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Choosing a PhD

A PhD is an advanced postgraduate degree which is research based. It requires dedication to a specific research area at an advanced level. Full time it takes between three to four years to complete. To study for a PhD you will usually need a BSc at 2:1 or higher. For PhDs in Europe, most students will also have a Master’s Degree. 

If you are not sure about studying for a PhD then you could apply for a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree. A MPhil takes one to two years to complete. Some studentships begin as an MPhil and progress to a PhD.

You can use our PhD application checklist to start to think about the different aspects of comitting to a research degree. It aims to help you decide whether a PhD is right for you. Print the checklist off and jot down your thoughts in the boxes provided. 

Finding a PhD project

You can find advertised PhD projects on our jobs listings or on FindaPhD.com.

When choosing a project, it is important to consider the following:

  • Does the topic fascinate you? You will be working on a narrow area of science for a long time!
  • Consider your future career. What skills will you learn from the project? Are they wide-ranging?
  • Is the lab environment supportive? Does this extend to the university or institution?
  • Ask current students and staff about the PI and their management style. Does this suit you?
  • Will you have access to other personal development opportunities? For example, conferences, training, collaboration?
  • Look at the lab publication record. Are students routinely publishing papers during their PhD?

Types of PhD

There are different types of PhDs that you can apply for:

Funded PhD projects

  • Usually three years
  • A specific project that the lab already has funding for 

Funded Doctoral training programmes 

  • Usually four years
  • First year often includes rotations in different labs
  • Can include formalised training such as lectures

Self-funded PhD projects

  • A project is available, but the lab does not have funding
  • There may be opportunities to apply for funding separately 

Unadvertised PhD projects (further infomation below)

  • You can also approach a lab that is not advertising for students
  • Some students will bring a project proposal with them. However, most often a project plan is developed alongside the PI
  • You will need to develop a funding proposal with the PI if you are accepted

If you are unsure about whether a PhD studentship is for you, you can make an informal enquiry before making your application. This gives you an opportunity to ask any questions you might have about the project or lab.

Funding

Most bioscience PhDs are funded. This funding pays for tuition fees and research costs. It also includes a tax-free stipend to cover your living costs. 

Funding for most PhDs is from Research Councils. Industrial partners can provide extra funding for Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE) studentships. CASE studentships often give you the opportunity to gain experience in industry. Health charities may also fund PhDs in areas relevant to them.

Self-funding a PhD is also possible, costing £20-30,000 a year. PhD loans are available for up to £25,000. An article on the guardian describes the rewarding but challenging nature of a self-funded PhD. 

Unadvertised PhDs

You may be able to secure a project by applying for an unadvertised PhD. First you need to find out if the university accepts this kind of applications. You'll also need to:

  • Identify a research area
  • Research potential supervisors and departments
  • Contact the supervisor with a letter, your CV and an outline of your project

When contacting a supervisor, your enquiry should be short and sweet. It should show your potential and enthusiasm for the subject. Once you have contacted them, don't expect an immediate reply. If you have not heard in a couple of weeks, then follow up your enquiry.

You may have to submit a research proposal when applying to a lab, or when applying for funding. Proposal guidelines vary between universities.

Interviews

Interviews are your chance to show a supervisor why you deserve a PhD and to ask questions. You can use the interview to get to know your supervisor and research group members. You'll be working with them for the next three to four years, so make the most of it. You can find further information and interview tips on prospects.ac.uk.