Jess Drake (aka @soilduck) suggested she write a post on how to get into a PhD program a little while ago. I thought it would be a good follow up to Ehsan’s popular “Should you do a PhD?” because it can be surprisingly difficult to get into a program. After helping a few friends and family members through the process of getting in, I am aware of how much ‘insider knowledge’ can be required.

Jess struggled initially to write this post as she only has experience of getting into a science program, so I advised that she just write it for scientists. I was planning to write one a follow up for humanities people. As it happens, I think the majority of the advice she offers holds for both cases. I don’t think a follow up post is needed – but I am open to the idea. Let us know at the end if you think more specific advice is required.

So, you have decided to do a PhD (in science).

You have found something that you are really really passionate about, and you want to learn more. You’ve worked out that a PhD fits in your life plans. You have the income you need, and some savings to get you out of tight spots. You have talked about it with your family and loved ones, and they are all on board the PhD roller-coaster. And you are pretty excited and wondering when you can start!

It is hard not to let the excitement get the better of your judgement. Before starting, you need to find the right university, team and supervisor for you. Remember, you will be dedicating 3+ years of PhD discovery, and you need to make sure you have the right match to make it that much more comfortable and fun.

Here are a few steps to help you find your PhD match.

1. What makes you passionate?

Most science research is conducted in groups with funding, and a specific project is usually worked out in that group. Don’t spend too much time working out a specific topic, just write down some things that stir your curiosity or subjects you are interested in. You’ll use this for your next step.

With that list, also write down types of scientific processes, thinking, modelling, lab work, field work etc you like and don’t like to do. Also have a think about things that are important to you in the work place. That could include things like support, open discussions, amount of input and feedback you need etc. You can use this list to do some research on possible universities, groups and supervisors to find a project and people that suit you.

2. Internet stalking

Before you start talking to specific people, do a bit of research on the web. Have a look at what universities have science programs you are interested in. Have a look at their specific projects, do they match the list? Yes – write it down. No – keep going!

And don’t discriminate based on University rankings. It doesn’t matter where you get the PhD from, but the people and the project do!

Using the matching Unis and groups, find out names of scientists are working on the project and stalk them… a little. Before you approach a potential supervisor, you want to make sure they know their stuff and that they will help you get a PhD. Google their name and see what they are currently and previously working on. Is it the same topic? Slightly different? Very different? You can have a look on any big science databases (like Web of Science or Google Scholar) for their citation record. Have they published much and in what field? Do they publish with many other people and are well connected? If they haven’t published for awhile or not in the field you are interested in, you might want to ask ‘why?’

3. Wave the red flag

You have found an interesting group, done a bit of research on the people and now it is time to go in! Approach the potential supervisor! Everyone is different, but I suggest calling them and sending a follow-up email. Introduce yourself, say you are interested in their research group and your intentions on doing a PhD. Ask them if they have anything available and go from there!

If they don’t reply, don’t be disheartened! Academics can be bad at answering email. Try again, or someone else in their group. You could also contact the School’s PhD advisor or administration contacts and ask them about the best way to get in contact with the potential supervisor. If the potential supervisor never replies, cross them off the list! It means they are probably too busy and you don’t need a supervisor who can’t get back to you about things.

4. You can interview too

If you get called in for an interview (and you probably will) use this opportunity to do some of your own interviewing. This is when you pull out that second list. Find out more about the project and what the team does, if there is funding and what type/how much. Ask your potential supervisor about how the team works, what support is like and the facilities.

If you are able, ask some of their current and past students about the supervisor, team, uni, facilities and any other important questions on your list. Is the supervisor prompt and helpful? Are they away a lot? Do they know lots about the subject? Ask them about the facilities and have a look at them. Is there everything there that you need? Is the lab up to date or do they have access to another lab through funding/on campus?

Finding a supervisor and team that fits your personality and research is key to a harmonious, productive and successful PhD. Take plenty of time researching potential supervisors.

5. Wave the white flag

After you have interviewed and researched a few places, have a look at your lists again. Which place fits most of your questions? Do you have to toss up between some good and bad things? Are there a few options? Take plenty of time to make decisions. Don’t think about it for a week or two, and then come back and look at your lists. And when deciding, try to be flexible! It is better to have an awesome supervisor and good facilities in an area your care a little less about than a not-so-good supervisor in an area you are more interested in; a not-so-good supervisor may mean a more stressful PhD journey.

Once you have settled on one or more options then you are ready to apply! Call them, contact them, and write the applications. Put in a few applications if you can; no harm in having more choice. Then wait to see where you will be heading next!


It may seem like a lot to think about and do, but remember it is 3+ years of your life. And it isn’t just about a PhD, it is also about learning, growing and having the best opportunity to enjoy the research and then progress with a future career (academic, research or otherwise). And finding a place that is right for you will ensure a happy PhD.

One last thing: If you have a specific project in mind I still recommend going through the same steps, even if you know the perfect person. You want to be absolutely sure it is the right place and person for you. There are pluses and minuses to going this way… but that is a topic for another post.

Do you have anything you think should be added to this advice? Perhaps something you wish had known before you started looking? Let us know in the comments.

Editor’s note: Both Jess and I are Australians. I am not sure how much the advice holds in other countries, particularly in the United States. I hope those with experience will write in and enlighten us as to how it works elsewhere so this post can be a good starting point for many potential students.

Related Posts

Should I do a PhD?

Living happily ever after

%d bloggers like this: