A guide to a PhD in Life Sciences in Europe : Part 1 – Let’s follow these steps

Are you a student pursuing a master’s degree in
life sciences and looking forward to pursue a PhD in Europe? You are at the
right place. I often receive emails from students studying in Indian
universities seeking guidance about pursuing a PhD in Europe. These students
are mostly occupied in learning protocols for their upcoming practical exam and
hardly find time to figure out and plan their career. Without any exposure to existing
opportunities, they find it difficult to find out what, when, and how things
are done. So, I decided to post a blog which would be helpful to such students.
This post will provide you a step-by-step guide to a PhD in life sciences in

The very first thing to do before you take any
step towards applying for a PhD program is to decide whether you want to do a
PhD! Many students seem to be unaware of what is expected from a student in a
PhD program. PhD stands for ‘Doctor of Philosophy’. It is the highest academic
degree that a student can earn (note – higher degrees exist; but these are
usually ‘conferred’ in recognition to one’s work). The PhD degree is awarded
when you make a ‘significant contribution’ to the pool of human knowledge.
Sounds overwhelming? Have a look at this simple
guide to a PhD. This post explains what PhD is all

Contributing to the pool of human knowledge is
not an easy task. It requires patience (a lot of it, trust me!), dedication,
and perseverance. If you are inquisitive by nature, enjoy ‘figuring out’ things,
and love to face challenges then PhD is for you. If you are only looking
forward only to the title of Doctor in front of your name and the benefits it
can bring to your career; please reconsider your career choice. During your PhD,
you are expected to learn how to hypothesize, design and execute experiments,
analyze the data, draw conclusions, and present your findings in various ways.
The process is indeed intellectually challenging. The best way to understand
what PhD is like, is to befriend a PhD student! Remember, never ever, never
ever, bother him/her by asking how the research is progressing. Be a silent
observer. You can also read
PhD comics to get an idea of what PhD life is
all about in a hilarious way. After going through all of this you will have the
necessary data to make an informed decision for yourself whether you want to
live that kind of a life for the next 4-5 years.

Once you have decided that you are up for the
battle of a PhD, you have to decide if you are willing to move to a European
country for a PhD. Europe is a vast continent with a number of countries. The
countries in western Europe, such as France, Germany, Netherlands, UK,
Switzerland, and Austria have invested a lot in fundamental research and offer
excellent opportunities to pursue a doctoral degree. Some Scandinavian
countries also have good universities for research in life sciences. Most
students have an impression that everything in western Europe is of a higher
quality than in India. However, as rightly said, pastures are always green on
the other side. Once you choose to pursue a PhD in a European university, you are
going to spend a significant time there. Every small day-to-day activity of
your life is going to be in a different environment. While western Europe does
offer an overall safe and sound learning environment and a better standard of
living, there are certain things that you may find difficult to adjust with.
The weather is certainly not very exciting and the food is bland to the Indian palate.
Language can be a barrier while communicating with people around you in most
parts of Europe. You will be staying away from your family and friends for a
considerable length of time. You can go through this forum on
Quora which describes the life in Europe in detail.
The best way to get an idea of the day-to-day life in the city of your choice
is to get in touch with someone who actually lives there.

Now that you have decided to do a PhD in
Europe, you can begin the most daunting task of short-listing the universities
and hitting the apply button. There are hundreds of institutes and universities
in Europe that are doing research in life sciences and offering PhD positions.
It can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out the best ones to apply. The
most important criterion that will narrow down your list of universities is
your area of interest. The field of life sciences involves everything from
cancer biology to marine ecology. What is it that you find most exciting? The problem
is, most students do not have enough exposure to (and are hence not aware of)
the various fields within life sciences. Consequently, they are unable to
decide what interests them the most. However, I must admit, I have gone through
a similar crisis. But, there are ways to deal with it. That, by itself could be
a subject for another post. For now, let’s assume you have finalized your area
of interest and also have a second (or more) option(s) ready. If you want to
study plant molecular biology, the institutes working specifically on cancer
biology are certainly not going to be in your list. So, now you have fewer
options to choose from.

