Apprentice yourself (a short guide to choosing a PhD in academia)

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TIR‘s guides to writing scientific papers, writing scientific English, and asking questions in seminars remain some of its most popular posts. But there’s one really important decision that comes before any of those things can happen – choosing a PhD. The choice of a PhD is one of the hardest decisions a young scientist has to make, partly because it’s very difficult to know what the relevant parameters are.

This guide is intended to fill that gap. This is the condensed version – a longer and more detailed account is available for download here.

Some important caveats to bear in mind: (i) it’s not one-size-fits all, and for every recommendation there will be somebody out there who’s done the exact opposite and profited from it; (ii) it’s slightly biased towards the life sciences, but should hopefully have some generally-applicable elements.


1. Subject/system/techniques Any project can be broken up into these three elements.

  1. Subject – the topic (e.g. cytoskeleton, metabolism, gene expression)
  2. System – the experimental system or organism being used (e.g. nematodes, trypanosomes, plants)
  3. Techniques – the practical armament being used (e.g. cell biology, genetics, bioinformatics, biophysics).

You should have a good sense of what subject(s) you like from your undergraduate studies. Also think about what kind of data you like best (fluorescence microscopy? mass spectrometry? NMR?) and let that guide your preference of technique. The choice of system will be partly determined by your inclination on the other two elements, and is also the easiest thing to change later on.

2. Should I stay or should I go? Once you have a sense of what kind of project you want to do, you then need to determine whether your local environment offers you the chance to do it. If not, then it’s probably best if you pack your bags. Staying put has less emotional trauma, but don’t let a fear of relocating thwart your ambition.

3. Ivory towers and golden castles In some countries (e.g. the UK, Germany), there’s a distinct split between university departments and research institutes. On average, institutes are better-funded and have more centralised infrastructure. In other countries (e.g. the USA), university departments are still the research powerhouses and research institutes are relatively rare. Research institutes will (in general) be more likely to give you great luxury and the opportunity to use cutting-edge technology. On the flip side, they are often quite intense and don’t always have a nice atmosphere. The research topics tend to be quite mainstream. Being raised in luxury may make it hard to adjust to a less well-funded environment later on.

4. Get with the program Most universities and institutes now have graduate programs that will give you a more structured experience to your PhD. The programs will also make you a part of a defined cohort, which has knock-on benefits in terms of social and support networks. A graduate program is especially important if you’ve decided to relocate, as it will help integrating you.

5. Captain, my captain! The single and most overriding parameter is the choice of supervisor. You’re going to spend a lot of time feeling stupid and incompetent, so it’s important that you have as a supervisor somebody you feel comfortable approaching.

6. Rising stars and celestial firmament In other words, young group leader or old group leader? In general, young group leaders will: (i) still do benchwork; (ii) have smaller groups; (iii) be acquainted with new techniques. These are all good things. They may also: (i) be less well-funded; (ii) be under more pressure; (iii) be less experienced in handling students.

7. Hives and hamlets Big group or small group? If a supervisor has a big group, then you can basically guarantee that they won’t be supervising you directly – that job will fall to a postdoc, which adds an extra variable to the process. TIR favours small research groups.

Again, remember that many people have been very successful by using every conceivable iteration of the above parameters, so decide what feels right for you and trust your intuition. Once you’ve considered all the factors above, the following protocols may help in realising your target.


A. Do your homework! The more preparation you put into your search, the more likely you are to find something that fits well. Get a sense of what you want using the parameters above, then screen systematically until you can narrow things down to 2-3 labs/places/programs.

B. Don’t underestimate the importance Your PhD project will set the direction of your whole career, and although it’s possible to change things and move around, the general trajectory will always be affected. So take the time to choose carefully before you get locked into a topic/technique that you may not be enthusiastic about.

C. Keep talking Use informal channels to gather as much information about your prospective choices. Get help from everybody who’s willing to offer an opinion. This is how to get hold of the kind of information that doesn’t appear on brochures and websites.

D. Joining the family Keep your eyes and ears open when you visit the group of a prospective supervisor. These are the people you’ll be working alongside for the next three-plus years, and the environment within a group to a large extent reflects the (real) personality of the group leader. If you get a bad vibe, don’t hang around.

And that’s it! This post will be updated as new recommendations come to mind (and if there’s anything you think TIR has forgotten, then leave a comment!), but that should be enough to get you started. And don’t forget the link at the top to the longer version. Best wishes for a successful search!


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4 thoughts on “Apprentice yourself (a short guide to choosing a PhD in academia)

  1. A famous scientist told me that the super labs of high-flying PIs were good places to post-doc but were rubbish labs to be a grad student. Instead, he reckoned, scientists should do their training with what he referred to as “middle-class scientists” in University departments. There they would get proper training in how to conduct rigorous experiments, ethics, citizenship. With this knowledge they could then join an “upper-class” lab and be free to fly without much support from the absent boss. I was slightly dumbfounded by the description, but it’s hard to disagree with good supervision at this stage being the most important criterion.


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