How to get into a PhD programme

Of course, it helps to have good grades from your previous studies, but everybody else applying for PhD positions probably has good grades, too.

If you want to stand out, you have to do something different. The way I’m going to show you isn’t easy or quick, but it works if you’re willing to put in the effort.

The first step is to find academics who do the kind of work you are interested in. You can do this in a few different ways;

  • If you are an undergraduate or master’s student, find out what research is being done in your department (and who is doing it)
  • Search the literature for interesting work (the kind of work that makes you go, “wow, that’s cool”)
  • Find books on the specific subject, then look up the supporting references

Identify a few people who you think would be interesting to work with. Then read, deeply, some of their work. Engage with it. Think about it. Then think of a question to ask the author.

If you contact someone with a smart, informed question about their work;

  • You show that you’re interested in the work, not just getting the PhD
  • You show that you’re proactive
  • You put yourself ahead of the 99% of other candidates who don’t do this

In the initial email, though, you shouldn’t ask about PhD positions. You can mention that you’re thinking about doing one and that you came across their paper while reading around the subject, but don’t ask them to be your supervisor yet. 

Engage in conversation and keep it exclusively around the technical questions you started with. See it as a foundation phase; making contacts and getting a feel for who you might want to work with.

After going through this process a few times you can start making applications. Contact people you’ve had correspondence with before, let them know that you’re now applying for PhD positions and ask them if they would be interested in supervising you.

Doing things this way takes time and patience, but it’s a fantastic way to prepare yourself for a PhD and find good people to work with.

Note #1: If you see an advertised PhD position, go through the same process, but faster. Read the work of the potential supervisor and contact them directly and independently of the application with a question about their work.

Note #2: This process also works for applying for postdoc positions, too

See also:
Who you work with is just as important as what you do

The world’s leading expert in your field [A Rant]

“Getting a PhD means that you are the world’s leading expert in your field”

No, it doesn’t.

Lots of people have PhDs. If they are each the world’s leading experts in their fields, then each is the leading expert in a field of one.

I have never heard of a PhD examiner saying, “it’s good work, but I don’t think you’re the best in the world, so sorry but we have to fail you.”

It’s ridiculous, if you think about it for more than a few seconds.

Getting a PhD is the beginning of your career, not the pinnacle. If you carry on in academia, that’s when you can develop your skills and reputation and body of work. Maybe you will become the world’s leading expert, but it takes a long time.

PhD students are under enough pressure. These kinds of ridiculous-but-pervasive ideas really don’t help.

See also:
What is a PhD, anyway?
How to do a PhD; top 10 tips

Read your supervisor’s writing

The first barrier to getting your thesis accepted is your supervisor. And the best way to know what they like is to read their own writing.

Are they concise or expansive? Do they hold strong philosophical beliefs? Do they have clear preferences for one kind of research over another? These are things you need to know.

You can use this to imitate their writing style (especially if the feedback they give you is unclear), but even if imitating their style isn’t necessary, reading their work is something you should do anyway.

It’s easy to get caught in a literature bubble, only reading things that you think are directly applicable, but it’s important to expand this and to develop an awareness of other work. Being interested in the work of those around you is the best place to start.

See Also:
Is your PhD supervisor a facilitator or a barrier?
Who you work with is just as important as what you do

Positive constraints

Research requires resources.

Whatever your subject of study, your access to equipment, money, information and technical support will put some constraints on what you’re able to do.

You might think that the more resources you have, the better, but sometimes constraints can be helpful.

Constraints can help you make decisions by ruling out some courses of action (there isn’t enough money to buy that equipment, there isn’t enough time to carry out that experiment).

Constraints can also make you more creative. When you can’t do things the way you would, this can force you to get creative; to go beyond the obvious and look for another way forward.

And, sometimes, they can help you learn. During my own PhD I spent several months fixing an old piece of equipment that was going to be thrown away.

For a long time, I blamed my lack of progress on having to work with obsolete kit, but the constraint was a blessing in disguise. It was slow, inconvenient work, but because I had to take the thing apart and rebuild it countless times, I ended up with far more knowledge and skill than I would have by pushing a button on a brand new machine.

I had to learn to improvise—a skill that would be essential during the rest of my PhD and my postdoc projects.

