Finding a perfect PhD is somewhat like dating: there is no such thing as a soulmate-PhD, but some are still better than others; the number of options seems overwhelming at first, but most of them crumble once inspected carefully; and, of course, once committed, the choice will significantly influence the rest of your life. To make it even more challenging, the soulmate-PhD problem is also expected to be dealt with at the most vulnerable point in the lifetime of a student—as if by Murphy’s law, the deadlines usually land somewhere between the final in the sequence of many exams and the Masters thesis defense. Under such conditions, even the most genuinely motivated students might be at risk of falling into the trap of uncertainty and marrying a PhD that does not fully capture their interests and expectations.
This blogpost is meant to serve as a roadmap to your perfect PhD. It will push you to reflect on your intentions and research interests, introduce a simple framework for tracking your progress, suggest several common search engines for PhD vacancies, and walk you through the general process of writing applications and preparing for interviews. It is mostly comprised of personal experiences and insights, with occasional references to useful tools and resources. Importantly, the process described here primarily applies to graduate schools and PhD positions in (Western) Europe and in life/social sciences (primarily cognitive science and neurosciences); while steps 0–4 should be widely relevant, steps 4–8 might diverge for PhD applications in other academic systems or fields.
Step 0: Clarify
First things first, since the educational systems differ largely between countries and academic fields, it is important to understand how graduate-level education works in your area of choice. Generally speaking (for Europe and life/social sciences), a broad distinction exists between obtaining a PhD through a graduate school and through working on a specific project/grant.
Graduate schools (doctoral programs)
They usually take 4 years in total, and the first year might entail rotations through different labs, coursework, and exams. Positions are open for a larger number of students (e.g., 10–15) and the calls for applications generally close very early, sometimes even 12 months before the envisaged start of the program. They almost always require some form of a statement of research interests, but often do not require a full research proposal. They usually organise large interview days for all applicants, and take up to 2–3 months between different rounds of the application process.
Graduate schools in Europe generally do not have tuition fees, and usually offer either a salaried position or a stipend. (Do make sure to understand the difference between a salary and a stipend.) Some examples of graduate schools in Europe include Max Planck School of Cognition (or any IMPRS); Imaging the Mind programme in Salzburg; international PhD program in Neuroscience in Brussels, or Gatsby Computational Neuroscience program in London.
Specific lab/research project
Specific labs or research institutes often hire PhD students on salaried positions. These positions are tied to specific grants, and usually specify the research project—which means you do not have to write a research proposal yourself, but also that you have very little freedom in developing your own topic. They are likely to be advertised for only one or a few PhD candidates, and often have a quick selection process and short waiting time between acceptance and starting date.
On the other hand, you could also develop your own research proposal in collaboration with your prospective mentor and apply for a grant that would fund your PhD research of choice (e.g., DAAD in Germany or FWO in Belgium). Advertised positions in labs are usually salaried—you are employed as university staff, might have some teaching obligation, and generally do not have to pay any tuition. Grant applications for your own project can entail either a salaried position or a stipend.
The choice between these two general approaches to doing your PhD—through a grad school or in direct affiliation with a specific lab—thus largely depends on how narrowly defined your interests are, but also on how much time you have. When is the good time to start worrying about your PhD? If you begin slowly looking into it (steps 0–5) about 12 months in advance, you will probably have no reason to worry at all. Again, some programs will close the applications even more than 12 months in advance, but there are also vacancies that give you a job within a week after the deadline. One thing is for sure, though—the sooner you start, the more choice you’ll have.
Step 1: Set the intention
Before delving into the actual work, it is immensely important to set aside a moment of time and have “the talk” with yourself. The talk will include questions such as:
- Why do I want to do a PhD? Is it because I really like research or because I’m not sure what else to do?
- What’s underlying my motivation? Is it that my mom wants me to get a title of a Doctor, or do I genuinely enjoy interpreting my immediate reality using complicated equations and obscure theories? (It’s a false dichotomy, but you get the point.)
- Do I know enough about what a PhD—and academia in general—really looks like? Am I okay with having to move cities or countries in search for a job? There are many more PhD graduates than available tenured positions—is it worth it? How do I feel about academic writing?
