Before I applied for a QUADRAT PhD project, I didn’t know much about competitively funded PhDs. If you are a planner, or like to know as much as possible beforehand, this was my experience applying for a competition funded PhD.
What is a competition funded PhD?
A competition funded PhD means that not every PhD project that’s advertised will receive funding. A wide range of high quality projects are advertised to allow more candidates to apply and be considered, and it is therefore more inclusive. Which projects receive funding is based on the quality of the applicants applying.
This stage is the same as every other application you might do; you follow the application process and wait to hear back.
A quick note: I applied for several PhDs at different universities before being accepted by QUADRAT, so don’t ever feel the number of projects you’ve applied for is a reflection on your ability to be a good PhD student. I’m glad I didn’t get invited for interviews before this one because my PhD project is perfect for me – I would have enjoyed the others I’d applied for, but this is what I really, really, really wanted to do.
Supervisors select their candidate
Once the application deadline has passed the supervisors have to select their top candidate per project who then go on to be interviewed by a central panel who aren’t directly involved with the projects. So it’s the best of the best that ultimately get the PhD places. At an early stage I had a Skype call where I met both of my supervisors, and they asked me a few more questions about my background. I also got to ask them more about the project, and find out more about the application process. It’s perfectly normal to be in contact with the project supervisor before applying and throughout the process – it’s good for both parties to get to know one-another to be sure that you’d work well together. One of my supervisors also put me in touch with his previous PhD student, which was so helpful for learning more about what it was like to study for a PhD and live in Aberdeen.
The time between the application closing and me hearing that I had been chosen as the applicant for my project and so would be formally interviewed was around two or three weeks which gave me plenty of time to prepare.
The interview was held in the Sir Duncan Rice Library (it’s beautiful, with fantastic views) with a panel of five members of the QUADRAT board (Interviews for Queen’s University-based projects were held in Belfast later that week). I was a little terrified when I heard there was a panel interview involved. I’d only ever done one before – I was 17 and applied for a store assistant job at Tesco; I would actually say the Tesco interview was worse and more intense than my QUADRAT panel interview. I think everyone I’ve spoken to about their panel interview said it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as they thought it would be. The panel are absolutely not going to grill you like they do on The Apprentice; they were all lovely. For my year, I had to give a brief presentation about a previous research project we had worked on, followed by questions on my past research and future research plans and career aspirations. I decided to do my presentation about part of my masters dissertation which I actually really enjoyed doing because my Masters project was similar to what I would be looking at in my PhD project, so I was excited to talk to other people about it. I had also never spoken to another academic (aside from my masters supervisor) about my project, so I found it invaluable to find out what someone who had no prior knowledge of my project thought about it.
There were a couple of questions where my mind went blank and I couldn’t think of an answer – the panel didn’t make me feel bad about that and they moved on, but I was convinced I’d screwed my chance up. I realise now that the panel aren’t looking for you to know everything already.
Waiting and refreshing emails
I don’t think I’ve ever checked my email as much as I did while waiting to hear if I’d been offered a place or not. My lead supervisor asked for a Skype call (I think it was a couple of weeks after the interview) and I remember trying to figure out if a Skype call was a good sign or not. He told me that I’d been offered a place and my first response was “ok.”
The next stage involved even more waiting until the start date rolled around, and there were definitely a couple of times where I wondered if I’d imagined it all – or it had been a dream. But it wasn’t, and my first few weeks of my project are going really well!
I hope that sharing my experience has been useful, as I know I would have found reading about someone else’s experience useful.