On this page, there are two sections. The first section relates to doing a PhD with CENTA and the application process. The second section is more general advice about doing a PhD in general.
If you don’t see your question here, feel free to ask us by emailing [email protected]
Section 1: Doing a PhD with CENTA
1.1 What is CENTA and who funds it?
In the UK, a proportion of taxpayer’s money goes towards research, with the purpose that the investment of this money will lead to benefits to society. Some of this money is managed by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a non-departmental public body sponsored by the UK government’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). UKRI is made up of nine research councils which each focus on funding a particular area of research. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) focuses specifically on research in natural science relating to earth, its atmosphere, and the environment.
CENTA is the Central England NERC Training Alliance. As the name suggests, we are funded by NERC, and we are an alliance of six universities and three research centres based in Central England. We are an example of something called a ‘Doctoral Training Partnership’ or DTP. DTPs are a way in which many research councils choose to train PhD students, through awarding the DTP money which they then use to train cohorts of students. This is different to the more traditional routes (such as Doctoral Training Grants or DTGs), whereby individual Research Group Leaders (also called Lab Heads, Principal Investigators or PIs, etc.) are awarded money to fund an individual PhD student in their lab.
CENTA administers the money given to it by NERC in order to select, train and support PhD students who successfully apply to our programme. As a condition of the funding we receive from the UKRI via NERC, CENTA and its students and supervisors are subject to the UKRI’s rules and regulations for training grants, which can be found on the following webpage: https://www.ukri.org/publications/terms-and-conditions-for-training-funding/.
1.2 Which organisations are part of CENTA?
CENTA has six universities (Degree-Awarding Institutes) within its consortium: University of Birmingham, Cranfield University, University of Leicester, Loughborough University, Open University and University of Warwick. We also have associated research centres where some of our PhD students are based: the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO), The National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) and the British Geological Survey (BGS).
Although CENTA is a consortium of universities and research centres, CENTA is administered from the University of Birmingham. This means that the funding awarded by NERC to run the DTP is held in an account at University of Birmingham, and the staff who are directly employed by CENTA (such as the CENTA manager and the CENTA Teaching and Training Fellow) are employed at the University of Birmingham. We do however have ‘Points of Contact’ at each host university and institute, who are there to provide support and information to students within host organisations beyond the University of Birmingham.
1.3 What are the benefits of doing your PhD with CENTA?
There are many different ways in which to do a PhD and ultimately it depends on the individual as to which format suits them best. The benefits of undertaking a UKRI/NERC-funded PhD Studentship are that: a) You may do a PhD full-time or part-time, b) CENTA will pay your university fees at the Home/Domestic student rate for 42 months (3.5 years), c) you will be eligible for a stipend at the UKRI rate (for 2023/24 this is £18,622 per year if studying full time or pro-rata if part-time), d) you will receive an additional fund called the Research Training and Support Grant (RTSG) to support your research and development.
If you are doing your PhD part-time, you will get a longer studentship period and will receive your university fees and stipend pro-rata (e.g. £9,311 per year, for 7 years if doing 50% part-time study). The level of financial support is the same whether you are a ‘Home’ or ‘International’ student, this means that if you are an international student, your fees will only be paid at the ‘Home’ rate rather than the full rate for International Students – please see section 1.4 ‘Can International Students apply to CENTA PhDs?’ below.
The specific benefits of doing a PhD with the CENTA DTP are:
- Each year, a cohort of students is taken on at the same time, meaning you will have other students at the same stage as you throughout your PhD. CENTA has around 30 students starting at the same time each year, giving you the chance to meet other like-minded people, ask questions, and get support from peers. You also get the opportunity to take part in a residential field trip with your cohort called ‘The Speed PhD’ – providing training, fun, and an opportunity to make friends and networks beyond your own research area.
- All applicants to the CENTA programme are ranked on their own merits, by multiple panels, independently from the project they have applied to. No project is funded by us unless a student chooses it and is successful in their application, making the selection process more objective and putting the student in the driving seat.
- You will have additional support beyond just your supervisor and host organisation. The CENTA admin can help you with guidance, questions and more.
- CENTA has been running as a DTP since 2014, which has enabled us to build a wealth of knowledge, resources, networks and contacts to support you over the years.
- You will have additional training provision. The CENTA Teaching and Training Fellow implements additional training opportunities throughout the year, giving you the opportunity to get free expert training beyond what you learn in your research group. This includes scientific and technical training, but also transferrable and commercial skills training that your PI/Group Leader may not themselves be able to provide.
- We give you up to £1500 additional support to allow you to undertake a placement in a non-academic research host of your choice to broaden your experience and skills.
1.4 Can International Students apply to CENTA PhDs?
International students are eligible to apply through the following routes of entry (see section ‘1.5 What are the ‘routes of entry’ to CENTA, and which route should I choose?’ below). Under UKRI/NERC rules, up to 30% of studentships awarded by CENTA in each cohort may be awarded to international students.
- Standard (Project-Based) Route
- Project Proposal Route
However, there are some caveats. Whilst CENTA welcomes applications from international students, please note that under the UKRI Terms and Conditions we can only fund university tuition fees at the ‘Home/UK’ level (not full international university tuition fees). CENTA is unable to pay the monetary difference between these fees, and this difference can total £20,000 or more depending on the university. If you are interested in applying for a project you will need to consider the potential gap between the home and international fee rate and contact the named supervisor of the project you apply for to discuss any support the hosting University may offer you (e.g., self-funded difference, or – if available – an international fee waiver). However please note this is not guaranteed.
Please note international students are NOT eligible to apply through the CSOS route of entry, regardless of ethnicity – see section ‘1.5 What are the ‘routes of entry’ to CENTA, and which route should I choose?’ below.
Please also note that CENTA cannot reimburse the costs of choosing to relocate to the UK if you are an International Student. This includes visa fees (for you or your family), Immigration Health Surcharge fees, relocation fees, flights, accommodation, taxes and other expenses accrued as part of coming to live and study in the UK. Please ensure you have considered how you will meet these costs if choosing to relocate to the UK.
For more information about likely costs, visa and other regulations affecting international students, please contact the international student office of your intended host university.
1.5 What are the ‘routes of entry’ to CENTA, and which route should I choose?
There are 3 main routes of entry:
- Standard (Project Based) Route: you apply to a pre-formed and advertised project (you will find these advertised on the CENTA website, FindAPhD.com, and the departmental websites of our partner institutions).
- CSOS Route: home-fees eligible applicants from a minority ethnic background may apply for the CENTA Science Opportunity Scholarship, which is a scholarship not attached to a particular project, giving you the opportunity to develop a project in your area of interest with a supervisor of your choosing (eligibility criteria apply)
- Project Proposal Route: you either design or co-design a project of your own and submit this project proposal to CENTA for consideration.
In the Standard Route, potential PhD supervisors (PIs, Research Group Leaders etc.) have already designed a potential project and submitted it to CENTA to advertise on their behalf – these are the projects you’ll see advertised on our website, FindaPhd.com and the websites of our partner institutions. Projects are normally advertised between late October and early January each year. There are more projects advertised by CENTA each year than there are funded studentships available, therefore a selection process will take place in January and February each year to select the top ranking applicants across all projects, who will be awarded a studentship.
Both UK ‘Home’ students and international students are eligible for this route of entry. You may apply to one project per host institute. Specific details of how to apply will be included in each project advert, but will generally involve applying via the online admissions portal of the host institution for that project and submitting your CENTA application form as a ‘Supporting Document’ (as you would for your CV/resume). Please note, you may only apply to one advertised project per institution, although you may apply to projects at more than one institution.
In the CSOS ‘CENTA Science Opportunity Scholarship’ route, rather than applying to a specific project, home-fees eligible applicants from a minority ethnic background may apply for an independent, funded studentship from CENTA called the CENTA Science Opportunity Scholarship (CSOS). Eligible applicants apply directly to CENTA, and if successful will receive support from CENTA to develop their own project idea in a research area of their interest, with a supervisor of their choosing from within the CENTA network. Candidates may invite a potential supervisor from any CENTA host university or research centre to host/supervise them. Once a project has been developed the final decision to award a CSOS studentship will be taken by CENTA’s Studentship Selection Panel, and the offer of a studentship cannot therefore be considered guaranteed until this point. Students applying to the CSOS may also apply at the same time through any other route of entry if they wish, e.g. they may apply for one advertised project per institute in addition to the CSOS.
CSOS applicants apply by completing a CSOS application form and sending it directly to the CENTA office. If they are successful in their application, once they have chosen a host university, they should also apply to their host university on the Host Online Portal or other host admissions system.
Please ensure any self-designed projects are within the NERC Remit; we are unable to fund medical research projects, for example.
