How to apply for PhDs

I have applied (mostly unsuccessfully) for lots of PhD places and funding. I’m writing this post for anyone thinking about dipping their toe in academia, and I would encourage anyone with even the slightest interest to do so. I’m a (sort of) neuroscientist who has applied for projects in computational psychiatry/neurology. I hope this post will be useful to anyone applying for any PhD, although what is required for your prospective courses may differ. Take ‘a career in academia’ and ‘applying for a PhD’ to be equivalent.

First RoundSecond RoundThird Round
Post interview rejectionAccepted without fundingAccepted with funding
Post interview rejectionAccepted without fundingAccepted with funding
Withdrew post interviewFailed funding applicationWithdrew post interview
Rejected pre interviewFailing funding applicationAccepted without funding
Rejected pre interviewPost interview rejectionPost interview rejection
Rejected pre interviewRejected pre interviewRejected pre interview
Rejected pre interviewRejected pre interviewRejected pre interview
Rejected pre interviewFunding rejected pre interview 
 Failed funding application 
I’ve left the university names out for privacy. Several of the applications were for the same scheme and or university, or with the same supervisor. Full disclosure: all of these applications went to UK universities/funding bodies except one funded place application in Ireland.

Having deliberated for a while on whether to write this at all; the first draft came across like my memoirs (available on request). So I’ve split this post up to some extent chronologically, trying to focus on the different stages of applying for a PhD, but also into key sections. There’s several short pages of hopefully digestible info, along with links to relevant footnotes. A rough table of contents (add one for page number):

  1. Thinking about academia?
  2. The importance of research experience
  3. What’s in a PhD application?
  4. Doctoral training partnership applications
  5. Proposing a project with a supervisor
  6. What’s next?
  7. Presentations for interviews
  8. Interviews
  9. Specific interview questions
  10. Harsh realities
  11. Concluding remarks
  12. Footnotes (linked within other pages)

Big thanks to (in alphabetical surname order) to Sammi Chekroud, Saskia Frisky, Debesh Mandal, Gavin Shields and Natalia Zdorovtsova for their comments on earlier versions of this blog. Thanks also to my fellow PhD cohort, and the Prediction and Learning Lab.


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