The journey towards my PhD

Emily shares her experience, application tips and advice as she starts her postgraduate studies as a PhD student at the Institute of Cancer Research.

By Emily Alger

A PhD was not something I came into university expecting to be my next step after graduation. However here I am, about to graduate from Warwick and begin a PhD studentship at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) within the Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit. I want to share my journey from Warwick fresher to PhD candidate and some application tips I hope can help you on your own journey.

My experience

I spent many evenings of my first year at Warwick applying for finance spring weeks over the Easter holiday. At the time I had no idea what I planned to do after I graduated from Warwick. Given that everyone in my cohort was applying, I felt that I was missing out if I did not get an internship too. I returned for a full summer internship in the second year of my studies and realised very quickly that a corporate 9-5 job within finance wasn’t what I wanted. Spending 3 years studying a subject I loved to then start a job where I couldn’t readily apply my degree didn’t seem very attractive anymore.

I became unwell and took a year deferment from university the following year which meant, when I returned as a third year in 2020, I had a total clean slate. My return to university felt in many ways how it had felt when I was a fresher, I once again had no idea what I wanted to do after I graduated. At the start it felt overwhelming, but I soon decided to start taking the next right step.

A focus on library books on a shelf, with a person reading a book in the background, not in focus.
Have you enjoyed studying? Maybe a Masters or a PhD is for you! Image Credit: University of Warwick.

I applied for a masters, giving myself another year of university and more time to think about my career. Next, I needed some work experience. I started writing for the Science and Technology section of the Boar and applying to statistical institutes which had summer projects. I found that applications no longer felt like a hassle when you were applying for roles you were genuinely excited about. I was very grateful to receive a summer studentship at The Institute of Cancer Research over the summer of 2021 and at the end of my eight-week placement I was encouraged to apply for a three-year PhD. After a written application and an hour interview I was offered the position!

“Spending 3 years studying a subject I loved to then start a job where I couldn’t readily apply my degree didn’t seem very attractive anymore”

Until the start of my summer internship at the ICR I had never really considered a PhD. However, openly exploring the opportunity helped me recognise that it was the perfect next step for me.

  • I love my subject; I find it engaging and I want to keep learning more and interacting with the research community who are making big developments in the field.
  • I am ambitious, a PhD is a great investment towards my career and gives me the time to work out what career is best for me and where I want to make an impact.
  • A PhD lets me allocate a huge portion of my time towards personal and academic growth.

My application tips

Quality not quantity – I think what really matters within a PhD application is getting across your enthusiasm and experience for a project. That takes time. It is better to spend more time on an application you really want than spreading yourself thinly across lots of applications. PhD interviews themselves can take some serious preparation, mine involved preparing a 15-minute presentation and 5-minute talk. It might be better having fewer interviews if you are better prepared for them.

Apply to what you really want – During my time at university I found that applying for the sake of it was always laborious and usually didn’t have a high success rate attached. If you’re not interested in a certain PhD, then don’t apply! Now you can keep up the momentum for when you apply for a PhD you really like the look of – no application fatigue!

Think 2 years ahead – If you’re thinking of applying for a PhD two or three years down the line, I would really encourage you to apply for internships in an area you might be interested in now! My PhD originated from an internship the previous year, and this is certainly not uncommon. Get to know your supervisor and let them know you are keen to be a PhD candidate in a few years’ time. You may find that they may suggest PhDs you may like to apply for. If a possible PhD supervisor likes you then that can make a real difference to your application success!

Two people sat studying in a table booth. Two blurred out people are walking past in the foregrount.
The Wolfson Research Exchange is a dedicated space for postgrad researchers at the Warwick Library. Image credit: University of Warwick.

If you’re thinking of applying for a PhD, why not take a look at our blog PhD Life, which has a wide range of articles on applications, interviews, experiences, and more from Warwick PhD students.

If you have any questions about PhDs, you can leave a comment below, tweet us @warwicklibrary or @researchex (which is our Warwick Researchers twitter account) or head over to Ask A Postgrad where you can directly ask advice from one of our PG mentors.

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