It’s that time of the year again. And no, I am not talking about Christmas. I am talking about Graduate School Applications. Chances are that if pursuing a Master’s or a PhD has crossed your mind you will already be in the midst of scanning through dozens of Programmes/Scholarships and trying to figure out a way to make your application stand out from the rest. It’s a very busy, stressful and time-consuming period, but also one that will determine the next few years of your life and career.
It’s hard to believe that only one year has gone by since I myself was going through this process. And I would certainly not be where I am today without the invaluable help, guidance, advice and corrections I got from the friends and colleagues who selflessly answered my many questions and shared their experience and tips with me. The idea behind this post is to try to give back and pass on those tips that helped me the most and write the entry I would’ve loved to read when I was on the hunt for a PhD.
Find your niche
Each field and programme will have its own requirements, slightly different but still somewhat similar to those of others. My experience is largely limited to the Neuroscience field, but hopefully some of the things I’ll write about will be helpful to other areas of study as well.
Once you are set on the topic or the area you are more drawn to, there are different ways to proceed.
- You might want to go for a structured and funded programme, in which case this brief list of Neuroscience PhD Programmes might be useful to you.
- Four-Year PhD Studentships in Science, list of programmes funded by the Wellcome Trust.
- You might also want to directly check for advertised positions, or see what funding opportunities your preferred country has got in place.
- Programme Directory of the Network of European Neuroscience Schools: a comprehensive list of neuroscience graduate education, schools and programmes in Europe.
- Database of PhD positions in Germany, by the DAAD portal.
- Career and funding options in the UK: an interactive career framework with opportunities in biomedical research within academia and/or industry, compiled by the MRC.
- Research career path and funding opportunities in Spain: a relation of the options within each stage compiled by FECYT.
- Other useful websites: UCL Doctoral Degrees, Find a PhD, PhD Portal.
- Or maybe you already know who you want to work with, in which case you will probably try to contact the group leader directly and try to secure your own funding.
Regardless of the path you decide to follow, the most important thing is that you find the programme that bests suits you and that ticks all the boxes in your list of preferences. You’ll have to work very hard, so you might as well enjoy the ride, the city, and the people around you. Here’s a piece that appeared on Nature not so long ago on exactly that: Postgraduate studies: Find the best fit.
Once you find a direction to follow, you’ll start to navigate an endless feed of application portals, each of them with more steps and boxes to fill in. Don’t despair, there is a pattern (sort of). For the first stage of the application process, you’ll generally have to complete an online form and provide several documents, including your Academic Transcripts/Diplomas, a Proof of Language Proficiency, and at least two reference letters. Some Universities might also require further documentation (Research Proposal or Research Experience Exposé) or have specific requirements such as a limit in the number of pages/words or a particular format to follow. However, the most important documents you’ll have to prepare are the CV and the Personal Statement (a.k.a. Letter of Motivation, Statement of Purpose or Letter of Neverending Edits). These should also be the ones you dedicate the largest proportion of time to.
There are an awful lot of different CV formats, arrangements, and templates. Sometimes the programme will spare you this choice by telling you exactly how they want it. The rest of the times you will have to make a decision. I can only tell you how I went about it. What I first did was to search for several templates online, choose one I liked aesthetically and used it to compile my CV. Easy peasy, right? Not quite.
My first mistake was to completely pack it with everything I had ever done. Every internship and project I did in a lab was there, with a brief description of what I did. After all, everything is important and adds up right? That was followed by a section on Education, one on Additional “Formation”, then went Skills, Awards and even Meeting Attendance. I was happily proud to have managed to cram it all in 2 pages in a format I liked (although I admit I had to reduce page margins and font size to achieve that). Then I sent it to some friends and colleagues whose judgement I trust and asked them what they thought about it (I’ve decided to share this initial version with you, to illustrate my point).
I am so happy I did. To cut the long story short, there was a lot of work to be done. Here are some of the comments that did me well:
- Try to put the most important things on the first page.
- Is the picture really necessary?
- Try to emphasize major stuff by leaving out things (Does conference attendance really need to be there, if you were not presenting? Do you need to put in all the internships with descriptions?).
- “Formation” does not mean education in English.
- Leave out some of the descriptions of every single research project you did or summer internship from high school. Concentrate on your Master’s Thesis and the projects you worked most on.
After correcting accordingly, I decided to ask some friends for their CVs to see what else could be improved, and also to have some examples from my own field. Then followed a series of editing steps until I finally had a version I was no longer embarrassed to send to an Application Committee.
