Advice to PhD applicants

Advice to PhD applicants: choosing and being chosen for PhD research

Over the past three months Liz, Luke, and myself have been considering applications for two recently advertised PhD projects in our lab. Although we will be recruiting over the coming year, the UQ graduate school has four discrete rounds and the second round closes in May. We’ve had a fantastic amount of interest in our positions, and a handful of prospective candidates are currently finalising their proposals for the UQ Graduate School. In the process of reading all of the applications that we received we noted a few things and thought we might share some of our insights. The following aims to capture both tips for thinking about undertaking PhD research and tips for enhancing your competitiveness for PhD programs. We hope you find it useful.

Deciding why, when, and where to do a PhD 

  1. Know what you’re in for. We assume you’ve already heard about all the reasons not to do a PhD. If not, research them now by talking to a range of academic and non-academic colleagues.
  1. Don’t be too rushed to set off on a PhD. Remember, you will likely only get one opportunity to do this, so you want to make sure you are going into a project you are really interested in, with the experience, skills, and mindset to pull off a really great project. In particular, if you’ve gone straight through from high school to university, all full-time, consider taking a break now. Consider taking time off, to work a little, travel a little, find out who you are, what you want to be, what makes you tick. Some people get a job for a year or two as a research assistant, with government, in a non-government conservation organization, or perhaps go do some voluntourism at international conservation projects or in a local conservation organisation. Gaining that on-ground experience in the real world challenges of conservation (and life) will give your future research more nuance and credibility and will help you develop and articulate more compelling ideas for future research. This experience might also help you clarify if and why you want to undertake PhD-level research and what it is that you want out of it (e.g. develop specific technical skills or solve a particular problem). Keep this in mind when you are deciding which research labs/potential supervisors to approach and be prepared with satisfactory answers to these questions as they may be raised by potential supervisors.
  1. Scope out a number of potential labs and projects. Don’t focus on only the most well-known researchers or the first ones you find. You are the best judge of what interests you most, what personalities suit you best. Read widely. Look up the authors from your favourite papers, but also check out other resources, such as, or A really great way to work out where and who might suit you best is to go to (and present at) a conference. Examples within Australia include the Ecological Society of Australia, the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania, MODSIM or other conferences more relevant to your interests. This will give you a quick overview of some of the main people and developments in the field, give you an opportunity to introduce yourself in person to potential supervisors, and chat with their current students. Let prospective supervisors know that you have read some of their research and describe why you would like to undertake PhD-level research in their group. Try to visit the labs that most interest you in person if you can, or at least get in contact with past or current lab members to obtain insights into the research environment and the supervisory styles of the lab leader and senior research staff.
  1. Consider publishing from your Honours/Master’s work. This can establish your early credibility as a researcher, and increase competitiveness for scholarships, especially if you did not receive first class honours. There is also a big difference between a thesis and a published manuscript, and showing prospective supervisors that you have already published is one of the easiest ways to demonstrate your capacities as a researcher. It’ll also be of benefit to your Honours supervisors too, a great thank you for the people who dedicated their time to getting you through!

Developing a competitive application

  1. Research, research, research! After all, that’s what you want to do, isn’t it? Your PhD will be more independent than your honours research: you will be responsible for developing your project, finding your own relevant literature, and teaching yourself the skills you need. You want to clearly demonstrate to your potential supervisor (and yourself) that you care capable of research, including not only the technical side of things, but also capacities for developing projects, writing proposals and funding applications, and networking.
  1. Do some research on how to craft your PhD proposal Read guides on “how to write a research proposal”, or “how to apply for science jobs”, etc. (for example, in the latest Science.mag there is an article on graduate school applications,, and there are other “how-to” guides related to science research
  1. And do research for your proposal. Generally, a graduate school proposal needs to clearly identify the problems to be solved, detail the methods that will be used, identify the outcomes, and show that the latter are novel, innovative, and feasible. Turn to databases (such as Biosis or Web-of-Knowledge) to find a range of relevant research – don’t expect the potential supervisor to provide you this, show you can find it yourself. And always write and cite formally in proposal text.
  1. Jump at opportunities, reply promptly to any responses and respond directly to any specific requests for further information from potential supervisors. Don’t cut deadlines too tight. This shows not only your interest but also reveals your dedication and organisation/communication skills.

Links to further information:

More detailed information on the whole of the PhD process can be found through UQ student services (, or for a more humorous insight, the beloved PhD Comics (