A guide to a PhD in Life Sciences in Europe : Part 4 - How to determine your 'area of interest'?

You are about to finish your master’s degree soon. You already know people around you who have gone to Europe for a PhD. You have an idea about various universities offering a PhD program. You are already fantasizing walking down the cobblestoned alleys of a typical European town. Now it’s time for you to shortlist the universities and start applying. You start using the internet and Google throws up loads of information about various universities in Europe offering a PhD. You are overwhelmed and confused with this. Moreover, almost every application procedure wants you to write a statement of purpose (SOP). The principal investigators of research groups want to know your motivation behind applying to their labs. They want to understand what is your area of interest, which skills you have, and how your presence will benefit their ongoing research. If you are aware of your interests and have a good career plan, things are easy for you. However, this is not the case with most students. Most students lack the exposure to the various research fields of biological sciences, and thus, are unable to decide what interests them most. Some students, however, are well-read, have a good theoretical understanding of various topics, but do not understand what exactly does it mean by doing research in a particular field of life sciences. The whole thing results into either a failure in getting a PhD position or ending up in a wrong place. To avoid this mess, it is very important to clear the confusion in your head and decide what exactly you wish to do.

First of all, let’s have an overview of some of the important areas of research in the field of life sciences. I have avoided the textbook definitions and tried to make it as simple as I can. The list is not exhaustive.

·      Biochemistry – It is a study of chemical processes occurring within living organisms. It involves studying biomolecules, metabolic reactions and their regulation. This field mainly deals with carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. The laboratory techniques that exploit the chemical nature of biomolecules are termed as biochemical techniques. Chromatography and electrophoresis are two major biochemical techniques.

·     Molecular biology and genetic engineering – It is a study of nucleic acids and the processes involved in the central dogma of life. The research questions associated with DNA replication, transcription, translation, and the regulation of these processes are grouped under the field of molecular biology. Genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology is a set of techniques used for manipulating DNA sequence. Although it is considered as a separate field, it is based on the concepts of molecular biology.

·     Biophysics – It is the study of how laws of physics govern the processes occurring in living organisms. It involves studying interactions between biomolecules, how proteins fold, how chromosomes are organized, etc. Techniques such as spectroscopy and microscopy, which are based on the physical properties of biomolecules are included amongst biophysical techniques.

·      Structural biology – It is all about determining the structure of biomolecules, mainly proteins. Since the structure of a molecule is its physical property, the field of structural biology is considered as a subset of biophysics. This field involves techniques such as X-ray crystallography and NMR.

·     Bioinformatics and computational biology – Bioinformatics is the use of computer technology to organize and study biological information. For example, creating and maintaining genomic sequence database, looking for homologs of a particular protein by surveying the database, and other similar approaches. On the other hand, computational biology involves developing novel computational tools for addressing biological questions. For example, writing a computer program for an automated analysis of microscopic images. Computational biology requires a thorough knowledge of computer programming. The tools of bioinformatics and the advances technique of obtaining biological data (DNA sequencing, metabolite identification, protein sequencing, etc.) have given rise to specialized areas of study such as genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, metagenomics, etc.

·    Cell biology – It is the study of processes that occur in a single cell. For example, intracellular trafficking, cell movement, cell division, functions of cell organelles, and other similar topics.

·      Microbiology – It is the study of micro-organisms, mainly bacteria. Quorum sensing, biofilm formation, antibiotic resistance, bacterial chemotaxis and motility are some of the important research areas in the field of microbiology.

·       Immunology – It is the study of the immune system.

·     Infection biology – This field involves studying the biology of the infecting agent in the context of the infection process. For example, studying the processes occurring during infection by the malarial parasite or understanding how Vibrio cholerae causes the symptoms of cholera. This field also explores the possible strategies for prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.

·      Evolutionary biology – This field studies different processes related to evolution, such as origin of life, speciation, natural selection, sexual selection etc. These processes are now also being studied at a molecular level using advanced techniques.

·     Systems biology – It is the study of systems of biological components which may be molecules, cells, organisms or even species. It involves quantitative measurement of behaviors of the components under study.

·   Synthetic biology – It is, a) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and b) the re-design of existing biological systems for useful purposes. For example, engineering bacteria for a targeted drug delivery or rewiring the metabolism of an organism for industrial production of a metabolite.

