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Landing a PhD position: 4 ways to get one

By © Nazma Ilahibaks, 2022 

Do you want to pursue a PhD, but you don't have any luck landing one? Are you catching yourself scrolling through endless pages of PhD job positions on job boards? Are you applying to different PhD positions without any success? Maybe it is time to change up your strategy. You need to put in work to land the job you want. In this article, I share 4 main tips on for MSc students on how to get a PhD position. These tips are based on real-life experiences.

1. Internships
Your (under)graduate internships are a perfect opportunity to get a taste of performing scientific research. Internships allow you to learn about the inner dynamics of the research group. This will enable you to build a network and learn about different topics and techniques relevant to the research field. More importantly, it allows you to see if you fit within the team. Use your internship to determine if you enjoy performing research and working within the research group.

Simultaneously, an internship also allows senior staff members to see your competencies, work products, and how well you perform within the team. More often than not, PhD positions get filled internally before they even reach a job posting website. Once senior staff members obtain a grant, they frequently look inside their group if there is potential talent to fulfill the position.

Even if you did not have a suitable Master's internship, consider doing an internship after obtaining your Master's in the field you want to pursue a PhD degree in. The experience, network, and experimental knowledge will put you in a better position to match with the competency sought for a PhD position in the field you would like to pursue.

2. Cold emailing

Yes, the good old cold email. You can get your foot between the door by simply directly emailing principal investigators in the fields you would like to pursue a PhD. Ensure your email is straight to the point and specific to the research group. This includes your resume with relevant skills and cover letter. Figure out how your competencies, (research) interests and experiences complement the team. Highlight why you specifically want to pursue a PhD in that group, e.g., be honest about your drive or ambitions. People are generally more inclined to help you or refer you by forming a personal connection. Honestly, how would you reply to a basic email compared to a genuine email where somebody's intrinsic motivations align with your research goals?

Tip:Harvard templates for Resumes, CVs, Cover Letters

3. Own research proposal

You can pitch your research idea to a research group you would like to work in and obtain funding for your PhD position. However, certain research groups do not have the resources to fund a PhD position fully. Turn this into an opportunity to arrange your financing and create a PhD position within the group you would like to work with. Craft a proposal together where your PhD research aligns with the research objectives of the group. Next, apply to funding- or non-university institutes to obtain a grant, scholarship, or fellowship to finance your doctoral studies.

You can complete a doctorate program while being under contract at the university or as an external PhD candidate. As a contract PhD candidate, you are a university employee and/or have agreements with the university or third parties to obtain a doctorate. As an external PhD, you are under contract with a company or non-university research institute where you enter agreements together with a professors' supervision to obtain a doctorate. Each formality has its advantages and disadvantages, so consider them carefully before entering them while acquiring a PhD position.

Apply to the appropriate funding bodies to gain a grant or fellowship. For the Netherlands, you can navigate the website of: or Finances overview.

4. Network

Your network is your net worth. This is not only the title of the Porter Gale book, but also an evidence-based reality. It's pivotal for your growth to connect with like-minded people who share similar values and interests. Genuine interest to help each other without anything in return is how we can build each other up. Forming connections is about transformational, not transactional relations. Try to learn how current PhD candidates obtained their position and take a page from their notebook. Even though you've your heart set on a PhD position, always have intent and action to help each other. Who knows how a PhD opportunity can fall into your lap through your connections.

Tip: connect with the research community through conferences, asking people for coffee, extracurricular activities or joining a network, for example, the TOPX Network.

Obtaining a PhD position may seem like a daunting process. The standard application procedure may not be the path for you. Again, more than one road leads to Rome. Take full advantage your master internships have to offer. Do your homework on interesting research groups where you see yourself doing a PhD. Alternatively, create your PhD position by writing your research proposal and obtaining a grant or fellowship. Finally, be intentional to develop a network of meaningful (professional) connections.

Before applying for a PhD, do you prefer to gain some industry experience? Check out the BCF website or attend one of the BCF Career Events.
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