Doing A PhD In The UK: My Personal Journey And Some Tips

I remember wanting to live abroad ever since I was a child. Way before knowing what I wanted to do at Uni or what job I’d like to have. I knew I wanted to study in a foreign country and for a long time I toyed with the idea of living in Paris, London or New York (which is pretty cliché, as well as ironic given that I now live a small countryside village with around 4000 residents).

As an undergrad, I was awarded a Morris Animal Foundation grant which allowed me to complete a research project in canine regenerative medicine. So, once I finished vet school I knew for sure I wanted to do a PhD and continue doing research work.

I talked with a couple of my lecturers, who were keen to supervise me in my doctoral studies but soon realised that, taking into account my personal circumstances and the local context, it would be very hard to find funding for a research project in a veterinary discipline (especially one that relating to companion animal studies).

Shortly after graduating I started working, outside of academia, as a veterinary communications manager. I really enjoyed the job but eventually realised I still wanted to pursue my PhD aspirations. Which was when I started looking for positions abroad…

Now, I am an only child and being able to travel back home with relative frequency was quite important at the time — don’t judge! That was the main reason why I mostly looked for positions in Europe.

I applied to 3 PhD programmes and got two offers: one in the UK and one in Germany. To be fair, there was no possible competition there as I was really keen on getting the PhD I am currently finishing and the decision was easy to make.

So, roughly three months after, I moved to England. I managed to arrange permanent accommodation and sort out bank appointments from the comfort of my parents home in Portugal — things went very smoothly…

Well, mostly smoothly. When I got to the UK, the central heating of my new house was broken, it was a bank holiday weekend and all shops were closed — but leave it to my amazing supervisor to save the day: a bag full of groceries and a few electric heaters diverted from the University (since returned).

Yes, I was extremely lucky: I was sharing my house with other southern Europeans like myself, which made things a lot easier; my primary supervisor cared for my well being and not just the project; I was making friends and my stipend was around two times what I was paid in Portugal (with similar living expenses).

(Don’t get me wrong, there have been a great lot of obstacles and disappointments — hello Brexit — along the way but for the most part, being an EU student in the UK has been a fantastic experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world)

With all that in mind, if you’re a recent graduate or an undergrad interested in applying for a PhD in the UK here are some things that worked for me (some of these are quite general so worth having a read if you’re planning to apply for a PhD anywhere):

– As an undergrad I did a lot of extracurricular work helping one of my lecturers with his research and manuscripts. If you have the opportunity to participate in research as an undergrad fully embrace it as it’s a great thing to have on your CV.

– My level of spoken English was already quite good when I came over. Also, it’s very common that you’ll be asked to sit the IELTS/TOEFL exams prior to your application if English is not your first language. How hard these are to pass will depend on your current level of English, how well you do on standardised tests, etc. Do look into how the exams are structured, tips and tricks on how to do well and do some studying. Don’t just think that because you aced your high school English exam you’ll be able to get a great IELTS score.

Email the programme director/your potential supervisor before applying. Tell them a bit about yourself, your academic background, relevant experiences and ask if they think you may be suitable for the position. I cannot stress how important this is! It will give you a feel as to whether the position suits you and you suit the position and it’ll make people remember you.

– My prior science communication and marketing experience was one of the things that impressed my interviewers and made them feel like, despite my young age, I was a well-rounded candidate (note that my PhD is funded by a commercial company, so context is important here).

– If you get to the interview stage and are asked to make a presentation about prior research you have been involved in or regarding your honours project make sure you emphasise points that are relevant for the PhD you are applying to. For example, if the position you are applying for involves stem cell research make sure you talk about how during your summer placement you did some cell culture.

– I found my position advertised on — a great resource for finding opportunities!

Hope you find these helpful!

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