How to pick your PhD project

Once you have decided you want to carry on doing scientific research the next question is:

What area am I going to do my PhD in and how am I going to pick a project?

This is a big decision as the subject of your PhD will be the main focus of your working hours for the next 3-4 Years! So it is important to pick a research project that you find fascinating.

But having a successful and enjoyable PhD depends on more than just the research topic. The supervisor, lab set up, colleagues and funding situation are all key factors, which if selected carefully can improve the experience of your PhD.

There are differences between PhD adverts in the UK with some PhDs being linked with a direct PhD project and supervisor and others being adverts for general Doctoral Training Programs in broad subject areas.

It is quite hard to get a feel for what a PhD project will be like from just the advert, you can tell if you are interested in the area of research, then you have to carry out some detective work.

If looking at a PhD at a different university to your undergraduate one, try and find out about the supervisor and research group from your current network of lectures and tutors.

Once you are invited to interview, you should get a tour of the lab and opportunity to talk to some of the current members of the group, this is the best opportunity to learn what working here would really be like.

Top questions to ask

  • What do you like best about the lab?
  • Do you socialise outside the lab?
  • How busy is the supervisor?
  • Have you been on any conferences?
  • Do you socialise with any of the other lab groups on this floor?
  • What stage of your PhD/Post Doc are you?

But overall this is only a 30-60min conversation, where you are not able to grill them as you are still trying to make a good impression because you are still being informally interviewed.

So is there a better way to choose your PhD project?

Maybe, the BBSRC Doctoral Training Program at University of Nottingham offers a broad range of bio-science projects, then you can pick 3 of these labs to do a mini project related to the 3 advertised PhDs. These mini projects last ~8 weeks and provide an opportunity for you to find out about the people and environment you could be conducting your PhD in. With the idea being that you can try before you buy and develop some useful lab techniques along the way!

What to look out for in your rotation projects

The 8 weeks gives you more time to gradually build up a picture of the real working environment of that lab group and allows you to compare experiences in different lab groups to help you pick where you fit in best. Here are some of my key areas to watch:

  • People: How many people are in the lab, what stages of study or post doc are they at, will they be leaving soon or keeping you company through most of your PhD?
  • Support: Is there any technical support? Is there enough room and equipment in the lab for you and everyone else to work productively? Have people been involved and taught you techniques in the lab?
  • Work/life dynamic: Pay close attention to the ‘condition’ of the later stage PhD students, some signs of exhaustion are to be expected but if they are demotivated and a bit broken this can be a warning sign. Don’t just put this down to inevitable stress, this may be a sign of a dysfunctional lab. Do they go for coffee breaks and socialise outside the lab?
  • Supervisor: How often is the supervisor around? Is it easy to schedule a meeting? Are there regular lab meetings? Be aware that as a rotation student extra ‘one on one’ time with you may be being factored in to persuade you to pick their project. So remember to consider the time that the other students and staff are receiving, as this will be more likely your PhD experience. Also think about the supervision style of the supervisor as this may not match your own personality, for example do they micro-manage or provide too little direction for you personally?
  • Vibe: What is the general feeling in the lab and lab members, is it friendly? Try and get them to speak freely about the good and bad parts of their PhD, if they only tell you good things they are probably under instructions from the supervisor not to scare you away- which may be a negative sign, as perhaps there are aspects of the lab dynamic that are being hidden. Another area to watch is how anxious people get before lab meetings, this should be a productive space to talk about your work, but in a badly managed lab can become a place of over the top criticism and public humiliation.

Even after 8 weeks of immersion in a lab it is difficult to predict how the next 3 ½ years will pan out, but it gives you a better chance of finding a lab that fits you. Hopefully having a PhD project on a topic fascinating to you paired with having the correct environment and people around you can help get you all the way successfully through your PhD and make in a more enjoyable process.


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