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!