Wednesday 7 November 2018

The Calm Before The Storm

Hello there after a year of silence. I intended to post on some of my misdeeds over the summer, but this unfortunately slipped my mind. Perhaps this was for the best, as I can directly follow on from my previous post. As a quick precis of that post, I am redirecting this blog to provide a personal account of applying for PhDs. I was inspired to do this by two sources: 1) a blog by a colleague of mine abut what actual PhD life is like; 2) a blog post about a researcher's personal experience of the trials and triumphs of post doctoral life. Both gave me insight into my future career path that I was unaware of and could not have hoped to have obtained from a workshop on how to apply for this, that and the other. I hope to provide the same resource for the antecedant step in the academic pipeline so that the reader might have a better idea about what application is like and whether a PhD is for them.

As a brief prelude, I'll give a brief picture of my position prior to application. I have wanted to pursue a career in academia since I started my integrated master's course in palaeontology and evolution at the University of Bristol. My vague understanding of PhDs at that time was that they were competitive. To that end, I decided to start building a portfolio of research and CV candy that I could use as ammunition for future PhD applications. These were derived primarily from research projects which have given me a record of publication and a range of practical skills (coding, CT data segmentation, statistical methods ect), and attendance of scientific conferences. While I undertook these endevours with the endgoal of PhDs in mind, I also genuinely wanted to conduct research for research's sake and had a great time doing so. Indeed, they helped confirm for me that academia was what I wanted to do. In my experience, it was hugely worthwhile to dip a toe into research before taking the plunge.

So why am I writing now? Because I have now had 'the talk'. In a meeting with my personal tutor and MSc supervisor Professor Michael Benton, he asked the dreaded question of 'so what next after uni?'. My answer: 'PhD'. Mike's first bit of advice was to apply for everything that interests you. There is no point doing a PhD that you are not going to enjoy, but equally it is perhaps too risky to apply for just that 'perfect project'. I had that perfect project lined up, incidentally with Mike as a supervisor, and so was a little surprised when he said this. Mike's next point made sense of the need to apply for multiple projects, a point that I had failed to fully appreciate - PhD's are not just competitive; they are BLOODY competitive.

Funding, at least for sciences in the UK, is part of what drives this competition. While the UK government now offers PhD loans, I was not keen on the idea of another £50,000 debt on top of my undergraduate loans. Instead, most science PhDs are funded by grants from a number of different bodies. The Royal Society or the Leverhulme Foundation offer grants to support research projects, which in turn are then undertaken by a PhD fellow. The largest UK funding body, however, is the National Environmental Research Council (NERC). NERC was another PhD-related entity that I was vaguely aware of, but have only recently begun to get to grips with, again with surprises in store. Note: every funding-related point in this post relates to NERC and NERC funded PhDs specifically.

NERC has a number of different subgroups which award PhD funds depending on the location of the hosting university. I will be applying for a number of projects at the University of Bristol and so NERC funding for these projects comes under the long-winded acronym of NERC GW4+ DTP2. GW4+ refers to the four West Country (Great Western - GW) universities of Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Cardiff plus (+) non-university institutions like the British Geological Survey or British Antarctic Survey). DTP is simply the doctoral training partnership. I have no idea what the 2 refers to.

I previously thought that I would apply for a funded PhD position in competition with other applicants, and  that the PhD supervisor(s) would make their choice. Not so. Instead I will be in competition with all other applicants applying to GW4+ hosted PhDs, for around 30 NERC funding awards. This changed the way I viewed the process of the PhD application and just how competitive it is. What I did not realise is that the project and the candidate are somewhat separate elements. A supervisor submits a PhD for funding consideration and NERC accepts it if it will further NERC's overarching research goals (detailed on their website). NERC then awards funding to a PhD candidate applying for a project under consideration for funding, regardless of what the project is, based on the strength of that candidate. Effectively, NERC chooses which projects are bound to advance their research goals, then makes a calculated investment in a candidate who is likely to make them a return on that investment by completing any of those projects, and in their potential future career as a post-doctoral researcher. Of course, your worthiness is still partly contingent on your choice of PhD project. It would be a poor investment on the part of NERC to fund a student with a stunning track record in isotope geochemistry for a considered project on elateroid beetle parasitology, despite the individual academic viabilities of the candidate and the project. Consequently, Mike's initial advice about applying for multiple PhD projects at a variety of institutions is not just to increase your chances of getting a PhD outright, but to increase the chances that a research council will consider you to be a worthy candidate for funding.

Next came a point about interviews. I will be able to provide a much more personal account of this part of the process down the line, but for now I will focus again on what I gained from my conversation with Mike. As I thought that the supervisor selected the candidate, I thought that the interview panel would include the supervisor, or be conducted solely by the supervisor themself. Not so. As NERC is assessing potential for investment, the panel consists of NERC-selected individuals who have nothing to do with the project. According to Mike, the interval will then proceed through three main phases: past (your previous academic track record - credentials), present (why this PhD - show your passion) and future (what will you do after your PhD - future return on the investment). Finally, Mike mentioned that during the interview it may be of use to have physical records of your achievements to hand - handing the panel the first page of your published scientific paper will have a powerful impact.

At this point I am feeling quite confident about application. There are several projects which would be a good fit for me and the experiences gained throughout my undergraduate degree, both research-wise and module-wise give me the credentials to back this up on my applications. While it has meant fewer family holidays during the summer than I would have liked, I feel that my investment in this academic ammunition will pay off. The proof, however, will be in the pudding.