·       Cancer biology – As the name suggests, it involves understanding the various aspects of cancer and looking for its cure.

·       Neurobiology – It is the study of the nervous system.

·      Developmental biology – This field involves studying how a multicellular organism is formed from a single cell.

·       Botany – Study of plants.

·       Zoology – Study of animals.

·       Ecology – Study of the ecosystem.

All the above fields are trying to understand the mystery called ‘life’. As you may recollect from the introductory texts of your high school biology, life is organized at various levels. We see life in the form an organism. The organism is coordinated system of organs, which are made up of tissues and cells. Cells can be broken down to molecules and atoms. Organisms of the same kind make a species whereas organisms of different kinds make an ecosystem. If you look at the descriptions of all the above fields, you will notice that they ‘look’ at ‘life’ at various levels and in different frames of reference. Botany, Zoology, and Microbiology focus on the organism itself. Ecology and evolutionary biology study groups of organisms. Immunology, neurobiology, cancer biology, and developmental biology are fields which analyze processes within an organism. Cell biology focuses on a single cell, whereas biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics deal with molecules within or associated with the cell. Some fields such as bioinformatics, genetic engineering, and structural biology are only tools which help you understand the processes associated with ‘life’. Fields like synthetic biology and systems biology approach the same questions with a completely different perspective.

Although life sciences have been divided into many major and minor disciplines, the nature of research is always interdisciplinary. Let’s take an oversimplified example. Say, you have noticed natural degradation of a xenobiotic compound at a landfill site. The question here is, which microbial agent(s) is responsible for the degradation of the xenobiotic compound? Can this agent be exploited to degrade the same compound at other landfill sites? The first step here is to isolate the microbial agent. This procedure makes use of the principles of microbiology. The techniques of microbiology will lead you to the isolation, identification, and characterization of the microorganism. The next step is to find out the enzyme(s) synthesized by the microorganism, which degrades the xenobiotic compound. Tools and techniques of biochemistry, molecular biology and bioinformatics will help in this investigation. To understand the exact mechanism of the enzyme action, structural biology can be used. The question would be whether this enzyme or the microorganism itself can be used for xenobiotic compound degradation at other sites. The microorganism perhaps needs a specific microhabitat; in which it can express the enzyme of interest. The study of a microhabitat belongs to the field of microbial ecology. Can you rewire the network of genes so that the microorganism can express the enzyme under conditions of your choice? To approach this question, you have to enter the field of synthetic biology. During the whole process, you may need to purify a protein, acquire microscopic images, run enzyme assays, construct mutants, perform PCR, and so on. So, which field does this research question belong to? At a bird’s eye view, the research question belongs to environmental microbiology. However, to answer the research question one needs to use principles and techniques of various other fields. Your PhD may be just about the identification of the gene that encodes the enzyme involved in the degradation of the xenobiotic compound. In this case, you will be spending most of your time with molecular biology techniques. But, you will also gain insights into the field of microbial ecology and the techniques specific to it.

Research questions in the fields of cancer biology, neurobiology, developmental biology, and immunology are way more complicated than the one mentioned above. You entire PhD can be based on understanding the function of a single protein domain, which is likely to be involved in a certain pathway that is related to a specific form of cancer. In this case, you will be using all the principles and techniques of the disciplines that ‘look’ at life at a molecular level. Also, you will study the basics of cancer biology and various other things related to that field. In short, a PhD is all about giving you a thorough understanding of a particular field at all levels. Eventually, when you succeed, it will be a step (albeit, small) towards finding a cure for cancer. Overwhelming, isn’t it? That’s why it is called ‘research’!

Now let’s move to the strategy of determining your own area of interest. There are two ways of doing it. One is ‘textbook-to-research group’ approach and the other is ‘choosing the most interesting research group’ approach. Is there something from our textbook that interests you a lot? Are you fascinated with enzymes? Do you find it interesting to study how neurons function? Are you excited about playing with computer-generated models of biomolecules? Regardless of whether we understand the nature of research, there is always something that we find exciting. Choose any such research area and start reading the latest research literature related to that area. If you cannot choose one, choose three and rank them according to your level of involvement.  Understand the tools and techniques that are used by researchers in that area. Talk to some PhD students working in that area. Attend lectures given by the scientists working in that area. Check if you have sufficient theoretical and practical background to work in that area. If you don’t have enough experience, consider doing a small summer internship or doing your M.Sc. dissertation in that area. After having a lookout, you can start looking for the research groups working in the particular area. Remember, it is an ‘area of interest’ and not a specific research question.