Which is the best university in my list? There
are good and bad institutes in every country. There are three things that you
must consider before choosing the university. They are – infrastructure,
international exposure, and research outcome. Please go through the website of the
university and make sure that it is doing good in all of the three areas.
Times Higher Education rankings, QS rankings are some of the portals that can help you to
check the overall and subject-specific ranking of the university. Infrastructure
is all about academic and non-academic facilities available on the university
campus. Access to scientific literature, availability of research equipment, an
up-to-date library, are some of the important aspects of infrastructure that
you should consider. International exposure is another important factor to be
taken into account. The best way to judge this is to go through the list of faculty
members in the university. When the students and the faculty members have
diverse nationalities and academic backgrounds, there are better prospects of
learning different skills and expanding your worldview. Some research groups in
European countries are sometimes full of local members. Not only do they talk
in their native language, but also discuss science the same way. You most
certainly do not want to end up in such a group and face a language barrier throughout
your PhD. You can also have a look at the events like colloquia, conferences,
guest lectures, and workshops being held at the university. When researchers
from different corners of the world visit the university, it leads to an
exchange of ideas and skills. Such a dynamic academic environment is very
conducive for being a good researcher. Third and the most important thing to be
considered while choosing a university is the research outcome. You can have a
look at the list of recently published research articles from the university. A
consistent record of publications in high impact factor journals is a sign (though,
not the only one) of excellence in research. It is possible that not all
research groups in a university are performing well. It is also possible that a
certain research group is doing really good research in spite of having
not-so-great infrastructure and poor diversity. You should consider all these
criteria together and make an informed decision. You can find a handy list of
‘good’ institutes and universities in western Europe in this blog post.

The next step is quite obvious. Once you have
shortlisted the university and your prospective advisor, you have to find out
the exact details of the application procedure. First and foremost, you can
consider sending an email to the principal investigator of your desired research
group and inquire about the availability of a PhD position. If the PhD position
is already advertised, you can still send an email and express your interest.
Do not forget to attach your CV to this email. In most cases, the PI will direct
you to the online application portal of the university. Most universities and
institutes in Europe have graduate schools offering PhD programs. These
programs are tasked with organizing the selection procedure for PhD candidates,
keeping a track of their PhD projects, conducting courses, and organizing
cultural activities. The graduate school website describes the application
procedure well in detail. Make sure you meet the eligibility criteria and have
all the supporting documents with you. Some institutes require that the
candidate qualify exams like Graduate Record Examination (GRE) (General and/or
subject GRE). If you are not a native English speaker, the university may ask
for English proficiency tests like Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
or International English Language Testing Service (IELTS). If the university of
your choice demands these, make sure you have qualified these exams and that the
score card is available with you before starting the application procedure.
Keep a track of the deadlines. Another important aspect of an application
procedure is the recommendation letters. Inform your referees about the
application procedure well in advance.

Now that you have applied to some universities,
it is the time to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You will be
facing a global competition. The fate of your application is mainly dependent
on your research experience, academic background, and recommendations. In
Europe, a student gets a thorough exposure to various research areas during
their bachelor’s and master’s studies. They also get a chance to work in a
research group for almost a year and write a master’s thesis with decent
scientific findings. Thus, at the time of applying for a PhD, a student is
expected to have hands-on experience with basic laboratory techniques and a
rough idea about the research area the student is interested in. You stand a
high chance of getting selected if you can convince the advisor that your
skills and experience are the most suitable for working in his/her research
group. For example, if you are applying to a lab that works on genetics and
uses drosophila as a model system, your little experience of working with
drosophila will certainly be useful. If you do not have any experience of
working in the specific field, you should at least be well aware of the basic
techniques in microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Your academic
background, i.e. your grades right from high school to your master’s, play an
important role in the application assessment. Your grades indicate where you
stand among the students who studied with you. If your grades indicate that you
have been among the top 25% of your class and your academic performance is
consistent, then you have a good chance of getting selected. The next important
aspect of your application is the recommendation letter given by your referees.
If you have been recommended by a well-known researcher, you have a good chance
of getting selected for the PhD program. In fact, in many universities, the
application portal provides an online system for filling in recommendation
letters. This way they ensure that the recommendation provided by the referee
for the applicant is legit. Please bear in mind that your application is going
to be judged in comparison with other applicants. Which factor works in your
favor and which one works against you depends entirely on the other

Some institutes have a two-step selection
procedure. Based on your application, they may invite you for an interview over
telephone or through video conference. If they find your application to be
suitable for their requirement, they may invite you to visit the lab and the
university in Europe and conduct another round of interview. Some institutes also
conduct their own written test. Finally, if you qualify all the tests and the
advisor is willing to hire you, an offer letter will be sent. If you accept the
offer letter, you have won the battle!

Let’s summarize the steps towards your PhD
position in Europe.
  1. Decide whether you want to do a PhD! – very crucial
  2. Decide if you are willing to move to a European country for 4-5 years
  3. Finalize your area of interest
  4. Short-list the names of universities and the research groups
  5. Understand the application procedure
  6. Apply!

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