So, you want to do a PhD…

It’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean Halloween, nor the start of three months of retail Christmas decorations.

It’s PhD application season! Universities from across the world, from UWA, to Oxford, to Harvard are all accepting applications for PhD students.

It can be overwhelming trying to decide where you go for a PhD, let alone deciding who you want to do it with.

Here I want to give you some considerations that were useful to me when I was on this journey – I hope they help you too!

Decide your geographical constraints

This is a real matter of personal preference. However, in many situations, you will increase your chances of future success if you move universities for your PhD. This is for several reasons:

  1. Moving to a new place will allow you to meet more people, which can give you more opportunities for jobs, collaborations, invitations to conferences etc.
  2. Your PhD is an important time to make a name for yourself in your corner of the mathematical community, which can be difficult if you are isolated geographically and cannot get to conferences etc. in your area.
  3. Being more flexible can allow you to explore more opportunities to work with world leading experts in your field.

Academic considerations aside, you should also decide where you would prefer (or be willing!) to live during your PhD. Would you be okay with moving to a non-English-speaking country? Would you prefer to live in Europe? Or North America? Or Australia/NZ? Do you have a significant other or family that would also move with you? What are their preferences?

While it’s important to understand your preferences on these matters, being too specific can limit your choices, so try to be as open-minded as you can.

Construct a list of potential supervisors

Okay, so you’ve got an idea of places you’d be willing to move to for your PhD.

Now it’s time to think about potential supervisors, and potential areas of study.

When I was finishing my masters degree, my supervisors handed me a list of potential supervisors in Europe (because that’s where I wanted to move). You might not be so lucky, but do consider meeting with any advisors or lecturers you have had in an area you’re interested in to ask their advice. Many such people have a large network of overseas collaborators and colleagues that they can suggest to you. You should also, of course, do your own research, especially if you have mathematical interests that lie outside those of the members of your local maths department.

Once you have your list, you should try to whittle it down. Look up each person. Look at their research interests, read the abstracts of their recent papers. If you’re interested, great! If not, then they’re probably not the supervisor for you.

To give you an idea, from my list of ~30 people that I investigated during my masters, I narrowed down to a ~short list~ of around five.

Once you’ve got your short list, you’re now ready to reach out and apply.

Reach out before you apply

To really make yourself stand out from the crowd, it’s important to reach out to potential PhD supervisors before you apply. This requires some careful planning, since many academics (especially professors) receive all sorts of unsolicited emails asking them for things, and you want them to take you seriously.

You want something that is tailored to each potential supervisor, is relatively concise, and tells them a little bit about you.

The best way to tailor an email to a specific person is to look at the sort of research they do and highlight some of the things that you’re interested in.

If they are a collaborator of an academic that knows you (for example, your honours or masters supervisor), you can name-drop them (with permission!) to further personalise your email.

Telling them a bit about you will also help them to assess whether you would be a good fit as a student.

Once you’ve sent off your carefully crafted emails, it then becomes a bit of a waiting game. You won’t always get a positive response – for example, many people choose to have only a couple of PhD students at a time, or they might be going on sabbatical etc.

Either way, aim to keep a positive outlook and focus on the positive responses you get, and get ready to submit your formal application to the relevant university.

Be mindful of deadlines

Many universities have more than one round of application deadlines. But beware! Each university only has a finite number of scholarships, and it is common for the majority of these to be allocated during the first round of applications. So, if you can, get your application in as early as possible.

So that’s it! I hope these tips helped, and please leave me a comment if there’s anything you would like me to cover in a future post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s