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PhDs: Kathryn | Carrie | Kev | Xenia

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Kev Wong

When did you start thinking about doing a PhD?

I've always been interested in research, even back when I was a chemist. When I joined Earth Sciences I was unsure which topic within it to pursue a PhD in; by the end of my third year I was dead set on petrology/volcanology, and my fourth-year project confirmed that this was the correct path to take.

Where did you apply, and why did you apply there? How did you go about applying?

I applied to a bunch of projects, all somewhat related to petrology and volcanology. I found these projects through, and by asking department staff what research other departments were involved in. Each project was attached to a NERC DTP (doctoral training programme) which will likely be the main source of funding (unless you're planning on being self-funded).

I got in contact with my supervisors before I applied for their projects so I could see roughly what the project entailed, and what their vision for the project was. The email I sent was basically adapted versions of the following:

Dear (insert person's name here),

I'm Kev, a fourth-year Earth Sciences student at Cambridge University. As part of my fourth-year project I looked into your research [and more relevant stuff], and I would be really interested in joining you in this line of work.

My research interests are in petrology and geochemistry. My fourth-year project involves constraining the potential temperature of the mantle using Al-in-olivine thermometry, and for my third-year project I geologically mapped the Pindos Ophiolite on the western fringes of the Mesohellenic basin. Over the summer I was a fieldwork assistant in Iceland for two weeks.

I was wondering if we could discuss the details of your advertised PhD project further over email? I've attached my CV for your convenience [and did attach my CV].

Thanks in advance!

Kev Wong

This got responses from everyone I messaged, so feel free to adapt it in whatever way. I'd recommend visiting the institutions you've applied for to get a feel for what life will be like once you're there, and also to meet your supervisor - you will be working with them for a solid 3-4 years after all! After an initial chat with the supervisor, I applied through the universities' websites.

As for the projects I applied for:

Leeds: Explosive basaltic volcanism in the Ethiopian Rift (David Ferguson, Dan Morgan, Marie Edmonds, and the project I accepted). I sent David a message around late November and got a response back quickly. I couldn't make it down to Leeds over the winter break so we had a Skype call to chat about the project. I also had a few brief meetings with Marie here in Cambridge. The application required the usual (personal statement, transcript, CV), and also passport details. Upon getting an interview, Dave and I had a phone chat a week before the interview, and met in Leeds the day before the interview.

Cambridge (Owen Weller, Rich Taylor). I met with Owen and Rich during Michaelmas. Unfortunately I was not invited to interviews.

Cardiff (Andrew Kerr). I sent Andrew the above email and received a rapid response. I visited Cardiff during the winter break, and had a chat with Andrew whilst I was there, and had a brief tour of the Department. Upon receiving an offer, I arrive for interview the day before to have a pint and curry with Andrew and his PhD students.

Edinburgh (Cees-Jan de Hoog). As with the others, sent a message out and got a response. Edinburgh is a bit of a distance to travel so I had a skype call with Cees-Jan. We met face-to-face day of the interview.

Manchester (Brian O'Driscoll). Brian was away over winter break, so I took a day off work in Lent to go visit Manchester. We had a brief chat day before the interview, and also day of the interview.

In general, applications will require a university transcript, CV, and personal statement. Make sure the personal statement is customised to fit the project you've applied for, rather than just being a generic one. Some applications will need passport details.

What prep did you do for the interview(s)?

I had Cardiff two weeks before the others, and then three interviews over the course of four days. I had to take a full week away to get to them all! This did ultimately mean that I had a feel for the interview process, having had Cardiff earlier than the others.

Generic interview questions will be asked (e.g. tell us about yourself, why did you apply here etc.). I prepped some answers for these, but I could elaborate on certain points if needed.

I also read a load of papers. Not just those on the project proposal reading list, but also other papers that the supervisors recommended (I emailed them once I'd burnt through the proposal ones), or papers that you may have encountered during your Part III. It's nice to be able to discuss some of the controversies/recent findings in the field during the interview. As an example, for Leeds I read up about similar work done in Iceland and Hawaii. I also familiarised myself with the methods required for the projects (e.g. XRF for whole rock, EPMA for mineral major elements, LA-ICP-MS for mineral minor elements, SIMS for inclusions). Finally I also made sure I understood my Part III project; it's most likely your most recent research experience, so the interview panel will be quizzing you on it quite a bit!

The important thing is to a) be enthusiastic and b) be able to explain why the project you've applied for and your Part III project is relevant to your local postman (after all, his taxes are funding your project). With so many interviews this came naturally over time; you'll be feeling way more confident by interview four than in interview one (if you do end up at interview four like I did).

Finally, I practiced some interview questions with a few mates. Their advice was invaluable.

What were the interview(s) like?

The interviews were 20 minutes in length, and all quite similar; questions were asked about why I wanted to do a PhD, my Part III project, why I wanted to do this project, strengths/weaknesses etc. There's a useful bit on about some of the interview questions you should expect. The panels were all non-specialist (bar one or two); they're there to gauge how enthusiastic you are about the subject and why they should pay you to do research there. They're also there to test how well you can explain science to people - I brought along a copy of my thesis so the interview panel could have a more in-depth look at what I was doing if they wanted.

Cardiff was my first interview and I was quite nervous. The panel was comprised of two ocean geochemists (Alex Piotrowski-esque), a biochemist, and an igneous petrologist, who was also the person I had applied to and hence did not ask anything. I had to prep a three-slide five-minute presentation on my Part III project. My supervisors helped me make this as easy as possible to understand; it was also good practice for explaining my project later on at other interviews without the help of slides.

Manchester was my second, and I thought I bombed it, but I received an offer two days later; that goes to show that a bad interview in your opinion is not necessarily a bad interview! The panel was comprised of my potential supervisor and three others (can't remember their research fields but it was definitely unrelated to petrology). This was a whole-day thing so there's a lot of opportunities to chat with current PhD students, staff etc.

By the time I had Leeds I was much more relaxed (I had a Manchester offer by then). The panel again was four people - two low temperature geochemists, a mineral scientist, and a structural geologist. The mineralogist asked the tricky questions during this interview; mostly about the methods I had used for my project.

Edinburgh was a panel of three, with both my potential supervisors sitting in too. I remember this interview caught me out a litte - they asked for TWO occasions I had problem solved, which caught me out a little; I had only anticipated one!

When did you hear back from the interview(s)? When did you accept your offer?

I heard back informally from Cardiff the Monday after the interview (supervisor emailed me). I did not get a Cardiff-funded place but I was considered for a GW4 competition studentship; they wanted an answer from me within the following fortnight (before my next interviews) - keep in mind that you don't have to accept a place before the deadline - so I put myself forward as a competition student.

I heard from Manchester two days after the interview when I was prepping for Leeds. As this was my first funded offer I was ecstatic, and may have frantically Facebook messaged several people in lieu of making loud noises in my hotel room.

I heard from Leeds the week after my interview there. I did not wait to hear back from Edinburgh, as I had accepted the Leeds offer the day after I was notified of it.

Upon receiving the Leeds offer, I took a day considering which project I wanted to take. This required a bit of thought; I'd advise talking to our friends and supervisors, as they can gauge your `subconscious enthusiasm' for a project (if you get what I mean). Supervisors are very understanding if you do not accept their offer.

Do you have any further advice?

Consider supervisor, then project, then university. In that order.

Always keep in mind the fact that you cannot be forced or coerced into accepting a PhD offer before the set NERC deadline.

Make sure you have some questions to ask at the interview. My go-to was 'What is the role of the PhD student at this university?', but also asked questions about the NERC DTP the university was a part of.

Example documents


Leeds personal statement

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