An informative piece on what to do, once you decide you might want to do a Ph. D.
Writing as a former wet-lab based Ph. D student in Australia.
So you’ve reached the end of your Honours or Masters degree, or maybe you’ve been working in the field for a while, and decide that you want to torture yourself and continue on to a Ph. D.
I say torture, because- especially if you’ve only done Honours, it’s going to be a hard slog. You really need to be sure that this is what you want to do for the next 3-5 years.
If you’re really sure you want to continue on, do read further. If not, maybe consider reading whether research is right for you.
For those that intend to stay in the lab that they’re already at
If you haven’t already been pressured to continue on to do a Ph. D by your supervisor, I recommend broaching the subject as you near the end of your degree. I would be very surprised if the subject hasn’t come up before, though, as most principal investigators (PIs) want slave- I mean, student labour. Because they either don’t have to pay you, or they pay very little in comparison to actual employees. I think there’s always a push, or some pressure applied from PIs to get their students or research assistants to do a Ph. D.
Discussion of potential projects is a nice place to decide whether you want to continue with what you’ve been working on, or whether to start something new. I opted for the latter, and changed my project to include a brand new field. I’ve written about it a few times already, but I wanted to use that opportunity to learn something new.
Other people continue on with what they were working on already. The obvious advantage being that you’ve essentially boosted the amount of data accumulated by the length of your previous degree.
For those that want to work in a brand new lab (domestic or overseas)
You’ll need to contact your potential supervisor and discuss projects. I’ve written a piece on how to choose the right lab before, but again, you could stay within your field, or maybe you could make a bold move and switch it up completely. Whatever decision you make should be down to you alone, and no one can really tell you whether it’s right or wrong, because it comes down to you as an individual). I know people who regret their projects, those who are indifferent about it, and those who thrived in it… It’s like with anything in life- sometimes you just gotta give it a go, come what may.
So you’ve locked in a potential supervisor, and they’ve given you the all clear that they would be happy to supervise you. You’ve gotten a draft project outlined- which can be tentative, and is subject to change, but otherwise you’re good to go.
The next step is to apply for both the degree and a scholarship.
There’s no minimum weighted average mark(WAM)/GPA requirements to do a Ph. D (at least with the University I went to), so all you need to do is fill out a form and apply. It’s actually a relatively simple process, in that sense. If you haven’t graduated from a degree with the affiliated educational institution, you might need to provide some referee reports. In a given calendar year, students can commence any time between March and October- but most students apply around scholarship application times (October, January, May), because that way you can submit applications for both.
This is the trap. The degree is relatively easy to get in to, which may lull you into a false sense of security. It’s the scholarship that’s the hardest hurdle.
Most scholarships are only offered to those of academic merit- unless there is a special scholarship set up to assist those that fill other criteria. The most common scholarship for Australian citizens/permanent residents is the Australian Government research training program (RTP), which not only pays a stipend (currently sitting at $31,000 pa, with no income tax because it’s an academic stipend), but also has fee offset- meaning you don’t need to pay anything to do your degree.
Other scholarships may only cover the stipend, or just the fee offset. There are many available, and when you apply for the scholarship, most institutions will make it easier on you by allowing you to apply for multiple scholarships at once. If you don’t get one, you automatically get considered for the next one, and so on.
So why is it so important to get a scholarship?
Well, think of it this way- you’re going to be working full time- usually for longer hours than most people, and over weekends. I know people who didn’t get a scholarship, who decided to work in their off time to supplement their income, but… it’s super hard. I don’t recommend it. If you get a stipend, at least the work you do has a wage associated with it. It’s not going to make you rich, but you’ll be able to live relatively comfortably. You also get four weeks annual leave, so there’s some semblance of being a ‘worker’.
The fee offset is another bonus, because if you can get away with not having to pay for your degree- that’s awesome.
But again, the biggest hurdle here is that you have to have exceptionally high marks. Full disclosure, the year I applied for my scholarship, the WAM was around 83-84 for what was then called the Australian Postgraduate Award (APA), now the RTP. I was just on 83, and I didn’t get a first round scholarship offer- I missed out, because my marks were too low. Even at 83, it wasn’t good enough. The cut off gets higher and higher each year as more and more people apply, so now the cut off is sitting around 88-90. For the supervisor, it’s tough, because even if they find an amazing person they want to supervise, if their marks aren’t high enough- they won’t get a scholarship.
But obviously it’s tougher on the potential student, because no matter how much you want it, again- it comes down to numbers.
But all is not lost- there are other ways around this scholarship hurdle.
- Department/Faculty funded scholarships
Sometimes, the Department or Faculty might have some scholarships on offer. It may be a stipend + fee offset combo, or just one of those. Either way, it’s certainly worth looking into it and applying. There’s usually an academic support officer for each Department/Faculty, so it’s worth getting in touch with them and getting some advice. My supervisor was in the know for these sorts of things, and they would liaise with these support officers to try and find loop holes and other options- basically anything to get me in.
2. Apply via a different Department/Faculty
One of the loop hole options considered for me was to apply via a different Department/Faculty. I would be co-supervised by my original supervisor, but in addition to them, I had another co-supervisor from this other Department/Faculty. Every Department has different WAM cut offs for their scholarships, and some are significantly higher than others. This also applies to different universities, so you can also consider your options in that sense- find a university and Department/Faculty that has a lower scholarship cut off, while trying to stay within the field that you want.
Admittedly this can be hard if you’re dead set on a particular Uni, Department, and supervisor, but… again, tossing up your options and reassessing what to prioritise might help you decide what’s the most important thing.
Also- funny story, I actually ended up doing that loop hole project anyway, even when I got my second round scholarship offer. I enrolled via my original Department, and my supervision was split 1:3 with my new supervisor to my original one, but yes- it was originally supposed to be my back door entry.
3. Have someone fund you (whether it be an independent organisation or an individual)
I guess this is the last lot of options, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.
Many organisations affiliated with medical/healthcare settings have research on their agenda, like the Australian Cancer Council. You could have these types of organisations fund your degree, which isn’t actually that unusual. You’ll see advertisements pop up for Ph. D positions that are funded by these organisations on job listing websites.
Finally, there’s also the option of having a single individual fund your scholarship. This could be another PI, a wealthy patron, or your own PI.
Some research grants actually have a student scholarship component in it. It just depends on what the PI wrote in their grant proposal. There’s always a budget estimate, and if they requested a student position, then they can pay for your fees this way.
But the downside to a single individual paying you is that they could pull the plug on your scholarship at any time, and there will always be that power dynamic. The benefit of having a proper scholarship is that everything is in writing, it’s contractual, and isn’t going to be swayed by any individual’s (ulterior) motives. But- hey, if that’s the only option available… I know plenty that are funded like this.
Obviously if you come from money, then you could also just not bother with a scholarship entirely and just pay everything… I don’t know how many people actually do this, but man- it would be rare. It would be such a waste of money, too, if you could’ve applied for scholarships.
So if all of those things align, and you get a good supervisor, get into your degree, and get some sort of financial support, then you’re good to go… but getting to this point can be a pain in the arse.
I’m writing as a domestic student, but obviously for international applicants, the stakes are higher because all of these applications need to be approved in order to apply for a visa. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that aspect of things.
I hope this piece gives you a rough guideline on what the overall processes are to get into a Ph. D.
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