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Roadmap: How To Join A PhD Research Program

Posted: August 25, 2014

Here is a roadmap on how to join a PhD research program, and make informed choices about the most interesting journey of your student career: to achieve a PhD degree.

Many of us like the process of learning and we strive to explore more into our domain (be it the Sciences or other fields) through research. A PhD is the first milestone to becoming a researcher or academician. Undergoing a PhD degree can enhance a lot of skills and can open up new fields of work for you, but it is looked upon as a difficult journey. Taking the plunge to start a PhD is still overwhelming for most Indian women.

(While some information in this piece is geared towards those in the Sciences, a lot of it is relevant to PhD aspirants in any area).

How things stand today

Many Indian women wish to go for a PhD but are hesitant to take the plunge considering the time it requires, the conflict it may bring in personal commitments (read marriage), and the lower money that that they would earn as compared to their peers during the 3-5 years of PhD.

Additionally Indian women are not often encouraged by their families or wider society to go for a PhDdegree, as it is considered difficult to find a match for ‘overqualified’ Indian women within the same community.

Any form of higher education, the PhD degree being one, can bring immense confidence in a woman and that is sometimes seen as undesirable in a society that is used to seeing women in passive roles.

Given this backdrop, it is up to us, the thinking Indian women of today, to find a way out of this situation.

Identify your passion and skills

The PhD tenure can vary from 3-6 years and demands persistent interest to perform repetitive experiments and studies, data analysis, long hours, reading, public presentation, summarizing large data, and writing.

Such involvement is possible only when you are working in a subject that you are passionate and curious about. A PhD also requires self-motivation, logical thinking, strong interest in technology, travel for field trips and conferences, a problem solving attitude, fast learning ability, time management, and accepting the new.

So it is important that before looking for a PhD position you carefully identify the activities you enjoyed until your Masters and map them to the required skills for PhD.

How to zero in on your PhD topic

It is important to be open about the topics or field you want to study. Searching online about the application various research topics is helpful. There are possibilities of integrated PhD in many institutes (Masters + PhD program). Find out if there are industrial applications in the fields that interest you. The Career section of Science journal is a very good resource for this.

Reach out to others (use LinkedIn) working in the same field and the faculty of your university, find and read journal articles published in those fields for more information.

After zeroing down on the topics you want to do your PhD in, it is important to find the institutes in India or abroad who are working in the same subject and can offer a PhD position in that field.

Do a PhD in India or abroad?

In India, there are national level exams like NET or GATE which are conducted by different scientific bodies and upon scoring more than the cut off marks, you are eligible for scholarship during the PhD tenure. The Faculty of Indian research institutes (CSIR, DST, private) and universities conduct interviews at specific times of the year to select suitable candidates.

You may also want to go abroad to countries such as the USA, UK or Australia, to pursue your PhD career. Non-English speaking but technology driven countries like Switzerland, Germany and France too have opened up their doors to foreign students and they have many programs to attract International students for PhD. It is important to understand the scholarship structure wherever you want to go for a PhD.

It is also possible to do a PhD on a part-time basis and this is a useful way to get a degree if you are a teaching faculty member. You may not be eligible for stipend or PhD scholarship in this case.

Doubtful of a PhD? Start small

If are doubtful of your commitment of 3-5 years for a PhD program, you can start small through a Masters project thesis, graduating to summer project students in different laboratories of India or outside India. There are various scholarship programs for summer projects in Germany, UK or USA. Prepare your CV according to the position you are searching for and include information about your scientific quest, skills, and achievements.

Apply, and apply some more!

Once you have decided to join a PhD program, it is important that you keep searching for various opportunities in that field and keep applying. You may not get an interview offer through your first application; sometimes an offer would be there but without any scholarship.

It is strongly recommended that if you are going for a fulltime PhD program then you should opt for a scholarship or a PhD program combined with paid teaching assistantships (popular in the US and Europe). Change your CV and cover letter as per the positions advertised. Also spend some time in writing a research proposal as this is asked with many PhD applications.

PhD possible after a break?

Sometimes, it may not be possible to start a PhD just after you earn the Master’s degree due to a job or marriage, but in most countries there is no age-limit to earn a PhD degree. (Age can become a factor if you want to work for government organizations in India after completing your PhD.)

It is important that you make an informed decision and be aware of different policies on Government jobs in different Indian research institutes or the country of your residence.

Start your PhD with an open mind

After joining a research group as a PhD student, you may find it challenging to learn the new field of study, understand the expectations of the research guide, or create a rapport with the work colleagues. The PhD tenure is very different from the education we get until the Master’s degree in India and that can be confusing for many.

It is important to reach out to peers and mentors about the issues that are troubling you. Be open to ask questions and discuss specific topics of interest. Some experiments may be really long and tough to crack. All these would need persistence from you and a strong individual development plan.

A PhD is a life changing experience and you should accept this journey with open arms towards its challenges and fulfillment. 

Pic credit: Maia (Used under a CC license)

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Comments

2 Comments


  1. Dr Rina Mukherji -

    Doing your Ph.D can not only be fulfilling but very paying too, if you are on a UGC fellowship,( if in India). The UGC is generous, believe me, although it does expect a first-rate job. Taking occasional lectures, as you may be called to do, or taking part in seminars and presenting papers, as I did, is not just a learning experience, but helps you build confidence too. Abroad, a full scholarship or assistantship is as good as having a job and more. In both cases, you can save a tidy sum , while being able to concentrate on your research.

    As regards parents or in-laws coming in your way, it is nothing new. I have faced that myself, in spite of getting a hefty fellowship stipend. The important thing is remaining focussed on your goals, and the accolades will come thick and fast.

    Incidentally, I would like to say one more thing: a Ph D does not just prepare you for a teaching job or research, you can use the skills you acquire in a host of other jobs too. I was and continue being a journalist, and the analytical skills I acquired have helped me a great deal. Presenting papers have also honed my debating skills, and I can now speak extempore to huge audiences without flinching now.

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