Sometimes, it can happen that you find many fields equally enticing. In this case, think the opposite way. Is there something that you do NOT wish to do? I went through a similar crisis while applying for a PhD. I used to like most disciplines of life sciences and I was confused about which one to choose. However, there were certain things that I strongly disliked. I never enjoyed handling animals for performing experiments. So, the research areas like immunology, infection biology, cancer biology, neurobiology, and developmental biology, which may involve animal handling were not for me. Also, I never found it exciting to sit in front of a computer day in and day out. Thus, I excluded the research areas, which extensively used the tools of bioinformatics and computational biology from my list. Consequently, I was left with fewer research groups that were working in the areas I was comfortable with. I simply chose a research group that was working on something exciting and was hiring PhD students. In short, if you do not know what you like, you should at least know what you do NOT like!

The second approach is to choose the most interesting research group out of the available options. If you neither have something exciting, nor something that you find boring, it can be a bit difficult to choose the research group. In this case, you can simply start looking at the available PhD positions and check if you find something generates curiosity. Have a look at the research group’s homepage. Go through their publications. Try to get an idea of the tools and techniques they are using. Check if your background is suitable for working in that research group. If everything fits well, hit the apply button. This approach can be tedious, time-consuming, and also frustrating. Remember, it is of utmost importance that you have a passion (or at least some level of interest) for working in a particular research area. It is this passion that will help you sustain during in the ups and downs of a PhD life!

I hope this post has helped you to identify your very own area of interest. If you have any further questions, please comment below.  I would love to answer them. If you have any suggestions to improve the contents of this post, please do not hesitate to comment. 

A guide to a PhD in Life Sciences in Europe : Part 3 - A list of some universities and institutes in western Europe

There are hundreds of universities and institutes in western Europe that are offering a PhD in life sciences. At times, it can get overwhelming to select the one that is ‘good’ and fits your area of interest. Here is a list of some well-known universities and institutes in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The links in this post will take you directly to the page of the PhD program offered by the university. This list is not exhaustive. You are requested to search more thoroughly and select the university.

Universities and institutes in Germany

·       Deutsches Krebforschungszentrum (DKFZ) (German Cancer Research Center)
A leading institute for studying cancer biology. Located in the beautiful historic city of Heidelberg. It conducts an interdisciplinary PhD program in cancer biology.
·       DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service)
The DAAD is a funding organization for the international exchange of students and researchers. It has a vast database of PhD positions available in Germany.
·       European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)
EMBL is a publicly-funded intergovernmental organization that is equipped with state-of-the-art research facilities. It has five campuses located in England, France, Germany, and Italy. The main campus is located in the beautiful city of Heidelberg. EMBL conducts a highly competitive international PhD program.
·       Frie Universität
One of the top ranking universities in Germany, located in Berlin. It offers a graduate program in Macromolecular Biosciences.
Highly prestigious university in Germany, located in Göttingen. The university offers a graduate program through the Göttingen Graduate School for Neurosciences, Biophysics, and Molecular Biosciences (GGNB).
·       Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU)
One of the top ranking universities located in the happening city of Munich. It offers several graduate programs in the field of life sciences through the Graduate school of Quantitative Biosciences Munich (QBM), Graduate school of Systemic Neurosciences (GSN) and also a PhD program offered by Gene Center Munich.
·       Max Planck Institutes
The Max Planck Society is Germany’s most successful research organization. It involves 83 institutes engaged in fundamental research in natural sciences and social sciences. Some of the well-known MPI’s working in the field of life sciences are listed below. These institutes offer PhD positions through programs offered by International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS). Every institute conducts its own IMPRS-based PhD admissions.
Ø  MPI of Biochemistry – Martinsried
Ø  MPI for Infection Biology – Berlin
Ø  MPI of Biophysics – Frankfurt am Main
Ø  MPI for Biophysical Chemistry – Göttingen
Ø  MPI for Medical Research – Heidelberg
Ø  MPI of Molecular Physiology – Dortmund
Ø  MPI for Developmental Biology – Tübingen

One of the oldest and top-ranking university in Germany. Located in the beautiful historic city of Heidelberg. The university conducts admissions to various research groups working in the field of life sciences through its graduate school called the Hartmunt-Hoffman Berling International Graduate School (HBIGS).