It is important to get these things straight because a PhD is a peculiar kind of a job: you’ll be quite underpaid for the next 4–6 years compared to what you could be earning in the industry, the prospects of job stability are depressingly low, and maintaining the work-life balance will be especially challenging. On the other hand, you will have the freedom to do what you love, and the pleasure of enjoying the stimulating intellectual vibe of the academic world. Talk to people in academia, but also talk to people who left academia. Confront yourself with both the positive and the negative sides of doing a PhD now to avoid potential disillusionment later.
Getting the perfect PhD, like getting any other perfect job, will take time and effort. That is why you should set a strong intention to persevere through all the clicks through the search engines, filling out annoying forms, moments of desperation when staring into your empty 10-paged research proposals, and the agonizing self-doubt that necessarily accompanies the preparation for interviews. You might apply for only one PhD and get it immediately—but you might also end up writing 20 different applications. Brace yourself!
Step 2: Brainstorm
Finding a perfect PhD will mean finding a PhD that is perfectly tailored to your research interests. But what are they? You probably have a general idea of a field in which you’d like to do your PhD—or maybe you’re one of those who already have a clearly formulated research question in mind. In both cases, it is useful to brainstorm all areas, topics and subtopics you might be interested in. This will help you to either specify your interests a bit further, or to broaden the options in case you already have a narrowly defined research proposal.
In my case, what I did was took an A4 paper and literally just blurted out everything that sounded cool to me. Imagine yourself in 5 years, standing at a cocktail party and engaging in a conversation with an interesting interlocutor who asks you about your job—how would you complete the answer “I study/do/research _____” to make it sound the coolest to you? This is the moment when you get to dream a bit. Write down whatever comes to your mind. Do not evaluate before writing and question whether you have the skills or knowledge for this or that—just note down whatever pops up. Use a large paper and storm as long as you can; this should be an exhaustive itinerary, a mind-map of all research topics that could possibly interest you.
Step 3: Define your query
Now that you have mapped out all your interests, you can pick-and-choose your top priorities. Verbalizing your interests in this way will help you navigate the choice explosion that you will soon encounter in the search engines, and it will also minimize the fear of missing out on good opportunities by knowing that you have constrained your queries within the desirable range.
There are several things to consider when defining your search terms:
- Research interests as keywords. Using your brainstorm paper, define several keywords to start from, ideally 3–5. I went with 4 general research areas (neuroscience, cognitive science, brain, cognition), and one particular methodology (brain-computer interfaces). You now have a starting point for your (first) search.
- Geography and language. This can be tricky. Academic research is usually conducted in English, so, in theory, your geographical constraints are very low. However, you might prefer some countries over others, or you might be working in an area where a specific language knowledge is a prerequisite. Keep in mind that restricting yourself to only one country will constrain your search significantly—so depending on how narrow your research interests are, you might want to broaden your search to different countries.
- Salary. Nobody is doing the PhD for good money, but you shouldn’t be settling for something that’s way below your standard either. What’s the lowest salary you’d go for? The net PhD salaries generally range from the minimum 14553£/year in the UK, over the average of 65% TVL13 (~1700€ a month) in Germany, to a bit over 2000€/month in Belgium or ~3500CHF in Switzerland. (This website offers a nice overview.) Be careful to check whether the offered salary is gross or net; keep in mind that salaried positions oftentimes entail a small raise every year and stipends don’t; and make sure to understand what your additional expenses will be if you get a stipend (e.g., health insurance, social contribution, etc.). Salary should not be your primary criterion when searching for a PhD, but it might serve as an exclusion criterion in extreme cases.
- Program type. Would you prefer having 3 or 4 years for your PhD? Do you feel like doing coursework in a grad school, or you would be happier with a specific project in a concrete lab? When do you want to start—do you have enough time to wait for long selection processes of graduate schools? Do you have a research proposal in mind, or would you aim for vacancies that don’t require it? This should determine your preference for a grad school or an individual approach.
Step 4: Excel before you leap
There’s a certain excitement in delving into the enormous pool of possible options for your PhD when you first start searching, but it can easily become overwhelming if you do not keep a good track of your queries. Searching for jobs is always a mess, and you want to get that mess out of your head and into a neatly organised space (somewhat akin to extended mind). That’s where a good old Excel sheet is about to become your close companion.
