Part of the work of the UK Polar Network is helping early career polar researchers develop the skills they need for a successful career. Events such as network days and workshops help promote this, as do the education and outreach activities we are involved in.
Getting started with a career in Polar Science: The PhD
In the beginning was THE PHD… Careers in Polar science are many and varied, but for a lot of people, the first step in the right direction is obtaining a PhD in their chosen field. But finding the right PhD topic, university place, funding and supervision can become a mission in itself. For each person who says they fell comfortably into their PhD ‘by accident’ or ‘because they weren’t sure what else to do next’ there are many who spend a couple of years fielding applications, interviews, and rejections before finding their niche in the world of Polar science.
It was reported at a UKPN meeting (London, December 2008) that universities feel they are struggling to find PhD students on a suitably high quality to fill the topics available. But, given the number of people apparently hunting for a PhD, versus the relatively small number of funded places available, this can seem faintly ridiculous to the prospective PhD student. This article is an attempt to share tips from past experience in the hope that they prove useful to someone else – things that seem obvious now, but that I wish someone had told me 3 years ago, when they weren’t obvious at all.
Advice about Advice
Prospects has some useful general advice about postgrad study (not specific to Polar Science) that may be useful to someone who is really unsure about whether further study is for them. As soon as you tentatively say that you are interested in maybe, possibly, doing further study, a lot of well-meaning advice is going to come your way, from all directions. A lot of conflicting advice is given about applying for everything that’s going versus cherry-picking your ideal topic. Which side is right depends on your interests and personality. If you have already developed an interest in a very specific field there is likely no point wasting your time applying to things outside this field just for the sake of having a PhD. On the other hand, if you know you have an interest in the Polar Regions, but struggle to narrow that down and formulate a specific topic, then looking at the range of different things on offer and contacting various people for further information will help you decide which direction to go in. Remember that all your choices in life are half chance and don’t agonise too much over following every single piece of advice you are given.
Finding a PhD
Most universities advertise the topics that they would like to recruit students to study on departmental webpages, so spend some time identifying universities where there are people already working in the areas you are interested in, then keep an eye on their webpages for the list of next year’s topics being posted. Findaphd.com and DiscoverPhDs.com aren’t bad places to start, either. Once you have identified a topic you might be interested in, contact the supervisor with a couple of questions so your application does not come unexpectedly. If you are certain of your interests there is no harm in contacting potential supervisors to ask them if they are likely to have any opportunities coming up rather than waiting for things to be advertised. Topics may also be circulated via mailing lists such as Cryolist, Arctic Info, APECS, UKPN, Earthworks, and Met-list so it is worthwhile joining these.
Each university’s deadlines will differ, but as a general guide, deadlines run from January right up until to May/June/July depending on the place and funding you are applying for. The main point here is that the earlier you start looking, the less likely you are to miss a deadline.
Standing out on the application form and at interview
First a couple of practicalities to help your application go smoothly: 1. Keep in contact with the people who you rely on for references, and ask for these well in advance of the deadline to give them plenty of time to get them to you (most places expect your refs to come with your application). 2. After graduation, obtain as many copies of your transcript as you are likely to need (and then a few extra) before you leave town, as you will need one for each application you make.
Now for some more general points:
- Bear in mind that a PhD is about independent research, so even if you are applying to a topic that has already been set out in some detail, you will still be expected to show that you have thought about what you could bring to the topic and how you will extend it.
- Expect to be quizzed about your undergraduate dissertation at interview even if it was several years ago and you have all but forgotten what you did, even if it has no relevance to your prospective PhD topic, and EVEN if you have since completed a Master’s thesis. Your dissertation will be held up as an example that you are capable of an independent research project and it is the science that counts. Be aware that exotic locations are not going to blind anyone to bad science; and do not fall into the trap of telling interviewers all about the wonderful place you got to visit for your dissertation and forgetting to tell them about the wonderful science you did there!
- Know that participation on the committees of student clubs and societies only looks good on your CV if you also managed to keep on top of your work and got good grades, don’t let them take up too much time.
- It is worth joining the appropriate associations and societies for your field of interest (e.g. the International Glaciological Society, British Geomorphology Society, or Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society). I think there is a perception among undergraduates that these are only for the great and the good, but the reality is that most are really supportive of their student members. Some run student conferences and events, and presenting your undergrad/masters research project at one of these will give good practice presenting yourself and answering questions about your work that will stand you in good stead at interview.
The final hurdle – Funding
If you are fortunate, you will have applied for something that is already linked to specific source of funding (see postgraduatestudentships.co.uk for funding opportunities), so an offer of the topic equates to an offer of the money to do it. The more common scenario is that persuading the university to offer you a place and a topic is not the same thing as persuading someone to pay you to do it, and that once you have your topic you will have to go through a second round of the selection process to get the funding. It is not uncommon for the university to send out a letter stating that they are offering you the topic, but that this is not an offer of funding. These letters are quite possibly more horrible to receive than an outright rejection, however, they are not intended to scare you away, but are simply a (brutal) statement of fact. It is acceptable to contact the supervisor and ask them what the possibilities are for securing funding if you hang on to the topic (you never know what they may have up their sleeve), and to contact the university to ask if you may keep the topic, but defer for a year to reapply for the next years round of funding. NEVER EVER decline one of these offers without asking the above two questions first.
PhD students come in all shapes, sizes and ages, never feel you are too old, too young, too inexperienced in the field to apply. The most important attribute for a PhD student is a willingness to learn, after all, if you already had an in-depth knowledge of the subject, there would be very little point in gaining a PhD in it!
You’ve got the place – now what? – Making the most of your PhD
Once you’re a PhD student you’ve got a job to do – learn and research! Make sure to build up all those skills necessary to make you successful in the future, whether that’s presenting a paper, exciting school children, programming code, or steering a small boat. Do not underestimate the importance of networking for both your research and your career. To these ends, try to participate in (increasingly prevalent) early career scientist events, such as those run by APECS and the UKPN as well as conferences or sessions aimed at beginning scientists. Organizations such as Vitae can help you make the most of your time as a graduate student.
Beyond the PhD
The logical steps after earning a PhD are postdoctoral research fellowships, junior researcher positions (industry and academic), and early faculty or lecturer appointments. You will need to demonstrate the innovative science that you have pursued through your PhD and your potential to continue to achieve. But how?
Presenting and publishing are vital to proving your potential as a researcher. In addition, networking is key to continuing your science career! Not only is it valuable to discuss your current research and ideas for the future, but the grapevine is an effective way to hear about available appointments and funding opportunities. As always, make sure to stay tuned to useful sources – Arctic Info, Cryolist, Find a Postdoc, APECS, Earthworks – for career opportunities.
PhD? Not for me! – Alternative Careers in Polar Science
It is important to recognize that a PhD isn’t for everybody. That’s right – there are many careers in Polar Science that don’t require a PhD, and many that even prefer candidates without a PhD! These can be footholds into further research, technical/instrumentation positions, education and/or outreach placements, polar administrative roles, field support, museum specialists, etc. Watch APECS careers, and feel free to contact the UKPN committee, and APECS (email@example.com), as there are people in both groups who have followed alternative career paths.