A Quick Easy Guide to Applying for a PhD

Are you thinking of doing a PhD? Now is the time to be applying! Choosing to continue your studies in chemistry is a big decision in itself, but once you’ve made your mind up to delve further into research here a whole other set of decisions to be made. As a second year PhD student myself, I’ve gone through the application process, and seen many of my colleagues make a few mistakes along the way that may have been avoided if they’d have had someone to guide them through a little bit more. Here, I hope to give you a quick guide to the process, and hopefully steer you towards the right PhD for you.

1. Chemistry

One of the most important decisions you really need to think about is what area of chemistry you want to study. You’ll be working in this area for at least 3 years and, although it is possible to move into other areas of research afterwards, it will be easier to progress through an academic career if you apply for positions afterwards in a field you already have expertise in. Don’t feel that you have to continue what you did in your Masters – it may be the easiest option, as you already know the chemistry fairly well, but if it doesn’t really interest you, you might tire of it during the next few years. Remember, you’re going to have to do extensive literature reading, presentations, reports and finally a whole thesis on this work, so if you find it boring you’re really going to struggle. Think about what lectures and labs you’ve really enjoyed through your undergraduate years, and what you feel you could talk about with real enthusiasm.

If you feel really unsure about what area you’d like to do, try talking to current lecturers and postgraduate students in your department. They’re a little bit more experienced than you, and might be able to paint a picture of what to expect from a certain topic. You might have gotten the wrong impression of some areas of chemistry, and having a quick chat with someone who works in it every singly day might help you decide. Also, speaking to your personal tutor could help you realise what you excel in already, and what they personally think would be best for you. Whatever you do, don’t rush this decision – it’s very important and needs careful consideration.

2. University

So, now you’ve decided roughly on what area of chemistry you’d like to work in, what next? This tip ties in very closely with the next one, but you need to think very carefully about what university you want to apply to. Although overall university rankings can be swayed easily and don’t always accurately represent the quality of a university, you can view tables judged only on the research quality, such as this one for UK universities, which is the most important area to consider when applying for a PhD. Obviously, this isn’t everything, but it is definitely worth thinking about. A university that is well regarded for its research quality will definitely help you move forward in your career.

Furthermore, as you did in your undergraduate studies, you will have other factors which matter when choosing where to study. Which city you’d like to live in, for example, can make a huge difference. I personally don’t like big cities, but some students thrive in a buzzing city atmosphere. Other points such as the the campus, facilities, support available and accommodation will no doubt come into play, and you have to think about them just as much as you did for your Masters degree.

If you can, try to take a look at the universities you’re considering in person. Some chemistry departments organise tours if you show your interest in studying there, so you can get a good feel for the place and if you’ll like the school.

A PhD is more than just working in the lab, so you might want to find out about what other training and educational activities you’ll have access to, in order to supplement your lab work and bulk out your CV. Furthermore, if you have particular hobbies or interests you’d like to continue at your new university, you might want to take a look on their Students Union website and see what they have to offer. You might even spot new societies or interest groups which you’d like to take up.

3. Supervisor

This is a very important thing to consider, and possibly not for the reason you are thinking. Of course, for some the biggest appeal for some would be to work for a highly successful professor, with high impact papers and a well-established research group which will help you gain recognition and springboard you into your career. If this is what is really important to you, by all means take this route, but be careful. Remember that supervisors such as these will be incredibly busy – they are often heads of school, have to travel a lot, have many commitments, not only in their teaching, and you might find it difficult to see them when you have issues. You might find yourself spending more time with a lab manager or post doc, so bare this in mind. For some, more independence is a good thing, as you get to organise your research  and make decisions about what to do next yourself. For others, you might feel lost and confused about what to do next, especially if your results aren’t quite what you expect. Before applying to anyone, try and think which would be you. If you think you’d appreciate more time and attention from your supervisor, an up and coming researcher with a reasonably new research group may be for you. They’re often hungry for results in order to gain their reputation, and so won’t become indifferent or complacent, like some professors.

If you’re trying to decide between a few supervisors always try to meet them in person. From my own experience and those of many PhD students I’ve met, a good relationship with your supervisor is critical to your mental well-being during your studies and, ultimately, the success of your research. I’ve seen students who severely dislike their supervisor, and it’s made every day a struggle for them, regardless of how well the research was going. You need to think you could easily spend the next few years working with them, and if your personalities clash, it really won’t be easy. I personally suffer from stress very easily, so I needed to know I would get on well with my supervisor, to help me relax and work at my best.

4. Personal Statement

Almost every university will ask you to write a personal statement to support your application, so you might want to start thinking about that. You don’t have to write a novel, just explain why you want to do a PhD and what you hope to use it for in the future. If you want to work in academia or industry, for example, explain why that’s your goal, and how a PhD will help you get there. The key is to be enthusiastic. You might also want to point out some of the modules you did in your undergraduate degree which might be relevant to the work you’d be doing, or go into some detail about lab projects you did which show off your practical skills. Make sure you mention any extra experience you have such as summer lab projects, time in industry, etc. Don’t panic or stress about writing your statement – just be honest, and let yourself shine through.

5. Make Sure It’s What You Want

My final, and most important, piece of advice is to make sure a PhD is what you really want to do. The drop-out rate for PhD students seems to be on the increase, as students realise they don’t have to stick with it if they really don’t want to. PhDs are hard work, and if you’re not sure if it’s for you, you might struggle with it. For example, a girl in my year had already decided 2 months into her PhD that she wanted to quit, and has now moved on to train as a teacher, which she loves. Don’t do a PhD just because it’s the easiest option. Yes, it means you don’t have to try and find a job, and you can just stay at your current university with some of the same friends, and not have to meet new people, but is it what you really want? Do you want to work in the lab every day, doing research that may or may not work? Can you handle the stress of reactions not working that chemically should work perfectly? Can you handle long days, possible weekend work (depending on who you work for) and having to take home with you, particularly towards the end? I’m not trying to put you off here, a lot of people enjoy their PhD, but I think a lot of applicants really need to consider if they’re up to it before they take the plunge.

Also, bear in mind that you may have to keep working after your funding has ran out, to make sure your thesis is complete, so be prepared to spend the next few years saving for those months with no income. A lot of people think a PhD is the financially safer option, which it may seem at first, but months of writing up with no income isn’t ideal!


So, that’s it! A quick and easy guide to getting started on the PhD process. My goal wasn’t to scare you or put you off, but I think it really helps to be fully informed before making a big decision like this. Now, you know everything you need to start preparing for your postgraduate life, and I wish you all the luck in the world!


One thought on “A Quick Easy Guide to Applying for a PhD

  1. Pingback: Thinking of Postgraduate Study? | The Element of Nature

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