Universities and institutes in Switzerland

·       ETH Zürich
One of the leading universities in science and technology, located in the picturesque city of Zürich. It is well known for its excellent education, ground-breaking fundamental research, and for implementing research directly into practice. It offers a competitive program for admitting PhD students, through the Life Science Zürich Graduate School.
·       École Polytechnique Fédérale de Laussanne (EPFL)
One of the top-ranking universities in the world. It has a beautiful campus on the shore of a lake in Laussanne, a major city in the French-speaking of part of Switzerland. It offers graduate programs in Biotechnology and Bioengineering, Molecular Life Sciences (Cancer), and Neuroscience.
·       Universität Basel
A well-known university located in Basel, a city that sits on the borders of Germany, France, and Switzerland. The biology center of the university (Biozentrum) offers an interdisciplinary PhD program. Apart from this, the university also offers PhD programs in Biomedicine, Infection Biology, and Plant sciences.

Universities and institutes in Austria

·       Vienna Biocenter
It is one of the most outstanding life sciences hub in the central European region. It offers a competitive PhD program in collaboration with Universität Wien (Vienna University).
It is a center established by University of Vienna and Medical University of Vienna to foster excellence in research and teaching in the field of molecular biology. It offers a competitive PhD program in disciplines such as RNA biology, chromosome dynamics, integrative structural biology, and molecular mechanisms of cell signaling.
It is a young international institute dedicated to basic research and graduate education in natural and mathematical sciences. It is located on the outskirts of Vienna. It accepts PhD students through a program named as ISTScholar

A guide to a PhD in Life Sciences in Europe : Part 2 - Frequently Asked Questions

1.       I hold a master’s degree in botany. Am I eligible for a PhD in cancer biology?

Theoretically, yes. A PhD is generally open for students with diverse backgrounds. It does not matter in which subject the degree is awarded. What matters is what you have studied in the course and how your knowledge is going to be helpful for your desired PhD position. A person can have a degree in chemical engineering and taken courses in biochemical processes. He is also very welcome to do a PhD in a research group that works on metabolic engineering or fermentation technology. There are people with backgrounds in electrical engineering, computer science or even mathematics who are working in the fields of synthetic and systems biology. Once you move up the ladder of education, you will realize that it’s just science! Various subjects and modules that we learn in a bachelor’s or a master’s program carry a title just for convenience. However, if you end up in a lab that works on a topic you have no idea about, you will have to seriously invest some time in understanding what’s going on. If you have good mentors and helpful colleagues, this process becomes less tedious. However, if you want to avoid such a long lag phase at the beginning of your PhD, look for a lab that works on topics about which you have a fair degree of understanding.

2.       I have no idea about what interests me the most. I like everything! How do I decide my area of interest?

The answer to this question deserves a separate post.

3.       Generally, at what time of the year admissions to PhD programs start in Europe?

Unlike the USA, the European universities do not have a fixed timeline for accepting PhD students. Some institutes accept PhD students twice a year, some three times, some throughout the year. Once you have shortlisted the universities, you have to look at their admission procedures individually and plan your applications.

4.       How many PhD positions should I apply to?

It is logical to apply for more than one position. There is no ideal number in this case. Some graduate schools ask you to give 3 choices of research groups that you are willing to work with. In this case, your single application is equivalent to three different applications. Choose and provide your choices wisely. The application procedure is time-intensive. Consider the time you can allot to it and decide the number of applications feasible for you. Do not stress your referees with too many requests for recommendations. Keep other options ready.

5.       How much do I have to spend for my PhD in Europe?

Public universities in most European countries (for example, Germany) have no tuition fees. Your only expenditure involves your living costs. Most PhD positions are funded. That means, if you join a research group as a PhD student, you will receive a stipend to manage your daily expenses. In short, your only expenditure is the air ticket to your destination (some universities also reimburse that amount as well!). Once you start your PhD, you no longer have to depend on your parents to finance your studies. Neither do you have to work part time in a café to support yourself.

6.       How much stipend will I get during my PhD?

The amount of money varies from place to place. It depends on the source of the money. Some PhD students are funded through a research grant. Some have a scholarship, while some are paid through the institute they are associated with. Generally, the amount of money ranges between € 1000 to € 1900. It is more than sufficient to manage your daily expenses. You may not have great savings or enjoy a lavish lifestyle but it’s an experience in independent living.

