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Issue 133 Autumn 2019

Endocrinologist > Autumn 2019 > Features

The path to the right PhD

Matthew Sinton | Features

As scientists in training, we’re taught to evaluate evidence, to develop and test hypotheses, and to be rational. Sometimes, though, you have to just trust that indefinable feeling in the pit of your stomach, that tells you whether you’re making the right or wrong decision.

It’s fair to say that my path to starting a PhD was not a particularly straight one. More like a long, circuitous, multi-oxbow-lake sort of path.

Although I began a PhD immediately after finishing my undergraduate degree, things did not go to plan. I decided to quit and meander along, figuring out life, until I realised that I desperately missed science. You see, I realised that I had been right to leave my PhD, but that it was because I had gone about selecting the project without giving it enough thought, or considering enough factors.

I was given a very vague outline of the project on offer, but heard the words ‘cancer’ and ‘stem cells’ and jumped at the opportunity to do research at a prestigious university. Sadly, I didn’t have the experience, and I didn’t receive the support to drive my project forwards. So off I went.

Although it took me several years (and an off-piste journey to become a science teacher … but that’s a different story), I eventually found myself back in the lab, before being accepted onto a PhD programme. This time, I was determined to make the right choice and to make it work. The programme onto which I was accepted included a rotation year, to let us figure out where our interests lay. Unlike my first experience of a PhD, this time I had landed on my feet. I got to experience three fantastic projects with three great supervisors. So, what made the difference?


When I started to think about the different people that I could work with, I looked into what they were interested in, and read around the topics, to see if any of them caught my interest. I decided to contact people by email and ask if we could have a conversation about what they were researching and if they would be interested in taking on a rotation student. It meant that I was able to have multiple, really productive and super-interesting, conversations about science, and in particular about zebrafish, bone marrow adipose tissue, and epigenetics (not all with the same person, I might add).

It was a tricky decision in the end, because I could see myself working on any of the projects, so after weighing up my options, I trusted my gut instinct, for which I have ever since been grateful.


Whether a PhD is 4 years long with rotations or 3 years without, there are several things that I found extremely useful in order to pick the right project.

  1. Have a conversation with your prospective supervisor

Drop them an email and tell them why you’re interested in their work and see if they would be interested in having a chat, whether by Skype or in person. Discuss the project, the sorts of opportunities you’ll receive, and what is expected of PhD students in the lab. If you think you need to, have a follow-up conversation too.

  1. Have a conversation with your prospective lab mates

Most heads of labs will be happy for you to meet their lab group, and it’s a great opportunity to dig a bit deeper, to get a feeling for the lab culture, and the level of supervision and mentorship provided.

  1. Read up on the project

Having been in this position, I feel this is particularly important. If you think that you might be interested in a project, ask your prospective supervisor to recommend a couple of reviews. If you read them and they leave you cold, it’s probably a sign that this area of research isn’t for you. On the flip side, if you love them and want to find out more, then that’s a great sign!

  1. Assess the lab’s experience

Does the lab have expertise in the project on offer, or is it an area that’s new to them? Look at the topics they’ve been working on. It’s not fun to end up in a lab that asks you to work on cancer stem cells to then find out that neither the lab nor anyone associated with it has ever worked on cancer or stem cells. It’s great to work on a cutting-edge project, but make sure that the support and knowledge are available to you.

  1. Lastly, trust your instinct

Picking the right PhD is hard and it takes a lot of time and effort, but it really does pay off. If you’ve really considered everything about a project and it sounds great, but something seems off, don’t ignore it. Listen to your instinct, and take time to think more. Likewise, if your instincts are telling you that the project is perfect, take some time to make sure you’ve considered everything you can, but trust that feeling.

Matthew Sinton, PhD Student, Centre for Cardiovascular Science, Queens Medical Research Institute, University of Edinburgh

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