In the Project Proposal Route, candidates may either design or co-design their own project with a CENTA supervisor (a supervisor based at a CENTA university or research centre. This process should be started early (at least 6-12 months before the deadline for CENTA applications in January). Please contact CENTA if you require assistance in identifying a potential supervisor. There is a separate deadline for the submission of student-designed project proposals which is normally a month before the main CENTA application deadline. The project proposal form can be obtained from the supervisor and should be submitted directly to CENTA by this deadline, so that its fit with NERC remit and feasibility can be assessed. You will need to apply to the university hosting the project, including a CENTA application form, the university application form and your CV in the same way as you would if you were applying for an advertised project. You will be sent details of how to do this once your project form has been submitted. Your application go through the same selection process as applications to the standard project route and must meet the same criteria for student excellence.
Please ensure any self-designed projects are within the NERC Remit; we are unable to fund medical research projects, for example.
1.6 What educational requirements do I need to apply to CENTA?
CENTA as a programme will generally ask for at least a 2:1 at UK BSc level or at least a pass at UK MSc level or equivalent. Each student’s academic performance is considered on an individual and holistic basis, however.
If you are an international student and would like to know what the equivalent to your degree is in the UK system, this can usually be found on the host university admissions websites.
Host universities may also ask for a certain level of English Language Proficiency or other qualifications. Please note that CENTA does not have the power to waive, negotiate or otherwise modify these requirements. Please do not contact the CENTA admin about these requirements as we will not be able to advise you – direct all queries to the admissions office of your chosen host university instead.
If English is not your first language and you would like to know what the English Language requirements are for your host, and/or if you are an international student and you would like more information about the admissions process for your host, these can also be found on the host university admissions websites:
- University of Birmingham International student entry requirements – University of Birmingham
- Cranfield University: Entry requirements (cranfield.ac.uk)
- University of Leicester: International students | University of Leicester
- Loughborough University: Postgraduate entry requirements | International | Loughborough University (lboro.ac.uk)
- Open University: Entry Requirements | Postgraduate | Open University
- University of Warwick: Research Course Applications (warwick.ac.uk)
1.7 Do I need a Master’s Degree to apply to CENTA?
No – CENTA does not mandate that applicants have a Master’s degree in order to study a PhD with us. Many of our current PhD students do not have Master’s degrees.
Whilst Master’s degrees can provide useful experience, we recognise that not everyone wants, or can afford to undertake a Master’s degree and that knowledge and experience can come from a variety of sources, including not only academic qualifications but also skills gained from work and professional experience, voluntary work, internships and placements and even personal experience. Applicants will generally need to have attained at least a 2:1 in a relevant undergraduate degree (BSc Level) in order to ensure they have sufficient knowledge to undertake PhD study, and each host institution may set minimum English Language qualification requirements, but otherwise each applicant is considered on a case-by-case basis.
1.8 How does the application process work at CENTA?
There are 3 main routes of entry (see ‘1.5: ‘What are the ‘routes of entry’ to CENTA, and which route should I choose?’). However, what they all have in common is that they will all at some point involve the following two steps:
- An application to CENTA to fund your studentship (typically done through a specific application form, such as the CENTA studentship application form or the CSOS application form), and;
- An application to a university to physically host you (typically done through an online application portal at the host university).
Together, these two applications determine whether your overall application is successful. In the Standard Route, both parts are done together at the same time (ie your application will be made through the host university admissions portal and you will upload your CENTA studentship application to this portal); whereas with the other routes, you may only be asked to apply to the host university once your initial application to CENTA for funding has been successful.
You should provide two referees as part of your application. Ideally, these should be academic referees, such as your undergraduate tutor, lecturer, research project supervisor, mentor etc. They should know you well enough to comment on the standard of your academic work to date, as well as your general suitability for a PhD programme. However, we recognise that many of our students may come from non-traditional backgrounds, and it is also acceptable to include references from relevant employers or professional colleagues, particularly if you have previously worked in an area relevant to the topic of your PhD.
Assuming you have satisfied the basic/general postgraduate study criteria for study at your potential host institution(s), your CENTA studentship application form is the main document which is used to assess your academic suitability for the studentship. To ensure rigour and fairness in the student selection process, each application is processed as follows:
- Your CENTA studentship application form must be received by the CENTA deadline, usually in early January.
