How to get a funded PhD studentship

A position on a funded PhD studentship in the environmental sciences (including Geography and Geology) has never been easy, but in these days of funding cuts and university and RCUK (Research Council UK) reorganisations, it’s ever more difficult to get PhD funding. It’s competetive and every studentship may have hundreds of applicants. Here’s a guide on how to maximise your chances.

The following advice is most applicable to early career researchers wishing to pursue a PhD in Physical Geography or Geology, but hopefully some of it at least is more widely relevant!

Sources of funding

First, it’s good to know the market. What sources of funding are there? For students in the environmental sciences, some of the best funding packages are the NERC DTP studentships. NERC also funds students through CASE studentships, studentships part-funded by an industrial partner. Individual universities also may offer PhD scholarships, which vary on a case-by-case basis, so it’s worth doing your homework if there’s somewhere particular you’d like to study.

In many cases, you will apply to the PhD project first and then apply to funding separately. The application process isn’t as streamlined as undergraduate or taught postgraduate courses, so be prepared to do some homework to investigate all the options out there for you. Research projects advertised on university webpages, and keep an eye on jobs.ac.uk and list serves such as Cryolist (for icy projects), which often advertise funded studentships.

Profile of a successful student

A student who is competetive for RCUK funding in this academic climate may have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • A good, relevant, first degree
  • A good taught MSc degree
  • Their name on a paper or two (e.g., a written-up MSc thesis)
  • Conference attendance
  • Relevant research work experience
  • A clear desire to undertake world-class research; passion for the subject; enthusiasm (not just because they fell into it)

A completed MSc degree

Compared with when I was applying to PhD studentships 10 years ago, successful students now will probably already have a Masters’ degree. It’s rare to go straight from undergraduate to PhD, and these days, it’s not uncommon to take a gap year between finishing an MSc and starting a PhD in the environmental sciences. Students that have finished their MSc course, completed their dissertation, and have all their marks to hand, have a big advantage.

It’s worth starting to apply for PhD studentships during your MSc year (particularly if there is a project for which you are very well suited), but if you are unsuccessful, don’t give up. See a gap year as an opportunity to gain some good research work experience, put some money away, and to try and strengthen your CV.

Published papers

Good PhD candidates may have started to try and write up their MSc dissertation whilst they undertake part-time work or gain some research work experience after they finish their course. Talk to your MSc supervisors and discuss with them if, how and where you might be able to publish your dissertation. They’re best placed to discuss this with you.

Conferences

Perhaps try to present your research at a conference – the British Society for Geomorphology, the Quaternary Research Association, the International Glaciological Society – these societies have relatively cheap conferences, especially for post grads, and the QRA in particular has funding to help people attend. If you haven’t already joined, do so now, as you often have to have been a member for 6 months before you can apply for grants. Again, your MSc supervisor should be able to advise you on this.

Conferences such as these are also ideal for sounding out potential supervisors. They’re great networking opportunities. Just chat to people about your work as you’re standing by your poster, you’ll probably get lots of useful feedback and advice.

Research work experience

It is useful to have some research work experience, but it needs to be balanced by the availability of funds. You may need to get a job over your gap year. However, if you can, volunteer as a research assistant in the lab or field.

If you’d like to follow a career as a field scientist, try to get a place as a research assistant on expeditions. Put your name forward to be the science lead on Brit Schools Exploring expeditions (http://www.britishexploring.org/ExpeditionsProgrammes/ExpeditionLeaders.aspx) or Raleigh International.

Keep an eye on BAS Jobs (http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/employment/vacancies/) – they often have short-term vacancies, which may be useful. Take a look at the Royal Geographical Society and see if there’s anything you can get involved with. Look at the British Geological Survey website and consider asking Quaternary Geologists if they have any fieldwork or work experience. Ask your supervisors if they have any work experience or paid work available. Keep an eye on jobs.ac.uk – there are often lab manager or teaching assistant type jobs that you may be able to apply for. Or perhaps you can get a role as a teaching assistant in a school, gaining valuable experience that will strengthen your future CV? Try sending out speculative emails to consultancy companies that do the kind of work that you’re interested in.

Perserverance in the face of rejection

An academic career is not an easy option, and it involves tenacity and stubbornness at every level. It may take you a couple of years to find suitable work experience and write a paper or two. But it is worth it in the end! So whilst the above advice would help make anyone more competitive, it is often just a case of keeping trying in the face of rejection. Like most things in an academic career.

Remain flexible

Whilst I was always interested in Antarctic research, I did a PhD on the glacial geology of the British Isles. So just because a PhD topic doesn’t include your favourite research doesn’t mean that you can’t change in the future! Transferable skills are key here. Be flexible in what you study, and consider whether you’d be prepared to travel abroad.

Any other advice?

Do you have any further advice to early career scientists? Anything I’ve missed or specific pearls of wisdom to pass on? Leave a message in the comments.

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One thought on “How to get a funded PhD studentship

  1. In my opinion, get the first otherwise ur in trouble. Also, doing a MScR (msc research) appears to be a useful tactic, as its like doing a PhD already and funding bodies may appreciate your ability to arleady undertake independent research.

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