as a fraud who doesn’t know what you’re talking about (unless you lied in your application, which you shouldn’t). It’s also a good sign if you can share some ideas about what you want to do after the PhD. This demonstrates that you have a purpose behind doing these years of research, and that you’re not just doing a PhD for its own sake, which makes you come across as more committed.
Once the interview ends, take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back and a little break. You’ve done the best you can, so now it’s just in the hands of fate. It never hurts to send a thank you email shortly after the interview though, just as a matter of courtesy for the time everyone’s put in.
How long you’ll have to wait after the interview to hear a response depends on the project, the interviewers, and the decisions they need to make around the other interviews they still need to get through. They’ll also need to check that all the documents have been submitted and questions answered, so don’t hold up your application by missing out on any of these! Interviewers, at least at ART-AI, work in batches, so there can be some time between submitting an interview and hearing back. Be patient, and don’t stress yourself out by staring at your inbox.
One final thing to note is that the response from the centre may be that they are deferring their funding decision, or that you’re on a funding waiting list. This means that while the centre has decided you are capable of doing a PhD, they have not yet decided if they are able or necessarily willing to fund your project. This may be because of specifics about your proposed project, something that came up during the interview, or potentially your resident status if you’re an international student. As always, there’s no harm in asking for details if this happens. If this response does turn into a rejection, at least take heart in the fact that you’ve got endorsement in your ability to do a PhD. Follow up on the reasons why your funding was declined, and keep at it!
Applying for PhDs is stressful, both in deciding to do so and going through the process. Whether you’re uncertain about if it’s the right choice for you, or your suitability, it’s a big decision to make. The application process is no walk in the park either, and you need to invest a good chunk of time in refining your application. If you can get a trusted friend, or even a fellow academic, to look it over, that’s all the better.
If you don’t get into the project you wanted, remember not to be too disheartened. It will sting, especially if you were excited, but that’s the nature of the game. People get rejected for any number of reasons, but rarely are they personal. It doesn’t mean you can’t apply again for another intake, or that another centre won’t give you a chance. Ask for feedback, be grateful if you get it, and keep at it. Persistence is key in a PhD!
If, however, you do manage to beat the odds and get in, congratulations! You’re on the road to a unique life experience, regardless of how it turns out, and can start making plans for all the prep work you get to do beforehand. Best of luck with your research!
Are there any questions still playing on your mind about appliyng for a PhD that this post didn’t answer? Or maybe you have your own insights on the PhD application process you’d like to mention. Feel free to share them in the comments below!