How to find your postgraduate research match – Hilkka Kontro

Are you looking to do a PhD? Are you picky about the topic, but also need funding, a supervisor, and the right research group? Well, good luck with that…

Despite not the easiest goal to score, it can happen with some patience and persistence. Especially if you have few limiters regarding location, since the world is big and full of professors looking for new PhD students.

As someone who is leaving the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick, I thought it is apt to write about the process that took me out of this lovely campus and to another continent. One with hopefully equally inspiring surroundings, but also a doctoral trainee programme of my dreams. After spending 2.5 years in UL on a few different research assistant contracts, I finally managed to secure a funded PhD in exercise physiology, in the extremely exciting topic of endurance training adaptations. I will be studying at the University of Calgary in Canada to work with Dr. Martin MacInnis. The process took some time and I learned many things on the way. So, to maybe help someone with similar ambitions to get there faster, here are a few tips and observations.

  • You might first try to apply for open positions advertised widely on pages like com Funded PhD positions – these, however, tend to be extremely competitive. Don’t underestimate the amount of young, bright people who are fighting for the same position, but with a CV just that little bit stronger than yours. Unless you have extraordinary skills or specific experience in the field of research, you are unlikely to get invited for an interview. And if you do, you’ll fly over only to find out that you’re standing against a student who has already worked with this supervisor for years. It was only advertised publicly because they had to, and the position was always set up for this one applicant. I’ve been there three times.
  • When you have banged your head against the wall with this frustrating process for some time, it is time to change strategy before desperation sets in. Now, imagine you could study anything you ever wanted and write a research proposal for it. It’s actually quite fun to start from scratch with your own ideas. Is there something you’ve always wanted to investigate? You’ve probably already done a lot of reading on the topic and know the literature well. So write up a concise draft of your research ambitions to be shared with potential supervisors. You can find several guides online on how to construct a good proposal. Let your mentors or colleagues read it too; feedback can only make it better.
  • Now that you have a research proposal, you just need to find a suitable lab and a person to supervise it. Contacting random researchers is a shot in the dark, if you don’t know they are recruiting and have funding for new postgraduate students. In my experience, Twitter is great for stalking well-established or emerging names in your field. Most researchers are there, and even if some don’t actively share content, it is likely that their colleagues do. By following all relevant scientists you won’t miss any calls for new PhD students. When these come up, email them and attach your proposal and CV – you will certainly get an answer and hopefully an invitation for a (Skype) interview. Remember to tailor your proposal to their lab, so that it is actually feasible with their available techniques and aligns with their research interests.
  • Even if your proposal might not be exactly what your supervisor wants to do, but you already have shown good initiative by sharing your own ideas  – this is likely to leave a good impression (if you have done your literature search). If you get to talk to them, and are not a complete dummy, you almost have a foot in the door! Especially with a few kind referees who are willing to praise you. Then you just need to compromise and make your proposal fit their research plan, or convince them about your initial idea. You might be offered the place sooner than you think.

After finishing my second MSc I  applied for 4 funded PhDs with none of them being successful, despite having all the required qualifications and experience. However, after changing strategy, I contacted 2 supervisors directly with my own ideas – and ended up with 2 offers. Another problem for sure, but at least a more positive one. That reminds me of how I ended up in the University of Limerick: by emailing Prof. Phil Jakeman.

So don’t be shy, as you have nothing to lose, but a lot to gain.
All the best with your own PhD hunt!

Hilkka Kontro was a Research Assistant of  Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick from 2016-2019 working with Professor Phil Jakeman.  Hilkka was a researcher in human physiology in the department. She worked first in a nutrition and exercise metabolism research project, and later in a bone health project. Hilkka can be contacted on     @HilkkaKontro

The PESS department wishes Hilkka the best of luck with her new PhD position at the University of Calgary.

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