How to become a PhD student

Pranav S. Kulkarni
Pranav S. Kulkarni
21 Nov '19

It was my lifelong dream to become a researcher. I remember drawing a hazard symbol on my bedroom door with the sign “danger” undersigned as “Dr. Pranav Kulkarni” when I was about 12 years of age. I also remember that in school, I used to day dream of becoming a scientist one day and may be change the world just like in Dexter’s Laboratories (if you get the reference). And now, I might be able to turn this dream into an actual reality. I say that with such optimism and enthusiasm because recently I started with my PhD on a joint project between Utrecht University and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. So far, it has been a fantastic beginning.

To talk of beginnings, I decided to write this blog as a casual quasi-suggestion article for those of our readers who are aspiring to pursue a PhD and subsequently a career in research or those who are yet not sure of their path. Now before we get down to some serious stuff, I would like to point out that I am neither an expert in academic careers nor am I well experienced. I will simply build upon the fact that I just have a background story that may be interestingly different or thought provoking at the very least.

What I will like to do is provide some clues as to what it takes to pursue a PhD (that I think are worthwhile) through my story. So, here it goes…

First beginning, the Bachelor of all trades…

If you have a fixed discipline/science stream or a social sciences and humanities subject that you would pursue in the future, it is important to find a compatible bachelors’ program. It must be something that can be the foundation of your future area of research. At the same time, it might be worthwhile to choose something which gives you a transferable skill set. For example, I graduated as a veterinarian from my bachelors in 5 years, simply because I love studying animals and animal-based population studies. It had several benefits:

  1. Interest: deep understanding of animals and their biology including but not limited to, anatomy and physiology which can be used for any animal-related research work
  2. Professional degree: it gave me a flexible skill set which can be easily used for practicing as a vet or as a diagnostic lab-based vet technician or as a researcher in industrial and academic settings
  3. Agricultural background: Inadvertently, a program such as veterinary medicine trained an urban kid like me to understand and integrate in the rural life of animal husbandry and agriculture
  4. Network: the program also provided me with a close-knit network of vets who are either practicing professionals or field-based workers. These people (either my seniors or juniors) provided me with valuable advice, anecdotes and occasional tips about the current happenings. Ultimately it was people from this network who told me about the Masters’ program that I enrolled in.

Second beginnings, Master of some…

After your bachelors, hopefully, you have enough idea of what specific stream you want to pursue. A narrowing of alternatives will automatically take place depending on your performance. Depending on that, you can choose your masters’ program. Also, it is vital that you transfer to a university which has done quite some research in the area of your interest.

In my case, I chose to pursue masters’ in animal science with focus on quantitative “breeding and genetics” at Wageningen University. I decided to do that based on following criteria:

  1. Reputation and compatibility of the university: WU is ranked #1 in the subject-based QS-world ranking for their animal science program. It has different chair groups with extensive collaborations in terms of education and research
  2. Research: WU has extensive research portfolio in animal science with numerous high-impact publications. It also provides comprehensive training for its students to pursue research, educational, industrial or entrepreneurial track.
  3. Prospects: Being the sole agriculture and life sciences university in the Netherlands, WU enjoys a lot of attention from the government as well as general society. As the Netherlands in one of the highly developed agrarian nations in EU, the appetite for agro-based research is quite high and WU is right in middle of it. Hence it seemed as a good choice if I wanted to go further and deeper into research in the future.

Other beginnings, the work and play

Other than my formal education, I tried to pursue various avenues which I felt could help me secure a PhD position. Some of them are as follows:

  • Training workshops and web-based modules: I attended different short-term training workshops whenever I had some time. Some examples are “basic molecular techniques”, “statistics for veterinarians”, “AS-Reml-W for animal breeders, by ABG group in WUR”, and online modules like “R for beginners”, “VBA in MS-Excel”, “science of record-keeping”, “bio-ethics and ethical research”.
  • Undergraduate research assistant: to get an idea about how research is conducted right from proposal making to publishing an article, I worked as an undergraduate research assistant in my bachelors for 3 years under the department of Animal Genetics. This provided me with valuable life-lessons and practical insights in the world of research.
  • Research Master Cluster: I had an opportunity to learn about how research works in my masters’ as well. I was selected for a special research track course called as Research Master Cluster for Animal Science students. This was a very intensive course on different aspects of research work including budgeting, funding, proposing research, popular media, publication and methodology.
  • Reading: Reading about the field of your interest and some current developments in that never harms anyone. If not anything else, it helps you realize where do you stand in your knowledge base.
  • Networking: I realized in my masters that network is everything for academia. If you know good people and good groups, you can also find an interesting topic to work on. So, I talked to as many experts, students, PhD researchers, post-docs and professors as I possibly could. It was a very enlightening experience several times. Again, it was this network that helped me get chosen in the PhD program that I am now working on.
  • Idle web surfing: Sometimes actively looking for PhD vacancies helps, but sometimes random web searches for research work in your field of interest may introduce you to your future supervisor or his/her research group.

I understand that other “PhDians” might have different notions about how to secure a PhD position. But, like I said before, I just want to tell my side of the story. It may or may not apply in your situation. In either case: good luck with your education and careers!

About Pranav S. Kulkarni

Pranav is a PhD student at the Faculty of Farm Animal Health at Utrecht University. He blogs about his experience in academics, PhD life and tips for international and expat students.