PhD tips and tricks

Finding and applying for a PhD position can be a daunting task. Here are some tips, tricks and useful pieces of advice from current PhD students. We have also gathered a list of useful websites to help you progress in your academic career, that you can find here.

1. Be genuinely passionate and interested in your topic

As pursuing a PhD is a heavy task with a high workload, it is first necessary to establish if you truly are passionate about what you want to research, and if that passion will help you overcome the many obstacles to success.

Nicky van Es, PhD candidate at the Erasmus Research Centre for Media, Communication and Culture (ERMeCC): “I always like to say that doing a PhD is more of a way of life than a ‘job’, and hence you really need be sure that your passion or interest in doing research is large enough to overcome the obstacles to obtaining a PhD, such as insecurities concerning your own research, or dealing with issues surrounding teaching duties.”

2. Follow your personal interests

A PhD is a long-term commitment, where you spend roughly four years of your life focusing on one topic. Determine what you are truly passionate about in order to keep yourself interested and focused on your topic of choice. Even when you do not write your own proposal, remain true to your own choice.

Ruud Jacobs, PhD student at the Department of Media and Communication: “On sites like Academic Transfer, stick to projects that you are either knowledgeable of or very interested in.”

3. Don’t give up

Even though some are lucky enough to find a PhD position with relative ease, it is often a laborious and time-consuming task to get accepted for a post doctorate programme. Therefore, it’s probably best to prepare yourself for a long-term search.

Emy Koopman, PhD student at the Department of Media and Communication: “Be prepared to take some time to search for a good PhD-position and don't give up too easily. In my case, it took about a year. I could easily 'shop around' and improve my academic CV, because I was taking a second master. Nowadays, second masters tend to be quite expensive, so it's good to have a back-up plan: a side job, preferably a teaching job (or something else that keeps you within the academic world) that you can do while you are searching.”

4. Diverge from the path

Not everyone follows the same path towards a PhD position. Sometimes it is useful, and enjoyable to take a little detour, and gain some experience in a field outside of academia.

Leonieke Bolderman, PhD student at the Department of Arts and Culture: “After I graduated from my Research Master's program, I consciously took a job outside of academia, working as a PR officer at a large Dutch cultural organization. I became familiar with the way cultural organizations work and what (political) issues are at stake in practice, but I also gained valuable experience concerning more mundane stuff: from adjusting to the rhythm of working life to improved writing skills. For me, this has been the best way to prepare for my PhD project, although it is not how I pictured my road towards PhD-life to be when I was still a student. My best advice to anyone who wants to do a PhD is to always follow your interests, even if this means making unexpected choices. These decisions may lead you on an alternative, but in hindsight often valuable path to where you want to go - even if it’s scary at first to diverge from what you’ve pictured your future to be.” 

5. Work on your academic CV

During the research master, you have ample opportunity to already start building your academic CV, for instance through publishing the final product of your research traineeship, as well as your Master’s thesis. PhD candidates note this is important to think about before you start applying to PhD positions.

Ruud Jacobs, PhD student at the Department of Media and Communication: “It helps tremendously if your Bachelor or Master thesis ends up being published. My advice would always be to write your theses in such a way that they already seem like (slightly bloated) research articles.”

Emy Koopman, PhD student at the Department of Media and Communication: “Try to get your work published, present at conferences, write reviews about books in your field, do some voluntary editing jobs. All of these things look great to professors and to funding agencies like NWO, because these are crucial academic skills.”

6. Find a professor who shares your passion/interest

When you have difficulty finding a PhD position that is perfectly aligned with your personal interests, it might be wise to look around for a promotor who is interested in the same subject matter. In this way you can apply for a grant together, and create a PhD position for you.

Emy Koopman, PhD student at the Department of Media and Communication: "In order to find a professor who shares your interests, I would talk to a university teacher whom you trust and who is working within the research field you have in mind. From doing your master's thesis, you may already have an idea who is working in your field, who could help you, also beyond your own university.”

7. Practice makes perfect – don’t feel rejected

In the end, applying for PhD positions is something you get better at whilst doing. Rejection might not feel good, but it does help you learn and will help you improve the next application you send out.

Ruud Jacobs, PhD student at the Department of Media and Communication : “It took me multiple applications before I started sounding attractive to the people I was applying to work with. So rather than go for the clichéd ‘keep on trying’, I will say that applying for these positions is a skill that can be honed through practice. A rejection should not further solidify your sense of failure but is rather necessary and inevitable on the way to getting the chance to work on the project you like.”