The trials and tribulations of applying for a PhD

Finding the right PhD programme can often be a time-consuming and lengthy exercise. Emre Yavuz, Translational Neuroscience Master’s student, shares his experience of applying for a PhD programme and the many challenges he faced along the way.


This September I’m going to be starting my PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, supervised by Professor Hugo Spiers. Excited as I am about moving onto the next chapter of my career, choosing the right PhD for me was no easy process.

Choosing the right PhD programme comes down to many variables. When I had initially applied for several programmes in early December, I was excited by the possibility of travelling and living abroad after two years of lockdown. I had received interviews from places including Toronto, Montreal, Zurich, Lausanne and London. Although studying abroad seemed highly tempting at first, there were many other factors I had to take into account.

Asking the right questions

The first was the stipend. Obtaining solid funding for a PhD project is extremely competitive. If I were to live abroad, I would have to consider the difficulty in finding work abroad as an international student, especially given that French or German were the languages commonly spoken in the countries I had applied to. Additionally, given that some PhD programmes in the USA and Canada can last from 5-7 years, I had to think carefully about whether I would want to be living on a student stipend for that long. For example, studying somewhere like Toronto would be expensive to fly from when coming back to visit my family in London, and the cost of travel to and from Toronto to other places in Canada would also not be cheap, especially given that my parents would not be able to support me financially throughout the length of the PhD.

The second was the networking opportunities at the given institution. I greatly enjoy networking and am very passionate about integrating science and entrepreneurship. With London being one of the strongest hubs for startup founders, I had to think carefully about where I would have the most opportunities to meet other like-minded scientists who were interested in commercialising their research.

The third was the length of the PhD programme. PhD programmes in the USA and Canada can last approximately 5-7 years, in relation to only 3-4 years in the UK.

The fourth was choosing the right supervisor, indeed the most important part of the PhD search. Before accepting my offer at UCL, apart from the obvious questions such as the supervisor’s reputation, the number of publications they’ve had, the ranking of their institution and demonstrable passion for the subject, I made sure I also asked myself the following questions:

1. Does the potential supervisor use online social platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn to engage with the wider world around them? Do they seem to want to get their work ‘out there’ and have a strong presence in the wider community?

Hugo supported and retweeted several of my posts on Twitter, even before I had accepted my UCL offer, clearly demonstrating that he was interested in helping me promote my work with the scientific community, which I believe is essential for a successful career in research. All of these things can give you an idea as to how active a supervisor is with their research and whether they make the most of potential opportunities to promote their research to a wider audience and their keenness to collaborate with other scientists.

2. Does the potential supervisor understand how any research you have carried out in the past could help their future research goals with regards to the skills that you have gained from these experiences?

Hugo mentioned to me that the work I had completed in the lab where I had undertaken my undergraduate research project would be highly relevant in current and future projects in the lab. Here, I could apply the same experimental modelling that was based on rodent models of spatial navigation, to studies that I would complete during my PhD on human spatial navigation and in both healthy and diseased participants.

3. Does the potential supervisor understand your career goals in both the short and longer term? Are you confident that they will be able to successfully support you in achieving these goals?

For the PhD programme which Hugo was associated with, there would be the possibility for me to travel to the USA as part of a 6-month fellowship to enrich my research experience and help develop my scientific career, transferring skills that I would acquire in the US to the research I was completing in the UK. Hugo willingly agreed to support me in this pursuit if I do choose to apply. Hugo also expressed to me his hope that I would complete a post-doc once finishing my PhD, in line with my goal of becoming a principal investigator in the field of Neuroscience. Having a supervisor who genuinely cares about ensuring you have the best possible platform for starting off your academic career will mean that they you will have your best interests at heart, allowing you to make the most of the opportunities you will have when completing a PhD and have the most successful career progression.

Making the right decision for you

It is also important to remember that academia is not for everybody, and Hugo made sure that I was aware of several of the previous members of the lab who had gone into industry following completion of their PhD, rather than academia. Having a supervisor who understands that having a career in academia may not be for you, and makes you fully aware of the possible directions your career could go in once completing a PhD, will be very important in allowing you to make the best decisions for yourself further down the line.

I very much hope that after reading this article you can take something away that will help you in your PhD search, and I would like to reassure you that being both perseverant and resilient are essential for acheiving your goal of being accepted onto a PhD programme. Every rejection is indeed a redirection, and ultimately, in my opinion, both the chemistry between you and your supervisor and a genuine passion for the subject area are what matters most when choosing a PhD project.

Finally, I would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have about the PhD application process. Please feel free to contact me using the methods below:

Emre Yavuz studied a Master’s in Translational Neuroscience at Imperial College London and will soon be starting his PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL.

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