What do you track in your ultimate-PhD-finder Excel sheet? In my experience, at least two tabs: one with the list of search engines and sources that you need to keep checking every day/week/month (more in Step 5), and one with the vacancies you are considering applying for.
My ‘Consider applying’ tab included the following columns: country, university, and topic of research for the particular vacancy, as well as necessary documents for the application, deadlines, salary, hyperlink, and status (e.g., writing application, preparing documents, second round interview). This step might seem redundant to an uninitiated observer but in my experience it was indispensable—when the uncertainty kicks in and anxiety takes over, a quick glimpse at your little Excel sheet will give you that well-needed ‘I’ve got it all figured out’ feeling.
My ‘Search engines and sources’ tab listed the names and hyperlinks to the search engines I was using (more on that in Step 5) and the intended frequency of searching—if a search engine listed 5-10 new vacancies every day, I’d note down ‘check daily’, but mostly I would indicate to check weekly or monthly. In the columns I would then track the dates when searching and keywords I used. Again, this might seem like a massive overkill—admittedly, maybe it is—but at least for me it was incredibly helpful. Approaching the process of searching for a PhD programmatically allows you to avoid missing out on opportunities yet never feel too overwhelmed with their profusion.
There might be other things you could keep track of while searching: interesting labs, names of potential PIs, your keywords (if you prefer Excel to paper), and so on. But this should be enough to get you started with the actual search.
Step 5: May the querying begin
So where to search?
General search engines for academic jobs
These should be your starting point and will give you a good general idea about what’s on offer.
- Scholarshipdb.net is a scholarship and research job search engine which contains, at the moment of writing, around 200,000 research positions worldwide, from which around 25,000 are doctoral/PhD positions. Needless to say, you should try out your different keywords here, and you should revisit it for new ads often.
- FindaPhD is a comprehensive database of around 5000 PhD vacancies, mostly focused on UK (but not exclusively). Well worth checking out.
- Euraxess is a database of EU-funded research vacancies of all sorts and sizes. Here you would often find PhD positions within Marie Curie or ERC projects, but non-EU-funded research positions are also advertised. The current count for a ‘first stage researcher’ is around 4500, and both European and worldwide projects are advertised.
- Sciencejobs.org advertises scientific positions in and out of academia. It is mostly geared towards US-based positions and oftentimes ads are for postdoctoral rather than PhD fellows, but it might be worth giving it a round of search.
- Fastepo.com is a great resource for all-things-PhD, including reviews on salary ranges per country, educational systems, guides on how to write your application documents, and much more. They also offer a small selection of PhD vacancies.
Specialised search engines
And then there are more specialised search engines that you should dig out yourself depending on your preferences. For example, I was particularly interested in finding a position in Berlin, for which the engine of Technical University Berlin was quite useful. Googling for specialised databases in your field/country/city of choice (e.g., neuroscience in Berlin; social psychology research in Prague; data science PhDs in Germany) will probably result in several pages that will take you to the listings in your specific city or area of interest.
These types of search engines or websites are particularly useful to get a feeling for the peculiarities of doing a PhD in a specific area of interest and in a specific place. Perhaps there is an umbrella-structure for scholarships that you should know about; maybe there are institutes and companies that are closely affiliated with universities that offer interesting PhD opportunities; and potentially you discover vacancies that are not listed elsewhere in general search engines. Either way, it’s worth a shot.
Universities dump all their vacancies in one place, and it is useful to dig out that one place for different universities of interest. For example, University of Cambridge lists all jobs in bulk, while University of Copenhagen makes it easy by listing the PhD vacancies separately. So if your main constraint is a city or a specific university at which you would like to do your PhD, this is your strongest strategy.
Interesting labs or research centres
You know some people who are doing cool research? Or you Google “best labs for this-or-that in some-country” and it spits out a few big names? Write down those names and visit their websites—they will probably explain how to get a position there, or even list vacancies. You can also note down if it is worth checking the lab’s website more often for new vacancies. For example, research centres like Max Planck Institute for Brain and Cognitive Sciences or Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience meticulously update their websites for vacancies, and virtually every research institute or lab that maintains a website will have the vacancies indicated loud and clear.
