How to Find a PhD


Many LFP volunteers are undergrad students or have just completed their degree/masters and many of them ask me “How can I find a PhD?” How did you get yours?” so I thought his was a topic worth discussing! Now I can’t promise you a PhD nor can I say there is a sure fire way to get one but below are my tips.

First I need to explain the difference between two different PhD’s: The studentship and the self-funded. Studentships are generally a PhD offered by a group of supervisors which have a research question or problem and they are effectively hiring a student to solve this issue/answer the question and get a PhD at the same time. These do pop up regularly but are fiercely competitive since they are already funded. However you will get little to no control over the project, depending on the Uni and supervisor. You may get open studentships if you are lucky, these are random and allow you to create a project with a supervisor. Usually field work is not funded with these. May force you to do some teaching but that I all very good experience!

The second is the self-funded. These are sometimes advertised, but mostly these are the PhDs you create yourself and “pitch” to a supervisor. You have lots of control and this is essentially YOUR project but … you need to find the dosh. You need to pay tuition, living costs and field costs. My PhD is this kind :S Basically these are relatively easy enough to find/make since money is often the limiting factor for PhDs.

  • Be Persistent

It won’t happen on its own and a fairy godmother won’t just hand it to you (well she may but she’ll be a supervisor and proposing something very unethical…). You know the websites like etc. well go on it every week. Find universities you are interested in and visit their websites every week. Write it in a diary and on this same day weekly you go through all of your websites. But what are you looking for? You are looking for studentships! University websites are all awfully designed and I see it as a personal challenge. If you can find the page where they keep the studentship information you are halfway there. It is a maze and EVERY uni is different but a page does exist. It may be general or each faculty may have its page. You need to have a huge coffee (or wine) and go through every uni that you are interested in.


This is Katie who did her MSc with LFP. She now has a funded PhD through sheer persistence! Say hit o trackers Dendi and YiYi!!

This is Katie who did her MSc with LFP. She now has a funded PhD through sheer persistence! Say hit o trackers Dendi and YiYi!!

  • Find Supervisors

While you are waiting for your *OMG THIS IS PERFECTTTT* PhD to appear, why not help that happen and send e-mails to ALL of the possible supervisors which are experts in the field of research you are interested in. You need to do more than just say “Hi, I’m looking for a PhD”. Hopefully you know the direction you want to go in and have some ideas of how to accomplish this. These should be mentioned. Be super polite and respectful but not a robot and do not write more than a paragraph (depending on the supervisor, if s/he needs to scroll he may not read it coming from a random). Let them know you have a proposal you would like to show them, this way you can filter out the ones that could not care less or can’t take on more students. This way if a studentship pops up, they may let you know to apply or if they love you may get into discussions about a self-funded. Just don’t send a full proposal to them because they *could* take it and do this amazing research themselves.

  • Find Funding

Okay so let’s say you get in discussions for a self-funded. You are thinking “Hoooooly moley, I just found a PhD this is amazing!” but then you get asked “How will you be funding this?” which pops your short lived bubble. Well there are many grants out there, all of them are competitive and very few of them will pay tuition. I will now tell you something that most supervisors will hate. JUST SAY YOU HAVE THE MONEY AND FIGURE IT OUT LATER. There is a problem in the system that you can’t apply for funding until you have a PhD but you can’t get a PhD until you have funding. Just smile and say yes it is all fine for tuition and field work will be taken through grants. At least after it is agreed, JUMP on the funding and grant applications because you got yourself a PhD baby! Don’t forget government or bank loans which are often essential for paying the large up front tuition costs which you can pay back.

Ex-LFP coordinator Denise also found a funded PhD in Mexico! She is LOVING it.

Ex-LFP coordinator Denise also found a funded PhD in Mexico! She is LOVING it.

  • Apply everywhere

Whether you want the self-funded or studentship, you should be applying to as many studentships as you can. Applications are hard. They make you think critically and nicely sell yourself all the while remaining humble and showing the supervisor how good you will make him look. See it as practice so when you see your “OMG this one is just so perfect for me!” you will be ready. Plus, look at it this way: you can never get a yes if you don’t ask so go apply.

  • Talk to everyone

It is true that it isn’t always what you know, it is who you know. Networking skills are a HUGE asset. Go to conferences to meet the head honchos of the field you want to get into, buy them coffee or a drink, give them a business card of yourself you created a week prior and SHOW them how keen, smart and fabulous you are. Get their cards and follow up a week later. The 2 years before my PhD I would ask my parents to pay conference fees as a Christmas present. Also, you never know who the funders are. You may be lucky to talk to a manager of an institution who is looking to fund a PhD in your area. Believe me, this DOES happen, people.

Stephanie did her MSc with LFP and how she is self funding her amazing PhD project!

Stephanie did her MSc with LFP and how she is self funding her amazing PhD project!

The last tip is you need a little luck. Being at the right place at the right time is lucky and magical and can change your life so how can you make this happen? Be at as many places as possible, talk to as many people a possible, do as many things as possible. Won’t happen if you just sit around 😉

This was a bit of tough love but you need to be pragmatic. If you aren’t, the ones that are will get YOUR PhD. Rise students, rise! It helps to come up with a battle cry when time are low, mine is “SECONDARY PLANT METABOLITES!!!!!!”.

If you found a PhD please post your story in the comments to share with everyone!

Good luck.

Love and Lorises,

Francis Cabana

LFP Research Coordinator/ PhD Student

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