Getting into PhD

Many people around me have asked how I knew I wanted to do my PhD. Well, I didn’t. Pursing a PhD was not my dream when I was younger and neither did I think I could. But when I landed my first proper job as a research assistant at the National Neuroscience Institute, it piqued my intellectual curiosity on the fundamental workings of the brain and allowed me to further my scientific knowledge in hopes of improving the lives of the elderly. It was then that I started looking into PhD programmes that could help me hone my skills as a researcher.

In 2016, I applied to 2 PhD programmes at the University of Newcastle and University of Cambridge. I got accepted into the latter but with no scholarship, which meant that I had to forgo that position. Saying no to Cambridge was not an easy feat.

In 2017, I put my energy into applying for scholarships and sending emails to organisations in hopes that someone would sponsor my graduate studies. I sent a total of 48 emails to different organisations in Singapore but to no avail. I then applied to the National Science Scholarship (NSS) PhD by Agency for Science, Research, and Technology (A*STAR) even though I was shy of meeting their requirements. But at that time, I thought I should just try. What was the harm anyway. After 2 rounds of intense interview, I got the scholarship.

Subsequently, I focused my energy onto looking for a PhD programme. Unfortunately, at that time, I had a very narrow view of what I wanted my PhD to be and I only contacted professors with clinical background studying neurodegenerative disease using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) modalities. I applied to Kings College London, Imperial College London, University of Cambridge, VU University Medical Center (VuMC) in Amsterdam, and University of New South Wales (UNSW). I was fortunate enough to get acceptance into all the programmes. Whilst I really wanted to study at Cambridge, the professor proposed to change the topic to using Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and my primary supervisor to his postdoc instead. That made me rethink my decision. I felt that I should not compromise my topic for the prestige of the school, which drove me to reject Cambridge once again.

Throughout the whole time, I was torn between going to a prestigious school but having to return to Singapore to serve a 4-years bond; and going to a less known school but have a fully paid scholarship. When I visited the laboratories across Europe and in Australia, the choice became slightly clearer. I chose UNSW eventually – it seemed to be a supportive and good environment to pursue a PhD and besides, the scholarship was bond free.

After what seemed like a 100-episodes worth of Korean drama, I finally started my PhD in 2018 at UNSW.

From my experience, I highly recommend individuals who want to pursue a PhD to:

  1. Research
    • Read up on the literature and look up for labs
  2. Step out of your comfort zone
    • If you’re of a clinical background, do not be afraid to venture into computations and vice versa
    • Do not limit your search to only what you’re familiar with
    • Challenge yourself
  3. Be systematic
    • Create a spreadsheet to keep track on what schools you’re interested in, what they do, which professor you want to work with etc
  4. Contact the professors
    • Start sending out emails to professors asking if they have (fully funded) PhD position available;
    • DO NOT APPLY TO SEVERAL PROFESSORS IN THE SAME DEPARTMENT IN THE SAME SCHOOL – it makes you look fickle and it doesn’t leave a good impression
  5. Send follow-up emails if they don’t reply
    • But if you still do not hear back from them after you sent a follow-up email, move on
  6. Interview
    • If you manage to land yourself an interview, make sure you prepare for it and be presentable
  7. Weigh the pros and cons
    • Depending on how many schools you get accepted into, make a list of pros and cons for each
    • Go with what you think it’s best for you but do not be hasty. After all, you want to make sure you choose the place where you can imagine yourself working in for at least the next 3 years of your life

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