Applying for a PhD: What I Said and What I Wish I Said

Giulia Cavaliere, Wellcome Trust PhD Candidate, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, King’s College London

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to take part in a workshop on the topic: applying for a PhD. This workshop was organised for our postgraduate students by a colleague from the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine.

I happily accepted as I thought that talking to them about my experience could spare them from making similar mistakes to the ones I made before, during and shortly after I started applying for PhD programmes. I also thought that my experiences (and my failures, losses of time and energy) could help them a little to navigate their way through the application process and especially the daunting task of securing grants. Ah, the hubris! It was an immense mistake to think that my short presentation and the Q&A session afterwards could help them, because, let me now retrospectively tell you: that’s not what a workshop on applying for PhD programmes should be about.

Let’s start with what I actually told these students. In my presentation, I spoke about the practical steps to apply for a PhD in the UK.

First step: find a topic that you like and that you can see yourself doing research on; think about something you’re passionate about and that you feel the need to investigate further; then write a two-page project proposal about it. Simple, eh?

Second step: find a supervisor that is interested or — better — is carrying out research in the question/s that interest you and that is willing to work with you on the topic. Check articles, books, whatever you like to read. Find the authors and email them. If your dream is to work with Nik Rose because you love Foucault, with Bronwyn Parry because you’re interested in surrogacy agreements or with John Harris because bioethics is your passion… well, write to them. It’s worth a shot.

Third and very important step: apply for funding. It’s definitely possible to do a PhD without funding, but it’s tough(-er). You’ll have to work a lot on your research topic, you may want to teach, organise a conference (or you may not want to do that, believe me), attend conferences, organise a reading group, spend two hours in a pub at 4 p.m. just to discuss some philosophy with your friends… well, doing all this whilst having a parallel part time job is a nightmare (but hey: remember that this is what I think — not the Truth. There are people that are perfectly happy to do both a PhD and a part time job).

So, back to the applying for a PhD workshop. I told the students about these steps, but I told them in a sterile and oh-I-am-so-professional way. I talked about funding bodies, funding databases, and strategically writing to your favourite scholars to ask them to be your supervisors. I became one of those condescending adults I used to hate as a teenager. Well, all I’ve said is important, but what I wished I told them is something else. I wish I told them what follows.

Don’t find a topic that you like. Find something that keeps you up at night more than watching Black Mirror on Netflix. Something that you’d choose to read over your favourite Jo Nesbo novel (or, if you’re slightly more sophisticated than me, your top Dostoevsky). Something that has accompanied you throughout your life because it’s a family illness and you want to help people living with it and those caring for them, or something that simply makes you happy (the happiness factor is underrated in research in my view). That’s how you should choose the topic of your PhD. Or at least, more humbly put: that’s how I would advise you to choose the topic of your research. Please, do not look for something that is good for your career. It is true that there are certain topics that are overcrowded with scholars that are probably much smarter and much more experienced than you. It is also true that some topics are too niche-y, too broad, and the like. But if you think you can make a contribution to the literature and — ten thousand times more importantly — contribute in some ways to improve people’s lives… well then please ignore strategic selection of topics and go for what keeps you up at night. It is very hard to predict what 4–5 years down the line will be looked for in the job market. An example? Who could have predicted that free will scepticism would have become a thing? Or who could have predicted before the publication of Jonathan Haidt’s and Joshua Greene’s seminal work on intuitions and emotions (around 2000), that their role in the formation of moral judgements would have become among the most popular topics in social psychology? Or that after the Brexit referendum there would have been a wealth of positions to do research on the effects of Brexit on people’s psychology, on the economic system of the UK and other European countries? (if you don’t believe that this is happening, please take a look at — I am not making this one up). In hindsight, I wish I stressed more the passion element of choosing a topic as no one can pay you enough to work for three (and sometimes more) years on something that you don’t care about. It’s alienating. And in these liberal and capitalistic political and economic times, there are enough alienating jobs without adding research to the list.

Don’t look (only) for the biggest experts in the field to be your supervisors. It matters to have the best people. I was blessed with two of the best supervisors that one could hope for. But this is not why I’m eternally grateful. What makes Silvia Camporesi and Barbara Prainsack (and now, informally, John Harris) amazing supervisors is not only that they’re amazing scholars (and they are, believe me). What makes them amazing is also that they’re always on my side, they’re ready to cheer me on when I succeed and to cheer me up when (much more often) I fail. It matters that they are the best people. Of course, that’s hard to know beforehand, but that’s something that is thousand times more important than having a big name on your CV (and I’m also lucky because they’re big names, but that’s not the only thing you should consider. That’s what I’m saying).

Regarding funding, please remember the huge role played by luck and be kind to yourself. You can be the smartest, most passionate and talented person in the world, but if the reviewers don’t like/understand/value your topic… well: forget it. So, prepare the strongest application ever. Get advice from your tutors, graduate teaching assistants, future supervisors and former advisors, but also, importantly: prepare yourself to be rejected. Applying for funding is one of the most distressing things that I had to do in my whole (short) academic career so far. Getting funding is hard. Wait, let me be clear about it: it is bloody hard. You’re competing against thousands of others that are as talented, as smart, as passionate as you are (in my case: add a ‘more’ before each category). It is a matter of luck too. So, prepare yourself for rejection, but especially remember that this happens to everyone and it depends on a multiplicity of variables that are outside your control. Be kind to yourself, get ice-creams and coco pops (maybe not together), cry if you need to (I always do, not that it helps… but remember that it’s ok if you do), hang out with your best friends, walk your dog, go climbing, for a run, etc. That’s how you should handle rejections, not by blaming yourself or by losing faith in your skills and capacities.

What I really wish I told them is also to look into themselves and ask why they want to do a PhD. There are millions of both trivial and very important reasons to do a PhD, and I’m not the person to judge whether yours are good enough. Ask for advice and talk to people, but ultimately: feel it and especially question it. To me that’s the most important thing you have to consider, the condicio sine qua non of applying for a PhD programme. Doing a PhD is emotionally demanding. You’re constantly facing rejections (from grant bodies, from editors, from employers). You’re facing tough feedback and sometimes too-tough-to-handle feedback on your work. You’re often alone doing research on something that no one but you really knows something about. The mental health crisis among PhD students is finally being acknowledged and it is now increasingly appreciated that it’s not about weak, snowflake millennials, but that some aspects of the whole system are likely to drive you insane. The job market afterwards is even worse. There are simply no jobs and again you need a combination of talent and luck.

So, please, forgive me for talking about such technical things as funding bodies and strategies to get into programmes, and consider what I’ve written here. But then, if you’re ready for this: do it. It can be the best thing in the world. I mean, you’re paid to listen to amazing scholars, read amazing books and articles, write, do experiments, and teach brilliant students. That’s how I feel every day: lucky and blessed. Despite the emotional toll that doing a PhD takes from me, and despite the time I’m not dedicating to my partner, my family and my friends. Now: so long. I’ll get back to work. And by work I mean writing an article about population control and climate change. That’s how amazing it can be.