Finding a fully-funded PhD abroad is not a straightforward process. In fact, for Indian applicants, the process is even tougher due to a variety of reasons. In this post, Ankita Murmu, who has written popular posts earlier on Stoodnt, writes about her PhD admission journey.
Fully-Funded PhD in Bioinformatics Admission Journey
By Ankita Murmu
Initial Struggles with Finding Internships Abroad
My decision to apply for a PhD admission started while I was still pursuing my master’s degree. I became interested in bioinformatics while working on my master’s thesis and decided to continue my research passion in this field.
Since the beginning, I had a clear idea about which research areas interested me. At that time, I had zero knowledge about how to get a PhD abroad.
I always wanted to go abroad to gain research experience. I did try for a few research internships during my bachelor’s as well as during my master’s. However, I wasn’t lucky enough to get into one!
Competition for PhD Admissions in India
My first option was definitely to pursue my PhD in India. Moving abroad was my plan B. I talked to a lot of people; my professors, friends, and family members regarding whether India or abroad would be better to pursue my PhD.
To be honest, the more I talked to people the more I got confused. But that didn’t let me lose my passion to pursue my PhD. I started applying to the PhD admission calls from all the premier institutions in India such as IITs and IISC during the last semester of my master’s.
I had the perception that because I have a valid GATE score, it would be easy for me to get admission. But things turned out to be quite the opposite. The competition to secure a few seats was extremely high. I got selected for a few interviews but couldn’t qualify for any of them. Although that was demotivating, I didn’t lose hope. I turned to my plan B!
Turning on to Plan B: Fully-Funded PhD Abroad
It did feel fuzzy at the beginning on how to go ahead with my PhD hunting abroad. So, I did a lot of research regarding this.
I had my mind fixed on going to universities within Europe majorly because of the less time duration to complete the PhD and research facilities.
I wanted to work on complex diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease using bioinformatics and wet-lab approaches. Accordingly, I started targeting those professors whose research interests matched mine.
So, I started cold-emailing professors in well-known institutes like the Center for Gene Regulation (CRG), European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), and many more based on my research interests and the research profile of the professors.
Centralized PhD Applications
However, I realized that some of these institutes’ PhD recruitment process is not in the hands of the supervisor but a completely different committee. They have their open PhD calls once or twice a year where the potential candidates have to apply and the hiring committee decides whom to select.
This kind of application is quite competitive and they look into many aspects of the candidate’s application such as previous research experience, previous grades, universities, publications, etc. Also, if the professor knows you it gives you an edge!
To be honest, Google was the first source in helping me get an idea about how to write cold emails to professors, or prepare a CV or a cover letter. I used to modify my emails each time I sent them. I believe this was important to make the professor who reads the email not think that I just copy pasted!
The objective was to make them think that I genuinely put my efforts into writing that email and I am very much interested in their research.
Important things I kept in mind while cold emailing professors to get a fully-funded PhD Abroad:
- I kept my emails concise and to the point. Nobody has time to read long emails!
- I highlighted the important words in “bold”. Eye-catching!
- I emphasized how I can fit into their research team by using my skill sets. Basically, convincing them to take me!
- I read their recent research papers and highlighted something that I liked or that I can further contribute to. Researchers or Professors love when someone praises their work!
My Experience of Finding a Fully-Funded PhD in Europe
The first few months of my PhD hunt were quite frustrating. I used to email 10-20 professors from different institutes or departments every day. Sometimes I used to get polite responses from most of the supervisors only when they are not taking PhD students other times it was just silent.
Then I tried a different approach. I started applying for open positions advertised on websites like findAPhd, Euraxess, and academic positions. Naturecareers and also on LinkedIn and the websites of the universities.
These open positions just ask for a CV and a cover letter and I felt it was an easy way to apply. But soon I realized this is the narrow and the harder way as the position requirements are mostly for one PhD student and the professors get hundreds of applications for that one position.
Luckily, I was invited for my first interview when I applied for one of the open PhD positions at the University of Warsaw. Similarly, I attended 10 more interviews from different universities but couldn’t make it to anyone of them.
I realized that my rejections were mostly due to my lack of bioinformatics skills. So, to upgrade my skills in bioinformatics, I attended workshops, took some online courses, participated in a Hackathon, and underwent internships as well.
I didn’t look for any Research Assistant or Junior Research Fellow positions because I wanted to focus entirely on my PhD hunting. Although, I would suggest anyone who wants to pursue a PhD abroad (mostly if it’s within Europe) gain at least one year of research experience before starting their PhD.
Networking and Family Support Always Help
I started my PhD hunting in the month of February 2021 and it was until October 2021 that I had no positive responses. It was discouraging and demotivating for me and I started losing hope.
My family was my biggest support during those times. I didn’t give up.
I came to know about the Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship from one of my friends. The application opens in mid of November so I started contacting professors in August 2021.
Connecting with the Right Supervisor for a Fully-Funded PhD Abroad
It was at the beginning of November 2021 that my current supervisor invited me for an interview and voila! He was so impressed with my resume and bioinformatics skills that he wanted to hire me as a PhD student.
Again, the challenge was that I could only join his research group if I was successful in getting the scholarship.
Some Good News
In February 2022, my joy knew no bounds when I was nominated for the scholarship by the University Grants Commission, India. Finally, some hope and confidence started to build up in me in making my dream come true. But, I still had to wait for the final results until June 2022.
In between those months, I also received another PhD offer from Bar Ilan University, Israel. One of the professors I was working with on a remote project from Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany also decided to offer me a PhD position. But due to a delay in funding, I decided not to consider that (as I didn’t want to lose another year).
Finally, after receiving 40 rejections and waiting for almost a year, I was offered the Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship and a PhD position at the Department of Bioinformatics, Semmelweis University under Prof. Balázs Győrffy.
Not only I got it in my country of choice (within Europe) but also in the research area I was interested in. My PhD work revolves around analyzing multi-omics data for different cancer types and focusing on their diagnostic, predictive, and prognostic applications.
Tips for Finding Fully-Funded PhD Abroad
I would like to end this article by giving a few tips on PhD hunting based on my experience:
- You need a strong motivation to engage in PhD research. As simple as this sounds, it is important for students to know if having a PhD degree is the right step to take in the first place.
- Have a clear picture of what you want to do. Start planning early. A good PhD research takes a lot of time to conceive.
- Start building your skills and research profile based on your research interests.
- When you are applying for a PhD program and you are allowed to choose your own supervisor, try to look for a supervisor who would have your interest at heart. Ask the current graduate students (I personally did that)and check the supervisor’s profile thoroughly!
- I believe that the institution doesn’t matter much but if you have an excellent lab group and a supportive supervisor your PhD journey will be more fruitful.
- Surround yourself with people who can motivate you while you go through your PhD hunting process. This will help you a lot to not lose focus.
- Finally, have faith in yourself and be confident. Hard work always pays off!
If you have any questions or need any help in your PhD hunting you can always connect with me on LinkedIn.
About Ankita Murmu:
Ankita worked as a Data Curation Intern at NuGenomics. She completed her Bachelors & Masters in Biotechnology and interned at CSIR, Pine Biotech, and Guwahati Biotech Park.
Ankita comes from a land of the highest tea production in India and a place known for its red rivers and blue hills – Assam. Writing articles is her passion, traveling is her hobby and, she is a huge lover of food.
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