- Your CENTA application form is scored according to a standardised matrix by an academic panel from your chosen host institution (or from the CENTA Management Board if you do not yet have a host, e.g. for the CSOS competition). The scoring matrix is the same no matter which project, host or route of entry you have applied to;
- The top-scored applicant for each project, along with those who may have been put forward through the preferred interview scheme, are invited to interview, usually in around February.
- Interviews are conducted with another standardised scoring matrix which is the same no matter which project, host or route of entry you have applied to. There will be a minimum of 3 panellists on your interview, who will all score you individually;
- The scores from the interview panel are averaged and a short-list of top-scoring applicants to be taken forward to CENTA’s Student Selection Panel is identified;
- The CENTA studentship application form for these candidates are then sent to academics at a different institution for double-marking to ensure fairness – these academics do not see the marks of the first judging panel (for CSOS, you will have your application scored by academics from several different institutions);
- The two scores from the first and second panels are collated by CENTA and averaged;
- The averaged scores from your written application and the averaged scores from your interview are combined to give your total final score;
- Shortlisted candidates are then ranked by score for consideration by CENTA’s Student Selection Panel, following which offers made to the top scoring candidates;
- The candidates must make the decision to accept or reject the offer by the UKRI Universal Acceptance date, which is generally in mid-March.
We aim to take a holistic approach: we recognise there is more to a person’s potential to be a great PhD student than simply ranking their degree classifications or publications.
Please note, no matter which route you apply through, the host institution has the final say on whether we can offer you a studentship based at their university or organisation. CENTA cannot override the decision of a host institution or otherwise force them to host you, so please ensure you are familiar with the admissions criteria for postgraduate study at your chosen host, and complete all the requested details to the best of your ability on the admissions portal or other admissions system
If the host institution admissions portal asks for a research proposal, you do not need to provide this unless you are self-designing a project (although your project proposal must have been submitted separately to CENTA in advance). If the research proposal field is mandatory, simply upload/copy-paste your CENTA studentship application form instead or write ‘N/A: CENTA DTP application’ – the host admissions team will know what to do.
1.9 Should I approach the supervisor on the project before applying?
It isn’t mandatory to approach the supervisor before applying to a project, but it is highly recommended. The approach does not need to be super-formal, and you generally don’t have to attach a CV or cover letter at this stage: it is generally enough to send a polite email to their institutional email address, saying that you are considering applying to their project, noting how your skills and background might fit in, and asking if they’d be happy to share more details with you about how they envisage the project playing out over the next few years – and/or perhaps arrange a quick video meeting to discuss. They may even invite you to visit their lab or group in person; this can be a great opportunity to meet the people and places you will potentially be spending the next 3-4 years of your life with, and get a sense for whether this will really be a good fit for you.
1.10 How should I prepare for a CENTA interview?
If you are successful in reaching the interview stage, you will be sent some guidance on what to prepare and the questions that will be asked. Generally, we are looking for your potential, rather than conducting a verbal ‘exam’ on your subject – passion, commitment, broad scientific thinking and reflexivity are all good things to communicate during the interview.
If you have any concerns about the interview process or think you may benefit from reasonable adjustments to the interview to ensure you are not disadvantaged in any way, you will have the opportunity to communicate this to us.
1.11 How competitive is CENTA?
CENTA funds studentships, rather than specific research projects. It therefore only makes offers to students who are top-ranked after the selection process. It is not the case, for example, that if nobody else applies to a project that you will automatically get a studentship for that project. Instead, all applicants to the CENTA programme itself are ranked against each other and the top-ranking students are awarded studentship to study the project to which they have applied. If more than one student applies to the same project only the highest ranked student based on the application form will be interviewed (unless any applicants are put forward through the preferred interview scheme, in which case more than one applicant to the project can be interviewed). They will then be shortlisted and a decision taken as to whether or not to award them a studentship based on their overall score and ranking.
In any given year, we might receive up to 400 applications to the programme as whole; of this, we can only fund ~30 studentships. Under UKRI rules, a maximum of 30% of these studentships can be awarded to International Students. CENTA can therefore be considered quite selective.
However, if you want to do a PhD with CENTA, please do not self-reject by not applying to us at all! As the saying goes, you will miss 100% of the shots you never take. We have many current PhD students who didn’t think they stood a chance of getting onto the programme, and yet they are here (and many have gone on to be very successful). Remember: you don’t necessarily need a First-Class degree, a Master’s degree, lots of publications already amassed, or a long list of scientific techniques on your CV to be considered a promising PhD candidate by CENTA. We also do not discriminate against applicants who wish to pursue, or would consider pursuing, careers outside of academia after their PhD.
