How to get a PhD position

Judith Austin - contest winner
Judith Austin - contest winner
16 Mar '21

Finding a PhD position can be quite challenging. As a PhD Candidate in my third year, I look back at what I did to increase my chances. I discovered the secret. And I am willing to share. Here are the three key ingredients:   

1.    Sit on your pillow and meditate

In the weeks before I got accepted for my PhD position, I regularly meditated. I sat on my pillow (or couch, desk chair, park bench) and engaged in compassion meditation. This made me feel challenged, relaxed and connected. Obviously, this is what caused me to get my position.

Feeling sceptical? Then consider this: the topic of my PhD is compassion. What was helpful for me, was to stay engaged with the topic I was interested in. By reading books and journal articles, doing (meditative) exercises and attending online courses. Not only on the topic of compassion, but also on statistics and other topics in the field of psychology. Being immersed in the topic helped me to discuss and brainstorm ideas during the job interviews. Some ways of immersing yourself simultaneously help to build connections, for example when doing volunteer work at an academic conference (tip!) and meeting academics.

2.    Write a love letter to a professor

Find a professor you like and write that love letter. About your love for their work, obviously. I wrote an open application letter to my professor a few months prior to the job opening. Although my professor was not even part of the selection process, there is no doubt that there is a cosmic connection here.

Feeling sceptical? Then consider this: it can be immensely helpful to get more of a sense of what you want to do by looking at the work of professors and research groups around the world. What about their work excites you, which findings spark questions that you would like to answer? Which methods are they using, and what distinguishes the group from other similar groups? You may also look for opportunities to engage, for example by attending their symposia or online courses. Or perhaps even applying for related positions at a research group, such as for a research assistant position.

3.    Travel first class to your job interview

If you did your meditations and wrote your love letter, you will naturally get invited to a job interview. There is only one step left. I can still see myself sitting on the train on the way to my job interview, first class, with a hot drink in my hand and taking in the passing scenery outside. I had a coupon, so it wasn’t even more expensive. What a difference from previous job interviews, where I was hustling back in second class reading as much information about the position and people as possible. If travelling first class was not what got me this job, then I don’t know what did.

Feeling sceptical? Then consider this: it is actually possible to have a bit of fun at a job interview. For previous job interviews I focused only on preparing for possible questions, reading more and more about the topic and the people involved. Other than getting a good night sleep, I did not really consider the mindset with which I entered the interview. This time it wasn’t a conscious choice to do it differently either. I just felt more like I was already prepared, because the position was such a great fit. For future job interviews, I hope I can learn from this experience and arrive first class: relaxed, inspired and as always: a little nervous.

About Judith Austin - contest winner

Judith Austin is one of the winners of our blog / vlog / podcast contest. She is a third-year PhD Candidate at the University of Twente.