What else to say other than: search, triage, Excel, repeat. At the end of this step, you should have a general plan sketched out in your Excel sheet: when you glance at it, you should immediately see which programs you are planning to apply for, as well as what you need to prepare, when the deadlines are, and how many other awesome options you have even if this particular application doesn’t work out. Having a clear plan B—or C or D or Z—could mean a lot for your mental well-being. You will still keep on searching through the engines—especially once you start working on your applications and are in desperate need for an easy distraction from writing—but once this first round is done, you should already start preparing the documents.
Step 6: Prepare the paperwork
All this search was fun, right? Now the actual hard work starts. Scan all the commonly needed documents (diplomas, transcripts, passport, certificates supporting your CV) and keep them in an easily accessible place on your laptop. Prepare your CV. I have no clue how to make a good CV, and frankly I think in academia content counts more than style—but from what I’ve heard: less is more, don’t add photos, and don’t do Europass. For more useful resources, check Elsevier’s guide and tips and tricks by FindaPhD.com.
And then you will have to actually start writing, producing real content. Be it a letter of motivation, a statement of research interests, an essay, or a full-blown research proposal, every graduate school or research lab will require you to explain why they should employ you, and how you are planning to fit into their research scope. Again, detailed guidelines on writing a good statement of research interests or a research proposal are beyond both the scope of this post and the level of my expertise. But generally speaking, it is very useful to write a broad statement of your motives and research interests even before starting with specific application forms. Articulate your motivation for doing a PhD in a couple of sentences. Spell out your academic strengths and several key educational achievements in 200 words. Define and illustrate your primary research interests (that brainstorming paper might come in handy again) in one paragraph. These will be your building blocks for any kind of writing task or format—you can mix and match them into motivational letters, answers to questions in application forms, essays on research interests, or whatever else the application requires.
Give yourself enough time for this step. Start writing even if you do not have a good idea yet of what you want to write—the thoughts will unfold more easily on paper. Have your write-up checked by a colleague for clarity and coherence. Err on side of specificity rather than generality; everyone likes to see a determined student with a clear goal in mind—even if you yourself are far from certain about what your goals are. Remember that your application is not in any way binding (unless you are applying for a full-blown grant—and possibly not even then), and you can always change your mind about the exact paradigm and research question several times once you get the position.
Apply for different positions, but keep in mind that quality beats quantity. Copy-pasting paragraphs can generally work, but remember to tailor them to the vacancy. And finally, don’t forget to reward yourself after each successful submission, regardless of the outcome—each of them is a step closer to your perfect PhD!
Step 7: Kill the interview
Most application processes will include some type of an interview in the second round of selection. It can be anything between a ten-minute Skype chat to a three-day program of interviews and lab visits. It can consist of the interviewer asking you short structured questions, or it can be you giving a 20 minute talk followed by endless Q&As. You might only be asked about your past research experience, or it might require you to develop a whole research proposal. Either way, it is important to keep in mind that usual recommendations for job interviews usually (at least in my limited experience) do not apply to academic interviews: no, they will probably not care that much if you do not wear a tuck-in shirt, and no, they will probably not ask you to list your 3 most positive and negative traits.
What they will likely question is your expertise and understanding of the content you presented: if you mention a certain analysis, make sure you know exactly how it works; if you ground your research question in a theory, make sure you know all about the competing approaches as well. Make sure to check whether your examiners have written about the topic of your proposal before. Relate your ideas to the previous or current work of the lab you are interviewing for. Show your youthful enthusiasm for innovative ideas and creative solutions but stay as specific as possible.
Finally, remember that practice is the best of all instructors. You won’t be nervous if you have practiced your presentation out loud and thought deeply about potential questions. Consider doing vocal exercises to warm up before your interview. And if you are still nervous before you walk in to face your examination committee, remember that you still have plans B-C-S-and-Z in your Excel sheet. Worst comes to worst, this interview is a chance to practice for one of your future interviews.
And that’s it! If followed earnestly, this step-by-step procedure should help you find endless lists of PhD options, navigate you through them according to your interests, and assist you in organising the application process. I hope you will find it as helpful as I did when maneuvering to my PhD. Let us know in the comments your own advice or personal experiences!