1.12 What are the financial considerations of doing a PhD with CENTA?
If your application to CENTA is successful, you are eligible for all of the following:
- 3.5 years (42 months) full-time (pro rata part time) university fees paid on your behalf at the ‘Home’ rate.
(Please note, if you are an international student, there may be a difference of £20,000 or more between the ‘Home Student’ University Fee rate and the ‘International Student’ University Fee rate, and CENTA cannot pay this difference. If you are interested in applying for a project you will need to consider the potential gap between the home and international fee rate and contact the named supervisor of the project you apply for to discuss any support the hosting University may offer you (e.g., self-funded difference, or – if available – an international fee waiver).
- 3.5 years (42 months) full time (pro rata part time) stipend paid at the UKRI Rate: for 2023/2024 this is £18,622 per year (pro rata part time), paid monthly. If you are primarily based in London, you will receive slightly more.
- £8,000 Research Training and Support Grant (RTSG) per studentship (i.e. not annual) – this is to support your research and development costs, such as equipment and conference fees etc.
- £1,500 placement support to enable you to take a 2-week placement in a work environment outside of academic research, broadening your skills and networks.
- where applicable, Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) – a fund to assist disabled students with things like Needs Assessments, equipment, extra support and more.
3.5 years (42 months) is the standard length of CENTA funded studentship if doing a PhD full-time with no extensions or suspensions. This is sometimes called your ‘funded period’.
Please note that as CENTA is funded and governed by UKRI, we are bound by the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions. Therefore all money received by you is subject to UKRI rules and in general, you are only eligible to receive this money as long as you are actively in a CENTA studentship and are operating in compliance with the UKRI rules. For example, if you leave CENTA, take up full-time work during your PhD, or exceed your maximum funded period (for example, if you do not submit your thesis within 3.5 years if doing a full-time PhD with no extensions or suspensions) you may become liable for certain costs, such as your university fees or paying back money that you have already received but which covers a time period where you were not eligible to receive it. Therefore, please be sure you understand the rules and how they apply to you before accepting a CENTA PhD. For any clarification, you may contact [email protected]
1.13 Why are CENTA students paid a stipend instead of a wage? Can I still work during my PhD?
In the UK PhD students who have been awarded a studentship by a funding body or other organisation commonly have their living costs supported via stipends. Stipends are slightly different from a wage, which has some benefits and some drawbacks.
The main benefit is that stipends do not generally attract Income Tax or National Insurance payments, enabling you to keep more of your money and essentially meaning you will receive the equivalent of the take-home pay from a wage above £20,000. Unlike the system in some other countries, the stipend does not come with a mandatory requirement to teach a certain number of hours or other additional tasks of that nature. Additionally, if you are an international student, you are able to receive a stipend even if your visa may not permit you to work and claim a wage.
In general, as a student rather than an employee, you will also usually be personally exempt from having to pay council tax (although if you live in a property with non-students, they will still have to pay unless exempt for other reasons).
The main drawback is that because it is a stipend rather than a wage, it may not be counted by banks and other entities as ‘proof of income’ for the sake of things such as mortgage applications. You may also not be entitled to certain government benefit payments. You will also not be automatically enrolled in a pension as you would be for UK employment, so if you can, it is worth considering setting up an alternative retirement funding plan.
If you want to know more about how a stipendiary income will affect things such as tax and benefits in your specific case, please contact the UK Department for Work and Pensions.
With regards to whether you can work during a PhD, the rules are laid out in the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions. Essentially, if you are working full-time hours, you cannot have a UKRI-funded PhD in either a full- or part-time study mode (unless you are in a state of suspension). If you work part-time, it is recommended this should be no more than ~6-7 hours per week if doing a full-time PhD, and 50% of your hours if doing a part-time PhD. In either case, the total number of hours worked on your PhD and part-time job combined should not exceed the Working Time Directive, e.g. regularly >48 hours per week.
1.14 Where do people go after CENTA?
CENTA alumni go on to jobs in a wide range of different industries. Many stay in academic scientific research, often taking Postdoctoral Researcher roles immediately after their PhD; some have even gone on to set up their own research groups as Principal Investigators (PIs). Some also go into education, taking on lectureships and other teaching and student development roles.
