julie lee - neuroscience phd student

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Tips for postgraduate applications
Feb 8, 2015

It’s been some time since the end of my postgraduate application cycle (2015), so I thought I’d write a reflection on my experiences in the hopes that it might help future applicants. I was happy to receive a really great offer, which I accepted, so I hope that this will be some evidence of tips that work. For more specific details I am happy to share in a private capacity, so send me a mention on Twitter (@synapticlee) and we can discuss it further.

Disclaimer: these are experiences are likely to be very different, even if you apply to the same programmes I did! For instance, I talked to two previous interviewees for one of my programmes (one for 2014 cycle, one for 2013), and my interview experience was very different to both of theirs.

How many places should I apply to?

Compared to some of my friends, I had a relatively short application cycle - I made five applications, but only four of those applications were complete by the time I accepted my offer, so I really had four. I had three interviews, one each at UCL, Oxford and Cambridge. I wouldn’t be afraid of applying to too few places. As someone pointed out, there comes a point where you will likely panic about making too few applications. However, if you play your cards right, you will be fine. Essentially, don’t apply to places just as backup if you’re not certain you will be happy there if that is the only offer you receive. The process of applying will take a lot out of you if you have a lot of applications, interviews may overlap, and so on.

Making your application competitive (i.e. pre-interview considerations)

Interviews are very important, but the experience you bring to the table is equally important. So, long before it’s time to send your application, if you are in the sciences you will benefit from getting as much research experience as you can. As well, you might like to do extracurricular things like working for your subject society or doing public engagement. Of course, committees will vary wildly in how much they care about these, but this is just my experience from my side of the interview table. References are also very important, but this is not something you can really control; however, do try to make an informed selection. This is not much of a problem if you have only a handful of references to choose from. If you are lucky to have a plethora of options, you might like to choose people who will be able to comment on you most holistically; that is, someone who knows you well academically, on a research level, and perhaps even on a slightly more personal level (e.g. can comment on your leadership capacities, motivation, other qualities). If you are stressing about whether someone will be able to give you a good reference, just ask them. Really, in general, if you are struggling at any point, ask someone! Post on The Student Room, email graduate admissions, ask your tutor, even tweet at me (@synapticlee) if it’s relevant.

Personal statement

Again, the extent to which you can write a really good personal statement depends, in part, on your existing experience. That said, don’t forget emphasise your good points, even if it is mentioned on your CV/transcript already, and don’t forget to write about why you’re interested in the programme you are applying to. For instance, think about why you are interested in this programme/university over similar options. Are there certain research strengths there you can’t find elsewhere? Are you interested in working with a particular lab? Are there good facilities? After you write it, get it edited by friends, tutors, and/or career advisors.


Like me, you may have had little experience with academic interviews by the time you receive interview offers, at least in the case of interviews for postgraduate research. So, it is important not to underestimate these. Of course, excessive preparation is not recommended either due to sounding robotic and becoming, paradoxically, more likely to be thrown by ‘unexpected’ occurrences. In any case, my experiences are quite specific to perhaps the universities, departments and specific programmes I applied to. Nevertheless, I hope they will help as a case study of what an interview could be like.

Preparation (presentation)

At two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, I had to present on a piece of research I conducted (10 minutes and 5 minutes respectively). At UCL, I was asked to talk about my research as well, but unlike the others, they didn’t request that I prepare a presentation beforehand. Make sure to practice so your presentation sounds fluent and is definitely not over the allocated time. For the Cambridge interview, I practised a lot to myself, and to a few friends. For the Oxford one, I practised to myself and to my lab group.

I would not include too much text on the slides, especially not for a five-minute presentation. Most importantly, you should try not to assume the interviewers will have an exhaustive, instant understanding of your research area. In both interviews at least half the interviewers were in a wildly different area of neuroscience; maybe one or two (out of about seven) were in adjacent areas. What this means is you should not try to cover everything, but focus on a small, manageable, not-too-difficult-to-explain aspect of research. Make sure you don’t jump in straightaway with excessive details, but at the same time do not patronise them! It’s a fine balance, and as a singular interviewee I can only give my personal approach to this. If you are really worried I recommend asking past interviewees/current students for help.

Preparation (interview)

Here are bullet-points of things you might want to revise for an interview:

  • research experience (including methods, limitations, further directions)

  • other experience (especially that which you’ve mentioned in your personal statement)

  • proposed research (if applicable)

  • proposed lab group’s research (if applicable)

  • interviewers’ research interests (this has varying levels of payoff)

  • basic knowledge of your area of research

  • your research interests

  • questions to ask (especially targeted, research-based questions)

For the actual interview questions, I would mostly prepare on these aspects, in rough order of importance: a) your research experience b) your proposed research (if applicable) c) anything else you mentioned that is relevant on your CV/personal statement d) general basic knowledge of your field e) your motivations for applying to that programme and f) your motivations for doing a PhD. I personally had no questions on (f) and only a very brief comment on (e), but I have heard from my lab group that these questions do appear. As well, the likelihood of getting questions on (d) really depends on your programme. Many interviews will not have any of this, whereas for a few others this will be a significant chunk of the interview. I think this also depends on your background; if they need to check that you have the basic prerequisites, you may be more likely to be asked general knowledge questions in your subject.

In terms of specific texts I looked at: my presentation/poster of my research experience (and papers relevant to these), the programme website (make sure you remember the details of it and why you want to apply!), the webpages (and papers) of the interviewers and labs I was interested in, introductory texts of neuroscience, essays written on similar subjects by me or my friends, and the interview offer email.

Mock interviews

The singular most helpful preparation for my interview rounds was mock interviews. I think I had four or five (three from friends (two in my field), one from my current lab, and one with the careers office). In the end, I actually had more mock interviews than real interviews. This might seem excessive, and it perhaps was, but seeing as I had the least experience with interviews, it really paid off for me. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend as many, but try to get people to interview you a) who you are not overly familiar with and b) who know your field.

These were helpful as they allowed me to get a flavour of the experience of an interview - while I’ve had real interviews before, it had been a while and plus it wasn’t a very similar situation to postgraduate interviews. Specifically, it was helpful to think about my research in new ways, try to answer unanticipated questions and generally practise the ‘nerve-wracking’ experience. In fact in the actual interviews I was completely calm and not nervous at all, so my first mock interview was, as a result, the most intimidating of all!

The mock interviews I had were roughly of three subtypes: 1) general, subject unspecific 2) subject specific 3) research specific.

1)This was mostly the careers office interview. I was asked general, competency-based questions by a panel of three. While I received no questions of that sort in my real interviews, it was useful to simulate a ‘panel’, and answer questions by strangers.

2) This was the two from my friends, so it was unrealistic in the sense that I was quite relaxed, plus it was only by one at a time. Nevertheless, they were able to grill me about specific aspects of my research and ask neuroscience questions, which made them more challenging than questions from people outside my field. I found it very useful as it made me think of aspects of my research and basic questions that I had not considered before, so I was able to practise before the real interview. At least for interviews this was personally the most helpful preparation I did!

3) This was the first mock interview I had by my supervisor and a postdoc in my lab. This struck a balance between (1) and (2), in that they were scientifically-specific questions with some level of nerves involved. However, there were still some competency-based questions that I did not receive in the real situation.

Lastly, I would re-emphasise that you can never anticipate everything that will happen. And, of course: don’t panic!

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