Constraints are a challenge, but they are necessary. It’s by accepting them and working with them that progress is made.

How much literature is “enough”?

One way to approach this question is to say that there is no clear answer as to how much literature is enough. But we can, just as a thought experiment, try a few different answers and see what insights come out.

Let’s start with a reasonable guess… Let’s say you need 200 references in total throughout your thesis. The next question is which 200? In many fields, there are thousands upon thousands of possibly relevant sources. So even if you include 200, you’ll still have to exclude most of them.

Now let’s go to an extreme and say you need 2000 references. This lets you cover a lot of ground, but it will be impossible to cover anything in depth. If you were to give a summary of each individual source, you’d drown in detail and there would be no space left for your own original work, so what you would have to do is write about the literature as a whole. Taken collectively, what does the research say? What are the trends in the literature and what are the kinds of questions being asked?

Finally, let’s go to the other extreme and say you can only include 20 and no more. What can you absolutely not leave out? Which sources are crucial to your work? Which are the best, most relevant, most useful? These you could go into in much greater detail.

Although these numbers are clearly arbitrary, they do tell us something useful about the skills you need for a good literature review.

  • You need to leave out most of the literature and focus on the best and most interesting work
  • You need to be able to summarise wide areas of the literature by focusing on the trends, rather than individual papers
  • You need to know which sources are the most important and say more about these
See also
How much literature is enough? My 2015 answer
How to write a compelling literature review
How to read a journal article
How to write a PhD literature review (a 2-part course)

How to do world-changing research

Most research is incremental, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important; the gradual accumulation of knowledge through collective effort is how society progresses.

But every now and then, someone does something that blows the field apart; fundamentally changing the way the field thinks about and carries out research.

Often, this comes about from questioning, testing or abandoning a long-held assumption.

This is not an easy path. In order to publish your work, you have to get it past your peers. Any paradigm-changing ideas will always, rightly, be held to a higher level of scrutiny, but it’s also worth noting that these are, potentially, people who have built their career and reputation on the status quo.

In principle, reviewers should be impartial, focusing on the ideas and the quality of the research above all else. But this just isn’t the way humans work. In general, we’re very good at rationalising emotional reactions. An academic with a position to protect is even better at it (even if they don’t realise what they’re doing).

But there are always a few. A few who are open and secure enough to be interested, then convinced. It’s those first, brave few who will spread your idea.

So it’s not enough to do the work. It’s not enough to be brilliantly insightful and meticulous in your analysis. You have to sell your idea before it can change the world. You have to fight through the rejection and find the few who’ll listen.


We are losing the ability to daydream.

Next time you’re waiting (for a train to go, or a bus to come, or a plane to go), take a look around. How many people are staring at a screen?

It’s a habitual response. When we don’t know what to do, we reach for the phone.

But what if you don’t? What if you leave it turned off, and let yourself daydream?

It’s when the pressure’s off, when you have time and space to play with ideas, that inspiration can strike.

Your attention is the most valuable resource you have. Don’t give it away so cheaply.

See also:
Beyond the obvious
Time to think

The value of a PhD

What’s the value of a PhD?

For some, the value is clear. You want to do pharmaceutical research? Get a PhD and it’ll open up the possibility of a well-paid career.

For others, the value of a PhD comes from the way it’s perceived by others. It’s perhaps less quantifiable, but in some circles the status of having a PhD can be more valuable than the skills you developed on the way.

Then there are some for whom doing a PhD carries no obvious economic, social or practical benefit. It’s expensive, time-consuming and stressful, so why do it if there’s no tangible gain?

The value of a PhD, here, is whatever you believe it is. It comes from the story you tell yourself about what it means to be the kind of person who has a PhD. This is as good a reason as any to do it (and certainly more interesting than a cost-benefit analysis).

Other people with different beliefs and different stories might never understand, but that’s OK.

See also:
The “good” PhD student

The minimum viable chapter

When writing, it’s common to worry about whether you have enough.

What if I miss something the examiner wants to see?

This way of thinking leads you down a difficult path, always working to add more rather than presenting what you have.

Instead, think about the minimum you need. What are the most important things you have to communicate? What are your best, most interesting results? Focus on these, and don’t dilute the good stuff through fear of it not being enough.

See also:
What to do when your PhD project gets too big