Other alumni enter the private sector and conduct scientific research or other science-related roles in for-profit ‘industry’ jobs; some even set up their own companies as entrepreneurs.
Some go into Consulting and Project Management, in not-for profit, for-profit, or Governmental roles. Policy-related roles are also popular, with alumni working for local, regional and national government or non-departmental Public Bodies to influence scientific policy and strategy. Some work in Scientific Publishing, Science Communication and illustration, at Learned Societies, or for Research Councils.
Finally, we have some who work in rather unusual and unique jobs, for example a researcher for a film company that makes nature documentaries, a manager of a medical laboratory, and a museum curator.
This shows just how broad and transferrable the skills you gain during a PhD with CENTA can be.
Section 2: General PhD FAQs
2.1 What is a PhD?
A PhD is the highest level of postgraduate degree – the abbreviation PhD comes from the Latin term Philosophiae Doctor which roughly translates as ‘teacher of knowledge or wisdom’, in recognition of the high level of learning required to complete a PhD – this is also why upon successful completion of a PhD, you may use the title ‘Dr’ (it’s also a little-known fact that PhD holders held the ‘Dr’ title first, before it came to be associated with medical doctors).
PhD students conduct independent research in order to make a unique contribution to human knowledge, which is compiled in their final thesis. As it is important to communicate scientific findings to the wider world, often PhD students will also publish pieces of their work, in journals, book chapters, and other records of scientific information. They may also communicate the information by going to conferences with other scientists.
The timing, content and structure of a PhD varies from country to country and from subject to subject. Most UK-based scientific PhD programmes start at the beginning of the autumn semester (usually around the start of October) and last around 3-4 years. In the UK, scientific PhDs are generally research-based with no mandatory exams or teaching requirement; the main points of assessment are generally a written report at the end of first year (on which they may or may not also receive a Viva Voce (an oral assessment, sometimes called a ‘defence’); this generally determines whether students will progress to the remainder of their PhD study, leave PhD study, or sometimes to determine if they should graduate with a MPhil instead. Then, in the final year, PhD students will prepare a thesis which is examined by an academic from within their institution who is not their PhD supervisor (internal examiner) and someone from outside their institution (external examiner); they will then have the main PhD Viva Voce (PhD Defence) where they will be asked questions on the contents of their thesis to assess its scientific validity. In other countries, sometimes this event is a public one, but this is very rare in the UK – generally only 2-3 other people will be in your Viva. Most Vivas last around 2-3 hours.
If the thesis is extremely good, the examiners may recommend that you pass your PhD and accept your thesis without any corrections. More commonly, there will be a few places where the thesis can be improved, and in these cases, it may be recommended you pass subject to ‘minor corrections’ and given a timeframe (usually 1-3 months) to complete the corrections and resubmit your thesis. If the thesis has more serious shortcomings or does not yet contain enough data, you may receive a recommendation to pass with ‘major corrections’, which may take more than 3 months to correct, and involve gathering and writing up additional data.
It is extremely rare for anyone who has reached this stage to fail their viva; you have several safety nets throughout the PhD and thesis preparation stage (for example, your supervisor should read regular drafts of your thesis before submission and advise you if it is likely to fail or is otherwise unready for submission) but if the viva does go badly, the other options that the examiners may recommend are downgrade to MPhil degree with no amendments, downgrade to MPhil degree subject to amendments – and in the worst-case scenario, immediate fail. Immediate fails mean you cannot resubmit your thesis or get an MPhil degree, but they are almost unheard of except in very extreme cases, for example severe plagiarism.
2.2 Apart from research, what else do PhD students do?
As a PhD student, it is not only important that you research but also that you communicate your research, and stay informed of the research of others in your field. Therefore, it is likely that you will attend and present work at scientific conferences, either as a speaker or via the creation of a scientific poster displayed at the conference. You will also be expected to read scientific publications – and to do so in a proactive way without being explicitly told what to read by your supervisor. Many research groups also hold ‘journal clubs’ where they discuss and critique recent publications relevant to their work.
Many PhD students will be involved in some kind of teaching, demonstrating or mentoring. This might be giving lectures to undergraduates or small-group teaching, demonstrating in lab practicals or fieldwork, or day-to-day supervision of more junior members in lab. This work is often paid on a casual worker basis.