7.       Do I have to learn German/French/Spanish to do a PhD in respective countries?

No. Research is mostly communicated in English. The courses, seminars, workshops and other activities are conducted mostly in English. However, it is always better to have a working knowledge of the language spoken in the country where you live. Even though it is not required for your academic activities, it can be very helpful in managing your day-to-day activities. You should at least be able to understand how to order a coffee and how much to pay for it.

8.       Will there be any problems in acquiring a visa?

If you have a letter from your prospective advisor or the university administration clearly stating that you have been accepted as a PhD student, and all the other required documents, there will be no hurdles in getting a visa. Unlike the UK or the USA, visa procedure for Germany or other Schengen countries is quick and easy.

9.       I applied to 10 different positions but failed to get selected. What should I do?

First of all, do not get disheartened. There can be various reasons behind the failure. There could have been a lack of funding or a limitation on the number of people to be hired from a specific country. The competition might have been very tough. If you are determined to go to Europe for a PhD and not willing to move on to other options, keep applying until you get in. The better option is to join a Junior researcher’s position in India, gain some research experience, improve your CV and recommendations, and try next year. It is certainly not a waste of time, but an investment in time for better future. 

A guide to a PhD in Life Sciences in Europe : Part 1 - Let's follow these steps

Are you a student pursuing a master’s degree in life sciences and looking forward to pursue a PhD in Europe? You are at the right place. I often receive emails from students studying in Indian universities seeking guidance about pursuing a PhD in Europe. These students are mostly occupied in learning protocols for their upcoming practical exam and hardly find time to figure out and plan their career. Without any exposure to existing opportunities, they find it difficult to find out what, when, and how things are done. So, I decided to post a blog which would be helpful to such students. This post will provide you a step-by-step guide to a PhD in life sciences in Europe.

The very first thing to do before you take any step towards applying for a PhD program is to decide whether you want to do a PhD! Many students seem to be unaware of what is expected from a student in a PhD program. PhD stands for ‘Doctor of Philosophy’. It is the highest academic degree that a student can earn (note - higher degrees exist; but these are usually ‘conferred’ in recognition to one’s work). The PhD degree is awarded when you make a ‘significant contribution’ to the pool of human knowledge. Sounds overwhelming? Have a look at this simple guide to a PhD. This post explains what PhD is all about.

Contributing to the pool of human knowledge is not an easy task. It requires patience (a lot of it, trust me!), dedication, and perseverance. If you are inquisitive by nature, enjoy ‘figuring out’ things, and love to face challenges then PhD is for you. If you are only looking forward only to the title of Doctor in front of your name and the benefits it can bring to your career; please reconsider your career choice. During your PhD, you are expected to learn how to hypothesize, design and execute experiments, analyze the data, draw conclusions, and present your findings in various ways. The process is indeed intellectually challenging. The best way to understand what PhD is like, is to befriend a PhD student! Remember, never ever, never ever, bother him/her by asking how the research is progressing. Be a silent observer. You can also read PhD comics to get an idea of what PhD life is all about in a hilarious way. After going through all of this you will have the necessary data to make an informed decision for yourself whether you want to live that kind of a life for the next 4-5 years.

Once you have decided that you are up for the battle of a PhD, you have to decide if you are willing to move to a European country for a PhD. Europe is a vast continent with a number of countries. The countries in western Europe, such as France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Switzerland, and Austria have invested a lot in fundamental research and offer excellent opportunities to pursue a doctoral degree. Some Scandinavian countries also have good universities for research in life sciences. Most students have an impression that everything in western Europe is of a higher quality than in India. However, as rightly said, pastures are always green on the other side. Once you choose to pursue a PhD in a European university, you are going to spend a significant time there. Every small day-to-day activity of your life is going to be in a different environment. While western Europe does offer an overall safe and sound learning environment and a better standard of living, there are certain things that you may find difficult to adjust with. The weather is certainly not very exciting and the food is bland to the Indian palate. Language can be a barrier while communicating with people around you in most parts of Europe. You will be staying away from your family and friends for a considerable length of time. You can go through this forum on Quora which describes the life in Europe in detail. The best way to get an idea of the day-to-day life in the city of your choice is to get in touch with someone who actually lives there.

