I’m guessing a lot of you will be exploring options for your future, so I thought I’d make a list of things which I think are important when considering a PhD, and when preparing for a PhD interview.
Do you like lab/computer work?
As you might expect, we spend all our time working on our project, which means being in the lab or working at our computer all day. Now, you have to remember that this is not like doing practical classes, where the protocol is well established. There will be times when you spend months doing the same thing over and over again, with small modifications each day. Other times things will work perfectly the first time! Another thing to mention here is that the results are mostly unknown; I’d guess that majority of practical classes have been run before, so people know what to expect, but for me right now, I do experiments without knowing if the data will match the hypothesis. Therefore, it becomes quite tiring and difficult, and probably the best motivation is your love of lab/computer work! One good way of finding this out is, did you enjoy your final year project?
Do you like the sound of the project?
Ok, I’m not expecting you to know exactly what kind of project you would like! But look at the description; does that sound interesting to you? Do you think you will enjoy working on that project? Is the project in an area which you like? I would say choose based on the project rather than location, which may be difficult for some of you who have family commitments. Also, it doesn't have to be in a similar field to your final year project.
Find more than one potential PhD position.
PhDs are competitive – I have been turned down for two, and am not fully funded. As projects are often tied with funding, adverts will be going up regularly – keep checking! There will be more than one which will be of interest to you. Even if the application deadline has passed, that potential supervisor may get funding for another PhD student. Essentially, don’t give up if you are sure about doing a PhD!
Will your experience fit with the project?
For example, if you are not much of a computer person, will a bioinformatics project suit you? – if you are happy to learn how to code and work on a computer project, then great! But if you would rather be in a lab, then maybe that project is not for you. Also consider the kind of modules you have taken, or are taking; if you enjoy the biochemistry modules more, is an ecology project going to fit you?
Read at least one of your potential supervisor’s publications.
So, you have an interview – what’s the best way to prepare? I think the key is to get an idea of what that lab does, for example are they working on developing new ways of using genome sequences? Pathogen evolution? Or are they working on animal development? A good way to get this information is to look at the papers your potential supervisor has published. And, you can impress them at the interview by letting them know you have read their recent work!
Meet the people working with your potential supervisor if you can.
The people who work with your potential supervisor, whether they be post-docs or PhD students, will be the people who you will spend most of your time with, so it is good to meet them if you can. This will also give you an opportunity to ask questions; how things work in the lab, what is it like working for your potential supervisor, what kind of experiments are commonly done, what is it like to live there (if you are new to the area)… perhaps take a look around the city/town. You have time, as you will be there for three-four years!