Applying for a PhD in physics

Almost exactly one year ago, I sent my final two applications off for PhD places in cosmology. One year on, as my department prepares to interview the candidates for October 2018 entry, I wanted to reflect on the application process.

In total, I sent off nine applications and had three interviews. I was fortunate in that the first offer I received was from my top choice department, so I wasted no time in accepting the offer and withdrawing my application from the other places where I was still under consideration.

While in retrospect it all seems very easy, at the time it was enormously and uniquely stressful. I remember compulsively checking my emails, sometimes every few minutes, hoping for the magic words: “pleased”, “interview” or “congratulations”.

I was lucky. Eventually, they came.

I say lucky, because in some respects, the applications process is a bit of a lottery. The applicant pool is composed of the best people from their respective institutions, and so you are competing with the best (of course, this means that you’re one of the best too!). I have a number of friends who had comparable grades and experience to me who missed out on PhD places.

Let me now share some advice (or at least, some observations) about the application process for PhDs in cosmology in the UK. Essentially, I think that these tips were what made my application successful. Some of this might be generalisable to physics or science PhDs as a whole.

Before applying

Above all, admissions committees want to see that you have potential to do good research in cosmology. The best way of demonstrating this is to get some research experience and in the UK this should come ready-made for you in the shape of your BSc or Msc/MSci/MPhys dissertation. Really emphasise your independent learning and interest in the subject through this channel.

Admissions committees also want to see that you have potential to do good research in cosmology in their department. Make sure your interests align with what the academics are doing in the departments you’re applying to. There’s no point in applying to Portsmouth if you like particle physics, or Sheffield if you like galaxy evolution.

Application materials

Generally all you will need to apply for a physics PhD is an academic CV, a statement of research interest, your grade transcripts from any previous degrees and two reference letters.

An academic CV differs from a typical CV in that it can be very long, although if you’re at the beginning of your career and applying straight out of undergrad, it will likely be no more than a page. Take a look at other academic CVs to see what kind of content you need to include; many academics will have their CV available to download on their websites. You can see mine here. The main piece of advice I have is to leave off trivial information. Your Grade 6 flute or your month of volunteering in Uganda when you were 17 don’t tell the admissions committee anything about your research potential in cosmology.

The statement of research interest is probably the more important of the two documents; it’s your chance to show off your writing skills (and in physics, this means being clear, concise and accurate) and explain why you want to devote your life to answering the biggest questions in the Universe. Try and keep it to a page in length, format it nicely (using LaTeX is a very good idea) and make sure it has a clear structure. Make sure that anyone reading it knows that you have interest in cosmology, experience in research, and some amount of academic maturity.

Next, your grade transcript. It’s essentially a given that you need very good grades to be considered for a PhD. However, poor grades can be compensated for by having a publication or a very strong reference letter. Remember to request your transcript from your university early, as it may take them a few days to process it.

Finally, the reference letters. Choose your referees wisely. Don’t choose that one lecturer who always forgets to reply to emails — chances are, they will forget to submit your reference letter too, and speaking from experience, this is not easy or fun to rectify. Your referees should ideally be academics in your field who can write convincingly about your research experience and potential. Again, ensure you ask them well in advance, as it can be quite a big commitment for them. It’s a good idea to tell them how many places you are applying to and when they need to send the letters by (although most departments have an online system where you can enter your referee’s email address so they will be notified automatically).

The interview

If you’re invited to interview, talk to as many people as possible, from the current PhD students, to postdocs and staff. Try and get some honest opinions of the department and the university as a whole. You will be spending quite a few, probably stressful years there, so it’s best if you can at least be doing it surrounded by nice people.

Take your time to look around the buildings and city as well. It’s important that you feel at home there, as again, you will be spending nearly all your time there.

Of course, all the usual interview advice applies too: sit up straight, make eye contact, dress smartly (although in academia, you can get away with not wearing a suit if you don’t feel comfortable), keep the tone light. Prepare a couple of questions to put to your interviewers. Make sure you know your dissertation or recent courses back to front and can talk about them in detail if asked. Be prepared to write on the board to explain things.

The level of technical detail the interviewers go into will depend on your background and the department you are applying to: one of my interviews was very informal because it was being conducted by my Master’s dissertation supervisor and another academic; the second was very formal and I spent most of it at the board working through some derivations unrelated to any previous work I’d done. The third had an informal atmosphere and the questions were much more focused on my Master’s work, so while I spent a lot of time at the board, it was far less stressful than the second.

Receiving an offer

Ok, now you can relax — if it’s funded. Do not, under any circumstances (unless you are certain of your own financial stability) accept an unfunded offer.

If you have a funded offer in your hand, don’t feel pressured to accept it. Politely acknowledge receipt of the offer and consider your options. Take the time to contact the potential supervisor and discuss the project in more detail if you can. Visit the department and city again.

Allow yourself a little private joy before sharing the good news with friends and family.

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