Now that you have decided to do a PhD in Europe, you can begin the most daunting task of short-listing the universities and hitting the apply button. There are hundreds of institutes and universities in Europe that are doing research in life sciences and offering PhD positions. It can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out the best ones to apply. The most important criterion that will narrow down your list of universities is your area of interest. The field of life sciences involves everything from cancer biology to marine ecology. What is it that you find most exciting? The problem is, most students do not have enough exposure to (and are hence not aware of) the various fields within life sciences. Consequently, they are unable to decide what interests them the most. However, I must admit, I have gone through a similar crisis. But, there are ways to deal with it. That, by itself could be a subject for another post. For now, let’s assume you have finalized your area of interest and also have a second (or more) option(s) ready. If you want to study plant molecular biology, the institutes working specifically on cancer biology are certainly not going to be in your list. So, now you have fewer options to choose from.

Which is the best university in my list? There are good and bad institutes in every country. There are three things that you must consider before choosing the university. They are - infrastructure, international exposure, and research outcome. Please go through the website of the university and make sure that it is doing good in all of the three areas. Times Higher Education rankings, QS rankings are some of the portals that can help you to check the overall and subject-specific ranking of the university. Infrastructure is all about academic and non-academic facilities available on the university campus. Access to scientific literature, availability of research equipment, an up-to-date library, are some of the important aspects of infrastructure that you should consider. International exposure is another important factor to be taken into account. The best way to judge this is to go through the list of faculty members in the university. When the students and the faculty members have diverse nationalities and academic backgrounds, there are better prospects of learning different skills and expanding your worldview. Some research groups in European countries are sometimes full of local members. Not only do they talk in their native language, but also discuss science the same way. You most certainly do not want to end up in such a group and face a language barrier throughout your PhD. You can also have a look at the events like colloquia, conferences, guest lectures, and workshops being held at the university. When researchers from different corners of the world visit the university, it leads to an exchange of ideas and skills. Such a dynamic academic environment is very conducive for being a good researcher. Third and the most important thing to be considered while choosing a university is the research outcome. You can have a look at the list of recently published research articles from the university. A consistent record of publications in high impact factor journals is a sign (though, not the only one) of excellence in research. It is possible that not all research groups in a university are performing well. It is also possible that a certain research group is doing really good research in spite of having not-so-great infrastructure and poor diversity. You should consider all these criteria together and make an informed decision. You can find a handy list of ‘good’ institutes and universities in western Europe in this blog post.

The next step is quite obvious. Once you have shortlisted the university and your prospective advisor, you have to find out the exact details of the application procedure. First and foremost, you can consider sending an email to the principal investigator of your desired research group and inquire about the availability of a PhD position. If the PhD position is already advertised, you can still send an email and express your interest. Do not forget to attach your CV to this email. In most cases, the PI will direct you to the online application portal of the university. Most universities and institutes in Europe have graduate schools offering PhD programs. These programs are tasked with organizing the selection procedure for PhD candidates, keeping a track of their PhD projects, conducting courses, and organizing cultural activities. The graduate school website describes the application procedure well in detail. Make sure you meet the eligibility criteria and have all the supporting documents with you. Some institutes require that the candidate qualify exams like Graduate Record Examination (GRE) (General and/or subject GRE). If you are not a native English speaker, the university may ask for English proficiency tests like Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing Service (IELTS). If the university of your choice demands these, make sure you have qualified these exams and that the score card is available with you before starting the application procedure. Keep a track of the deadlines. Another important aspect of an application procedure is the recommendation letters. Inform your referees about the application procedure well in advance.

Now that you have applied to some universities, it is the time to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You will be facing a global competition. The fate of your application is mainly dependent on your research experience, academic background, and recommendations. In Europe, a student gets a thorough exposure to various research areas during their bachelor’s and master’s studies. They also get a chance to work in a research group for almost a year and write a master’s thesis with decent scientific findings. Thus, at the time of applying for a PhD, a student is expected to have hands-on experience with basic laboratory techniques and a rough idea about the research area the student is interested in. You stand a high chance of getting selected if you can convince the advisor that your skills and experience are the most suitable for working in his/her research group. For example, if you are applying to a lab that works on genetics and uses drosophila as a model system, your little experience of working with drosophila will certainly be useful. If you do not have any experience of working in the specific field, you should at least be well aware of the basic techniques in microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Your academic background, i.e. your grades right from high school to your master’s, play an important role in the application assessment. Your grades indicate where you stand among the students who studied with you. If your grades indicate that you have been among the top 25% of your class and your academic performance is consistent, then you have a good chance of getting selected. The next important aspect of your application is the recommendation letter given by your referees. If you have been recommended by a well-known researcher, you have a good chance of getting selected for the PhD program. In fact, in many universities, the application portal provides an online system for filling in recommendation letters. This way they ensure that the recommendation provided by the referee for the applicant is legit. Please bear in mind that your application is going to be judged in comparison with other applicants. Which factor works in your favor and which one works against you depends entirely on the other applications.