If intending to stay in research, you will always have to teach and mentor more junior scientists no matter how senior you become, so it is good to get experience doing this and to approach supervision and mentoring with patience and understanding. In addition, as in any other job no matter how senior, PhD students have administrative and bureaucratic tasks. This could include things such as ordering supplies, arranging travel, fulfilling administrative duties to the host university etc. These tasks are necessary to keep research running overall.
Although it is not generally a mandatory requirement, many PhD students enjoy public outreach activities, and may choose to attend scientific outreach events such as school visits, scientific communication competitions, science festivals and other such events to share their subject with the public. As many PhDs are funded from taxpayer money, it is good for the public to see how their money is being spent, why it’s important to research that subject and what the impact of the research on their daily lives might be, now or in the future.
2.3 Any advice for students who are considering studying a PhD?
We highly encourage students to pursue PhD studies if it is something they want to do, but you should make sure you do really want to do it and consider all aspects such as income and stress. 3-4 years of a high-intensity research environment on a modest stipend can be difficult to manage.
Doing a PhD has good aspects and bad aspects. Many PhD students will experience highs and lows throughout their PhD, and some can find the transition from an undergraduate or Master’s degree to be difficult as it is a very different type of study – one where nobody ‘knows the right answer’ and the effort you put in isn’t always rewarded with the result you get out. However, the students who enjoy their PhD all have one thing in common: they are deeply passionate about their subject and thus are highly motivated to continue even during the tough times.
Doing a PhD is not a decision to take lightly or for throwaway reasons. There is also an opportunity cost to doing a PhD – you may find you are (usually temporarily) earning less than your friends and peers as they are on wages and you are on a stipend; you may also feel that doing a PhD has pushed back plans to achieve other goals (such as getting married, buying a house, starting a family – although people can, and do, do these things alongside a PhD!) You may also just simply think the PhD lifestyle does not seem as much fun compared with your friend’s lives.
Some people feel this way during their PhD, some do not, but either way these feelings are natural – and only you can tell how deeply they are likely to affect you. Remember: it is not necessary to go straight from your undergraduate and Master’s studies; you may decide to take some time out and/or work for a while whilst you consider if doing a PhD is the right path for you.
If you do decide to do a PhD, remember that it is tough for everyone (even if they pretend it isn’t). If you are passionate, proactive, committed and actually enjoy your subject, you will have nothing to worry about academically. It is also very common for PhD students to experience something called ‘Imposter Syndrome’ where they incorrectly feel like they aren’t smart enough to be on a PhD course; there are many resources available to help manage this if you start to feel this way, and it’s recommended to be proactive if you feel these unhelpful thoughts creeping in.
But on the non-academic side, you also need to look after your own wellbeing and mental health. Advocate for yourself, do not fall into unhealthy workaholic habits or cultures; take time off to recharge, recuperate and refocus, keep in contact with friends and family, and most importantly, if you are struggling in any aspect, don’t be afraid to seek help. You can only perform at your best when you are healthy and happy, so looking after yourself is also vital to being a good PhD student. As the saying goes, ‘if you don’t make time for your wellness, you will have to make time for your illness’.
If you are persistent, manage your time well, and recognise that a PhD is a learning process and things will inevitably go wrong (but that doesn’t mean you are incompetent or stupid, it just means you need to try another way) a PhD can be the most exciting time of your life. You will get to meet very interesting and talented people, hear fascinating ideas, experience great highs when you finally achieve success in your work, and develop your mind beyond perhaps what you ever knew was possible. You will learn transferrable skills as you go along (without even realising you are learning them in many cases!) Many people also make friends for life during their PhD. There are few jobs that will inspire such passion as you will feel chasing new knowledge in a subject you truly love.
2.4 How can I choose a PhD project which is suitable for me?
There’s lots of ways to find a project: you might respond to an advertisement for a defined ‘ready-made’ PhD project, such as those advertised online. You might have an area or supervisor already ‘on your radar’ and think you’d like to do a PhD with them, and approach them to discuss the possibility. You might win an independent scholarship to study a project of your own design, and simply need to find an appropriate supervisor for that project. You might enter a scheme such as a ‘rotation PhD’ where you get the chance to try out several projects before picking one to continue with for the remainder of your PhD.
However you search for or develop a project, there’s a few aspects to consider when making your choice. Firstly, Subject – you’ve got to choose something you genuinely find fascinating if you’re considering studying it in intricate depth for 3-4 years!