My most important advice for you? This is the time to ask for help from some extra eyes, as many as you can. The more input and corrections you get, the stronger your application will be. A lot of your colleagues will have gone through such processes themselves and will have tips and tricks you are not aware of, because these are gained from experience. Luckily, experience can be easily shared. If you are still not convinced, by all means see my CV before and after going through ‘peer review’ (and the current one here).
This is it. Probably the document that will determine whether you are invited to the interviews or not. It needs to be personal, it needs to reflect your uniqueness, and it needs to get across your reasons and motivation to get the position you want. But most important of all, you need to sweat it. You need to write it, edit it, have it looked at, get it corrected, and then rewrite it and edit it again. Until every sentence makes sense and has a point to make. Until every paragraph fulfils a purpose. Until the whole piece tells a story, your story, the conclusion of which is that you are the perfect match for that position.
When I finished my first draft, I went down the same path I followed for the CV. I sent it to some friends, and I have to say that it was even worse than with the CV. As I would soon learn, my letter was full of clichés and red flags. But of course it was! That’s why they are clichés! And you don’t spot them unless you know where to look. Thankfully, Vilim Štih is the best and he sent me this very useful guide on writing a Letter of Motivation. All the credit goes to him, but the truth is that it helped me so much that I have been sharing it ever since. Hopefully, it will help you spot the weak passages and substantially improve your letter. And if anyone that reads this knows of a better guide, please share it in the comments!
As before, and in parallel to the guide above, here are some of the comments and revisions that helped me improve my letter even more:
- Avoid using sentences that sound like (or are) the description of a lab from the Programme’s website. Instead, really provide arguments on why these people are so interesting to you. Be elaborate and concrete, show that you actually spent a considerable amount of time looking at what people are doing there.
- Detach yourself from very long sentences, they will stop the flow and make the reader lose track of what you are trying to convey.
- Avoid listing too many things (that’s what the CV is for). Choose fewer experiences and write them in more detail.
- Try to find leading lines, and link the different steps that led you to where you are, producing a coherent story. Cohesion will make your letter much stronger.
- Do not use very specific jargon, abbreviations or make any assumptions. The reader might not know what you are referring to.
- Spot any sentence that seems to come out of the blue. Everything you write needs to add something and be connected or lead to something else.
- Take ownership of your luck. You weren’t “fortunate enough to get an internship” here or there. Such opportunities don’t fall from the sky. You are resourceful, you proactively looked for it, you decided to apply and you got it. They chose you for a reason, don’t undermine yourself.
- Walk the walk. Show what you mean. Don’t just say ‘I find your line of work truly inspiring’, or ‘I attended a lecture by Professor X and found it really interesting’. What was interesting? What inspired you from that work? Why was it interesting? In which ways did that experience shape you? Explain it! Make it thrilling, transmit what you feel! The reader needs to become excited with your tale!
- And most importantly, work very hard on why you want to go to that lab. Don’t just say some superficial thing from their website. Read their papers. Propose an experiment you would like to do. Link it to some previous work you’ve done. Show them that their topic is your topic.
Phew! I have the feeling that if I write any more this will no longer be “the entry I would’ve loved to read when I was on the hunt for a PhD”. So I will stop now and leave you with a couple more links I found useful:
- Choosing a Lab and Applying Successfuly – Maya Schuldiner and Tslil Ast, Dept. Molecular Genetics, Weizmann Institute of Science
- How (not) to get a job: Part I and Part II – Cori Bargmann, Current Biology
- How to gain a summer placement in the lab – Gilestro’s lab, ICL
- Unexpected Advice
With that said, good luck with your applications! And don’t forget to eat and enjoy the holidays as well. I will try to find the time between long digestions to write a follow-up post about the second stage of the applications: the dreaded interviews.
Similar posts and other useful links
- Setting Up for Successful Science in Graduate School – Caitlin Vander Weele
- All about PhD Applications – Lucy Lai
- Tips for Postgraduate Applications – Julie Lee
- A series of posts on Neuroscience PhDs – Ashley Juavinett
- Hints and Tips for Writing a Letter of Motivation – Master’s Program in Molecular Medicine, Charité University Medical School, Berlin
- Unexpected Advice – Oriol Pavón
- How to gain a summer placement in the lab – Giorgio Gilestro’s lab, ICL
- Resources from the Ramirez Group – Steve Ramirez
- Postgraduate studies: Find the best fit, Nature
- Job applications: Under the covers, Nature
- How (not) to get a job: Part I and Part II – Cori Bargmann, Current Biology