Some institutes have a two-step selection procedure. Based on your application, they may invite you for an interview over telephone or through video conference. If they find your application to be suitable for their requirement, they may invite you to visit the lab and the university in Europe and conduct another round of interview. Some institutes also conduct their own written test. Finally, if you qualify all the tests and the advisor is willing to hire you, an offer letter will be sent. If you accept the offer letter, you have won the battle!

Let’s summarize the steps towards your PhD position in Europe.
  1. Decide whether you want to do a PhD! - very crucial
  2. Decide if you are willing to move to a European country for 4-5 years
  3. Finalize your area of interest
  4. Short-list the names of universities and the research groups
  5. Understand the application procedure
  6. Apply!

Cycling along the river Rhine - Part 3 - A visit to Lorelei and a bird’s eye view of the Rhine valley

After a short while, I reached the village of Sankt Goar. Close to the village was a jetty. A ferry boat was making trips to and fro across the river banks. Vehicles were allowed aboard the ferry. For a nominal price of €2.50, I reached the opposite bank. This village is well-known for the legend of Lorelei. There is a stone hill located close to the village. According to the legend, a beautiful damsel named Lorelei, on being betrayed by her lover, ended her life by jumping off the hill into the waters of the river below. Since then, people have reported seeing her atop the hill; singing by herself. Because of her enchanting beauty and her captivating voice, many a sailors have been reportedly distracted and are said to have lost their lives in accidents. Hence, the hill goes by the name of Lorelei hill. 
According to Wikipedia, this legend is actually a modern myth resulting from ballads written in the 19thcentury. Whatever the source of the story, this place is popular with the tourists because of the folklore. A statue of Lorelei has been erected on one of the islands in the river. There are special tours arranged from the surrounding cities to Lorelei. In short, the people who gave rise to the legend of Lorelei have successfully managed to look after the financial sustenance of the people from the village of Lorelei. Anyways, so be it.

After taking a glimpse of the fabled Lorelei, I moved on. By this time there was a fire raging in my belly. I saw a beer garden at close call. After satiating my hunger and thirst, I moved on. Suddenly, I saw a notice ahead which said ‘Cycle route ahead closed. Use the diversion instead’. There was a diversion indicated since the road ahead was closed for repairs. I started to cycle along the indicated route. After a while the route started moving uphill. Until then, I had bicycled on a relatively flat terrain so the climb was completely unexpected. Cycling up a slope on a full tummy made me a little annoyed. Thinking of how far and how long I may have to cycle uphill, I started grinding the bicycle wheels uphill. The gravelly road ride on a dirt track exhausted me. Finally, the slope evened out and I stopped to rest for a while …and what do I see? I had reached a vineyard on the top of the hill. The Rhine turning around a bend was beautiful to behold. The far-off castles could be seen in a single glance. As the sun moved towards the west, the landscape appeared even more beautiful in the angled rays. The gentle breeze and a prevailing peace afforded a very different experience. A diversion had led me to this beautiful place. Such moments of unexpected pleasure in your journey stay with you forever. I captured the scene in my mind and the view in my camera, and moved on.

The view from the diversion
Finally, I reached Rüdelsheim, a city located on the bank opposite to that of Bingen. Using a ferry, I crossed the river over to Bingen. By this time, it was 8 o’clock in the evening and sunset was fast approaching. I had successfully managed to complete my cycle tour before sunset. Luckily, the intercity train for the return journey was sparsely crowded. So, with my bicycle on-board, I reached Mannheim in an hour. From there, it was the regular route back home. I had cycled a total of 65 kilometres that day and my legs had started to complain. However, I now had the satisfaction of having had an unforgettable experience.