Secondly: Supervisor. do some background research on the principal investigator(s) (PI). For example, what they have published, their research interests, and their reputation. Approach them, communicate actively and show your interest in the project(s).
It isn’t the case that you should just choose the supervisor who seems outwardly most successful or prestigious; remember a PhD is a training role, and you will need to have someone who can supervise and train you in a way you are comfortable with and will benefit from. The supervisor-student relationship should be a two-way process, not a dictatorial ‘boss and employee’. Remember also that – rightly or wrongly – PhD students are often judged by which group they belong to, and your supervisor is likely to have a marked impact on your career far beyond the PhD itself.
Thirdly: Location. Do you like the institute/university? Do you get a sense that it will be able to provide the resources and support you need? Will you be able to live in that location happily for 3-4 years? Will you be able to stay in contact with friends and family? It does not make you a bad or unserious scientist to consider your personal happiness and the practicalities of day to day life. Again, it isn’t always about picking the most prestigious university either – it is picking the one which will be the best fit for you, both academically and non-academically.
2.5 Should I contact potential supervisors in advance?
It is a good idea to find out about your prospective supervisors because all of them will have different expertise and working styles. Choosing the one that suits you make a huge difference. Some may give you lots of autonomy and independence while others may like to be more hands-on. Some may be soft and gentle in their approach, whilst others favour ‘tough love’.
There’s no defined right or wrong way to supervise (although you may wish to avoid anyone with a reputation for unprofessional or problematic behaviour), but it is the case that you will naturally work better with some supervisors than others, depending on your personality type and what you know will motivate you.
2.6 How can students prepare themselves to become a better PhD candidate? Which skills are necessary?
Studying a PhD is not about being the smartest person ever and only knowing about your own field. Although each of the research projects are different, they all require dedication, initiative, passion, problem-solving, communication and time management skills.
Some projects will expect you to know certain skills already to be able to carry out the work: examples include knowing basic coding if you are doing a computational project or lab skills if doing molecular/chemical work – and generally most projects will require at least a basic understanding of statistics, which you can continue to develop during your studentship. Check the wording of the methods sections of papers in your field, PhD adverts and jobs in your field of interest: do they often use or ask for a particular skill? Is this something you could work on?
The opportunities to develop skills and knowledge have never been better; there are many useful and often free online courses in lots of areas relevant to PhD study and skills on LinkedIn Learning (many universities subscribe to this), Coursera, EdX and others. You may also be able to identify someone in your existing network who has a particular skill and ask them if they’d be willing to demonstrate it to you, for example researchers at your current institution.
Most importantly, have passion, a growth mindset, and be open-minded. Remember, skills can be taught, but passion cannot. You also should read as much as you possibly can; there is a saying in science that ‘a day in the library is worth a year in the lab’.
2.7 How can I prepare for PhD admission interviews?
Firstly, try not to be stressed and just be yourself. The PhD admission interview is not only about people choosing you. It’s also about you choosing your supervisors, and if done well, should really just feel like a chat between two parties interested in working together.
Next, be prepared to answer why you want to do a PhD and explain it clearly – it is surprising how many applicants are not able to answer this question during interviews!
It’s always good to have a general idea of what’s going on and what’s new in your field. PhD study requires an active learning attitude and pursuit of knowledge. As a PhD student, you will be expected to read papers regularly, without specifically being instructed which papers to read – therefore at interview you should be ready to respond when people ask you ‘tell us about a paper you read recently that you enjoyed or found particularly interesting’. This question aims to evaluate the strength of your passion and how much you know about the papers and the significance of the work.
2.8 How do I tackle PhD rejections?
Be prepared that the PhD application itself takes lots of time and effort, and it can be crushing when that time and effort is not rewarded with an offer.
However, please try not to internalise it. Rejections are extremely common at all levels of academia; even top professors get papers rejected by journals, or their bids for research grants rejected. In the world of work also, it is extremely normal for even highly competent and qualified candidates to receive many rejections before they receive a job offer. Think also of your favourite famous sportspeople: do they always score every goal or win every game? No, but they are still considered excellent.
‘Failure’ is not the end but instead, it is part of the process. It is often a sign that your application needs some refinement and tailoring, but sometimes your application is in fact perfectly good – there’s just someone else who was a slightly better fit for that particular role, and they had to choose one. Luck absolutely plays a part. It is not uncommon to be rejected from one opportunity, only to get an offer from a better opportunity.
So, keep trying! Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not good enough.