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Sophie Baldwin

When did it all begin?

I knew that I wanted to do a PhD since around the end of second year/my mapping project. Other than knowing I much preferred ESB to ESA, I didn’t really know what specific discipline I liked. By Lent term of third year, I had decided on a part III project with Marie Edmonds and Nick Barber, working on volcanism in Central Java. Fieldwork was going to happen, but the dates uncertain, so I refrained from trying to find any kind of research internship/project over the summer between third and fourth year. I think I would recommend trying to find something to do in that summer which is related to Earth Sciences (if that is a possibility for you) as compared to others I knew who were applying I lacked research experience that went further than my mapping and part III projects

Confidence to apply

I wanted to say something about having the confidence to apply for a PhD. I had many long conversations with friends about whether we would know enough or be capable enough to do a PhD. I think it is so important to take the time to develop confidence going in to the process and to realise beforehand that a rejection doesn’t make you a poor scientist or mean that you aren’t passionate enough about your subject.

Personally, I was going into my application with a high 2.i. This meant I had been warned many times not to get my hopes up about getting offers – not having a firstclass mark in third year seemed like a bigger issue than I had expected. The discrepancy between the average for my examination results and my mapping project result was nearly 10%, and I tried to develop confidence that the exams which were dragging my grade down had little to do with my capacity to enjoy and do well at research and project work.


Overall, I did four PhD applications: Bristol, Cambridge, Durham and Edinburgh. It soon started becoming more real – there was suddenly an unwritten etiquette to the process which I tried to learn about from chats with lecturers at happy hour and friends who were doing PhDs.

It is more important than I had realised to communicate well with the supervisor for the project you are interested in before you complete your application. Personally, I am absolutely terrible at replying to emails and being in the middle of the Part III project term, I let slip replying to important discussions with the supervisor I’d applied to work with at Bristol. I think choosing a time to initiate that first contact with a supervisor when you know you aren’t crazily busy and can put effort into responding quickly and ensuring they know you are eager is good advice.

I contacted the lead supervisor for the Edinburgh PhD on Christmas Eve, somewhat panicked that I had left it so close to the early January application deadline. I was definitely surprised but delighted when she replied a couple of hours later saying she would love to talk about it in the new year. We skyped for the first time at the very start of January and we got on well. I sent off my application just before going to the 3-night VMSG conference in Plymouth, whilst being well aware that my part III deadline was less than 10 days away – it was definitely one of the more stressful times of the process. Picture Esme and I being too stressed to sleep in our Plymouth Air b&b, getting our projects out to work on at ~2:15am the night before our first conference day, absolutely do not recommend.

I applied to Cambridge, for a project with Marie, so luckily didn’t have to navigate this chatting-to-the-supervisor-via-email fiasco here. Finally, my Durham application was for a project working on volcanism in Java, almost identical, by pure coincidence, to my part III project. I had a lot of encouraging Skype conversations with the lead supervisor, who was confident I would be invited for interview, and was eager for me to apply. (One thing I really remember about that application was that they wanted a very long personal statement – definitely something to check out well in advance.)

Application results

On the 6th February the first email came through about interview – Edinburgh had invited me for interview on the 18th Feb. About two hours later I got an email from Bristol – I had been rejected without interview. I think that rejection stung the most of the whole process - I was sitting in the a café in Cambridge, having a catch-up with a friend who was in the UK for a few days when I opened the email. I told Nick my Part III supervisor both the good and bad news, then I sat in the Part III lab on my own, feeling quite overwhelmed for the rest of the afternoon. About a week later I got invited for interview at Cambridge. I had heard nothing from Durham still, and the supervisor I’d applied for sent me an email saying I hadn’t been selected for the main NERC-funding interviews. He asked where else I was applying and said he was going to start looking for alternative funding and not to lose hope. I think at this stage I was starting to lose confidence quite rapidly and this whole PhD application process had become an oddly personal thing – similar in nature to not telling people you’re taking a driving test so no one will have to know if you fail. It was made worse as people I had met from other universities at VMSG had been telling me how easy it was to get Durham offers – lesson wholeheartedly learnt there – it was uncomfortable enough in the moment and much worse after being rejected – do not engage with or listen to people who talk like that! Talking to more helpful people about the rejections helped though, for example, Helen Williams had spent time encouraging me with the Durham application and I remember how kind she was when I told her I hadn’t got an interview. I think I realised slightly too late that it is definitely abnormal to get offers from everywhere you apply to (at least, no one who went through the NERC application process in my part III cohort did, most of us ended up with just one offer).


My Edinburgh interview was a week before the Cambridge one. I stayed overnight with a friend who also had an interview in Edinburgh and spent the morning in their department before my interview at midday. This was good as I got to go to Edinburgh grad student coffee-hour, and I chatted to current PhD students. I met my supervisor in-person for the first time and she took me on a tour of all of the labs in the department and we had a chat in her office, I was really nervous but she was very kind and that helped me feel at ease.

The first few minutes of the Edinburgh interview focused on my part III project (definitely take a copy of your part III project (or some example proto-type figures you’re working on if you won’t have finished them yet) & mapping project to the interview!) After that I got a lot more questions about my motivation for the PhD, and then a few slightly more technical questions about the project I was applying for. My supervisor observed the interview in the corner of the room and the panel had three people on it. (The lunch after the interview was amazing as well – so many really good bagels.)

Also, the project in Edinburgh is relatively similar to what Sally Gibson works on, and Sally took so much time to chat to me about it! I’d definitely recommend chatting to academics who might be able to talk to you about your project because I think I’d have been too embarrassed to ask had I not bumped into Sally in the corridor and explained it all quite last-minute.The Cambridge interview was a little more odd because I knew all of the panel reasonably well (I was interviewed by Oli, Jerome and Sanne). They definitely asked me more about my part III project at the Cambridge interview, but there were also questions about the project I applied for - there weren’t many broader questions at all. I didn’t really know how either interview had gone, it was pretty hard to tell what they were thinking!

The end!

Edinburgh had told us we wouldn’t hear until at least 10 days after the interview as they had more days of interviews later on. This definitely helped calm me down about it all. I think they also offered interview feedback for candidates who weren’t offered funding. Cambridge didn’t tell us when we would hear back and (as with Durham), to this day I’ve had total radio silence from them! It’s all somewhat of a ruthless process. Everything ends on a positive note though as 10 days after my interview I was emailed a formal offer of a NERC studentship at Edinburgh! I opened that email in one of the cubby holes in the Earth library and was so delighted but quite emotionally overwhelmed. My housemates bought me a huge bar of chocolate to say well done and I remember that all I could do was sit on the sofa and try not to cry whilst eating squares of galaxy.

What's happening now

I’ve found a flat with four other students to live with in Edinburgh and I’m all set to move there in September! I’ve just applied to demonstrate in undergraduate practical sessions and I genuinely can’t wait to start.

I’m more than happy to chat about PhD applications and anything specific to the process with anyone who wants to – DM me on Facebook or ask Saffy for my email address!

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