Cycling along the river Rhine - Part 2 - A missed train and the beginnings of a great journey

I was looking forward to cycling in the Rhine valley. I chose a Sunday in the month of August (after making sure that there was a high probability of sunlight throughout the day) to visit the Rhine valley. At the time, I used to reside in the city of Heidelberg. Bingen was a city located around 100 kilometers from Heidelberg but there was no direct train in the morning to take me there. Hence, I decided to take the intercity train to Koblenz, cycle from Koblenz to Bingen along the bank of the river and in the evening board the return train from Bingen to Heidelberg. Having chalked out my route, I gathered my bicycle, camera and other paraphernalia and reached Heidelberg station in time for the train. Eventually, the train arrived. The trains have a separate compartment for bicycles. On seeing me board the train with a bicycle, the train ticket controller stepped out with a harassed look. He asked me if I had a reservation for the bicycle. I had made no such reservation. Geht nicht! (Won’t do!) he told me firmly and restricted me from loading my bicycle. He said that the compartment was already filled above and over its capacity. I peeped inside the compartment to only see that it was truly packed with cyclists. Dejected, I disembarked from the train. Arguing with the ticket controller would have been a futile exercise and a precious waste of time. At its scheduled time, the train departed. The train rumbled down the tracks leaving poor old me on the platform to stare at its receding outline. What do I do now? Usually, even without an advance bicycle reservation, one finds place to board the train with a bicycle. Hence, I had not taken the effort of making a separate bicycle reservation. The rush on that specific day was completely unexpected and took me by surprise. I stood on the platform contemplating what to do next. Having taken the effort to get ready for the trip, I was loath to go back home. Hence, I firmed up and decided not to go back unless and until I had a glimpse of the Rhine valley. Having made up my mind thus, I started looking for other options to reach the valley.

The next train to Koblenz was at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. That would have been too late. So I looked up the regional train schedule. There was a scheduled departure in the next 30 minutes that, through a connecting train, would reach me at Bingen at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Immediately, I looked up Google Maps and decided on an alternate route from Bingen to Sankt Goar and back. According to the new plan, I would reach back home at Heidelberg at 11 pm. But I decided to get it done and put it behind me, so I embarked on my journey. Heidelberg to Mannheim, Mannheim to Kaiserslautern and from there on to Bingen. Taking such an unorthodox route I reached Bingen three hours later. Luckily, the regional train reached Bingen on time. No sooner I stepped out of Bingen station, then I saw the bank of the Rhine river. The murky green waters of the river were relatively calm. The garden located on the bank of the river was quite in the afternoon sun. It was a warm and lazy summer afternoon and I could sense it in the air. Au contraire, I was teeming with energy and looking forward to a circumambulation of the Rhine. I started cycling along the edge of the river. A short distance ahead, I saw a board providing information about the bicycle route along the bank of the river. Sankt Goar was located 29 kilometers along the route. So I calculated that I should be able to easily reach my destination in 2 hours (give or take a few minutes) and return back to Bingen before sunset. However, in a corner of my heart, I was a bit sceptic about making it back in time. However, after an incantation to Lord Ganesha (the remover of all obstacles), I started on my journey.

The Rhine, vineyards, and my bike

Oberwiesel and Schünburg
The river-bed was wide. I could see even large boats plying up and down the river. The slopes of mountains on both sides of the river were lined with vineyards. The rows of grape vines gave the mountains a ‘combed hair’ look. The road and the railway meandered between the hills and the river. The cycle lane was on the edge of the road, along the river bank. Vast gardens, an occasional beer-garden, a campsite or sometimes a jetty for embarking and disembarking interrupted the bank along the route. After a short ride, the well-known castles atop the mountains started making their appearance. Some were as grand as a palace while others were like a small mansion. Built somewhere between the 12th and 14th century AD, these castles are an excellent example of the then prevailing style of architecture. I continued my journey, stopping in between to take a photograph or two of the castles and the river. On my way, I reached a village called Oberwiesel. There is a medieval observation tower on the border of the village. Atop a mountain behind the village stands a beautiful mansion. This is called Schünburg. Amongst the many castles found in the area, this castle and the village of Oberwiesel are popular with tourists. The river takes a magnificent turn here and adds to the beauty of the place. After bit of photography around the place, I moved on.

The train route, the road and the bicycle track in the middle Rhine valley