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How I Chose a “Grad School” (UK edition!)

Posted in: PhD Survival
How I Chose a "Grad School" (UK edition!)

To accompany Dan’s article on choosing a grad school, I thought I’d relay my experiences and thoughts on this subject. As Dan said, these articles were prompted by a suggestion emailed to us by one of our readers (thanks Vida). We are always glad to hear you article suggestions so if you’d like us to cover something, feel free to drop us a line.

Being in the UK, my experiences of grad school and the grad school entry process will be a bit different from Dan’s US experience because the systems are quite different.

The first thing people from the UK might ask is “what exactly is grad school?” (I certainly did). Well after looking it up on Wikipedia I found that Grad school is the American term for any institute that offers post-graduate training – masters, PhD’s etc. Glad that’s cleared up then.

Like Dan, I was extremely naive in how I chose where to do my PhD (in fact in the end I didn’t really make much of a choice at all). So this is probably more of a “how not to”.

Having typed out my story, I can see that it is fairly long, so I’ll give you the quick reference version of my advice first, and then my own experiences below.

My quick-reference advice on choosing a PhD position

1. Choose several subject areas you are interested in – unless you have a specific reason, don’t narrow your options by sticking with one topic.
2. Visit a lot of labs for interviews so you can compare and contrast.
3. Have a list of standard questions you want to ask at each interview. Ask about expected working hours, conditions, what former PhD students from the lab have gone on to do, how often the PI is around, is in the lab… and of course ask lab members (in private) whether they would choose this lab if they had the choice again.
4. Realise that you really have to devote a good chunk of time and attention to your decision – it’s very important.
5. Going for the most famous PI/lab is not necessarily the best move. Like Dan said, a PhD is an apprenticeship, so you want as much support as you can get. In the big labs you will probably be mentored by a post-doc, which kind of defeats the purpose of going to a big lab.
6. Consider the level of funding attached to the position. In the UK at least, funding varies widely depending on the source and funding level will, of course, seriously influence your quality of life during your studies.
7. As mentioned by Th2 in the comments in Dan’s post, you also need to take the cost of living in different cities into account along with the funding.

Once you have a PhD you might want to look at my general tips for PhD students and thesis writing tips.

How I “chose” my PhD position

After completing my bachelors I new I wanted to do a PhD at some point since, to me, it was the next natural step in my career. You work (hard), you get paid and you get a nice shiny degree at the end. Sounded like a good deal to me.

In the last year of my Bachelor’s I did all of the right things. I applied for interviews for a range of places that I was interested in. I was already in one of the top UK centres for Bioscience (The University of Dundee) so I applied to various labs there, Oxford and Cambridge. I did the interviews and was offered a few places. Everything was lined up.

Then I had a bit of a brain fart, which changed everything.

Besides science, my other love is music and at that time I was in a band that was surely destined for stardom. I decided that rather than go straight into a PhD, I would get a job as a technician for a year or two and keep playing in the band.

This made perfect sense on paper. Undergrad teaching in the UK leaves students woefully equipped for practical work compared to other countries. I thought that with one or two years of practical experience under my belt I would do a much better job of my PhD – and I was probably right.

But the job search didn’t go well and after 6 months of looking I still didn’t have anything. The UK job market was and still is saturated with people with bachelor’s degrees so finding your first job is extremely difficult. [note: I restricted my search to the northern half of the UK – jobs are more plentiful down south but I suspect the market is just as saturated].

After 6 months of playing music and stacking supermarket shelves I’d had enough and was missing science so I called the PhD advisor at Dundee University and asked if anything was still available. By now it was December and all of the conventional places were gone but there was one possibility – a Wellcome Institute-funded position with a relatively new research group in the department.

I made the grade required for the funding – Wellcome funding normally requires a 1st class honours degree, but I scraped in with a “very good” upper second class – and I went along for the interview.

In my eagerness to get back into science, I didn’t do any of the things you are meant to do when choosing a PhD position. I didn’t ask the lab members how they liked it there, I didn’t ask what previous PhD students in the lab had gone on to do and I didn’t look at any other possible positions (well, there weren’t any).

The project looked quite interesting to me (compared to stacking supermarket shelves) and the people in the lab seemed ok. So I signed on the dotted line and started a month later.

Having put myself in a difficult position by opting out of the traditional route to a PhD I landed on my feet to some extent. I had very good funding from Wellcome (more than most of my peers) in a well equipped lab, in an institute with lots of friendly people in it and in a town I knew well and liked.

But two very important things were very wrong. Without going into details, the lab ethos was wrong for me and my project was not terribly well planned or defined, resulting in a fairly miserable 3-4 years. I got my PhD in the end but it took me several years to recover my enthusiasm for science afterwards.

The moral of the story is that the decision-making process when choosing a PhD is extremely important – whether you are in the UK or anywhere else in the world. And the bottom line is that my PhD experience could have been much better had I had paid more attention to that process.

What are your thoughts on choosing a PhD position?

Photo: ffi

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