The Beautiful Hustle of an International PhD Application |

The Beautiful Hustle of an International PhD Application

Your first PhD application can be an eye-opening experience: it’s more like a job application than a normal degree application and involves more work than you might expect. I think it is one thing to say you want to do a PhD and a completely different matter altogether to understand what it takes to get accepted to one, particularly if, like me, you’re applying to study abroad in another country.

Thankfully, this is a learning process and I’ve found that things do get easier. Having experienced it myself I have a few things to share that I believe are key during the ‘hustle’ of an international PhD application.

#1 Do your research

I think one of the things that makes the process of looking and applying for PhDs stressful is that people often start out on their own, without gathering the right information. Since a PhD is going to involve 3-4 years of your life, I think you need to find out all you can about the universities, projects, and supervisors you’re considering. You also need to make sure you check the details for application criteria, deadlines, scholarships and visa requirements.

Another important aspect is the amount of support present for international students but also for graduate students in general. During my Masters programme, I benefited a lot from some of the workshops that were organized by the career service and from the information I got from the international office at my university. These are services you should look out for when considering universities for your PhD.

#2 Ask questions

As an international student you’ll be choosing from many universities all over the world and each one has unique programmes. You need to know what to look for as you consider and compare them. Get advice from people that you know completed their PhDs or have already started them so that they are able to open up your eyes about everything that you need to put into consideration.

One group of people that I consulted were my classmates that moved straight from a Masters to a PhD. Since they are international students as well, it was helpful and encouraging to hear about how they approached their supervisors, wrote their project proposals and also managed to find funding for their programmes.

#3 Vet your potential supervisor(s)

The supervisor you have is at least as important as the structure of the PhD project. One thing I learned from doing my Masters project is that it helps so much when you have a supportive, knowledgeable and present supervisor (someone who is actually available when you need help and advice). As you look at projects, also look at the people who might supervise you.

If contact details are attached, don’t be afraid to contact people and ask for a chat. If you are able to visit the laboratory, see this person and talk to the students plus postdocs there, do so. This allows you to have a proper feel of the environment and the kind of people you will be working with for the next three to four years. It can be tricky to visit universities in another country, but many offer virtual open days.

One of the main reasons I applied for one PhD programme was because I love the work that the supervisor does. In spite of this, I still went on to get a hold of her and ask her some questions that I had in mind. This led to two Skype chats that were amazing because they helped me understand what I was getting myself into. I was also able to learn more about my supervisor and I came to appreciate just how supportive she was. I really felt like she was someone that I could work with and learn a lot from.

#4 Carry out a thorough self-analysis

In this competitive world that we live in, a PhD can start to seem like an obligation or requirement, especially if you want to work in science. However, if you feel like you are under any pressure to do a PhD, I would advise you to sit down and do some serious soul-searching. I learnt that as an international student, you also have to be ready to make certain adjustments when it comes to studying and living in a different country or continent. You need to be mentally prepared to deal with change.

It is vital to understand and appreciate that having a PhD may not really be the grand solution to the problems you have now. There are people that have managed to have very fruitful careers without having to pursue a PhD. Ask yourself what you think you will gain from doing one, what you plan to do with it in the near future and the contributions you think a doctorate will make to your career.

I discussed my plans with one of my mentors and I decided that a PhD will help me on my journey to becoming an independent research scientist. But, whatever advice you take, you need to be sure that the decision to do a PhD is solely yours. At the end of the day, it will be you that makes that application and it will be you that will have to do that work for the next 3-4 years. As you look at projects, ask yourself if this is an area you are passionate about and would love to contribute to.

You should also consider whether you have what it takes to carry out particular kinds of research. Some programmes sound exciting, but they may require skills you don’t have yet. Will there be time (and training) for you to acquire them, alongside your research? It is okay to be honest with yourself when it comes to this. You can decide to carry it out after you have got enough work experience that puts you at a better position of getting the PhD.

#5 Pace yourself

Applying for any graduate programme takes time and planning. Make sure that you identify all the guidelines and application requirements as well as the deadlines for submitting them so that you can compile all the necessary documentation within a sensible timeframe. Remember that you may also need to plan time to write a cover letter and tweak your CV accordingly.

That said, make sure you start your actual application in good time. Some people spend so much time preparing themselves and never get around to actually applying.

Recently I underestimated just how lengthy the process can be and I almost felt overwhelmed, but I decided to start anyway and I managed to get through most of my first application in one sitting. What helped though, was making sure that I was in constant communication with my proposed supervisor. Before I officially started the application, my supervisor and I had a few chats to iron out things about the project and help me edit my CV.

I have successfully submitted two applications so far and I am so proud of myself for going through the process. As I wait for feedback, I decided to carry out a laboratory placement so that I can continue enhancing my CV and improving on my laboratory skills. I believe that this will not only prepare me for my PhD programme in the future but also put me in a better and more competitive position when it comes to other applications that I will make.

Editor's note: A version of this blog was first published on 31/05/19. We've updated it for current readers.

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Last Updated: 01 July 2021