A guide to a PhD in Life Sciences in Europe : Part 2 – Frequently Asked Questions

hold a master’s degree in botany. Am I eligible for a PhD in cancer biology?

Theoretically, yes. A PhD is
generally open for students with diverse backgrounds. It does not matter in
which subject the degree is awarded. What matters is what you have studied in
the course and how your knowledge is going to be helpful for your desired PhD
position. A person can have a degree in chemical engineering and taken courses
in biochemical processes. He is also very welcome to do a PhD in a research
group that works on metabolic engineering or fermentation technology. There are
people with backgrounds in electrical engineering, computer science or even
mathematics who are working in the fields of synthetic and systems biology.
Once you move up the ladder of education, you will realize that it’s just
science! Various subjects and modules that we learn in a bachelor’s or a master’s
program carry a title just for convenience. However, if you end up in a lab
that works on a topic you have no idea about, you will have to seriously invest
some time in understanding what’s going on. If you have good mentors and
helpful colleagues, this process becomes less tedious. However, if you want to
avoid such a long lag phase at the beginning of your PhD, look for a lab that
works on topics about which you have a fair degree of understanding.

have no idea about what interests me the most. I like everything! How do I
decide my area of interest?

The answer to this question deserves
a separate post.

at what time of the year admissions to PhD programs start in Europe?

Unlike the USA, the European
universities do not have a fixed timeline for accepting PhD students. Some
institutes accept PhD students twice a year, some three times, some throughout
the year. Once you have shortlisted the universities, you have to look at their
admission procedures individually and plan your applications.

many PhD positions should I apply to?

It is logical to apply for more than
one position. There is no ideal number in this case. Some graduate schools ask
you to give 3 choices of research groups that you are willing to work with. In
this case, your single application is equivalent to three different
applications. Choose and provide your choices wisely. The application procedure
is time-intensive. Consider the time you can allot to it and decide the number
of applications feasible for you. Do not stress your referees with too many
requests for recommendations. Keep other options ready.

much do I have to spend for my PhD in Europe?

Public universities in most European
countries (for example, Germany) have no tuition fees. Your only expenditure
involves your living costs. Most PhD positions are funded. That means, if you
join a research group as a PhD student, you will receive a stipend to manage
your daily expenses. In short, your only expenditure is the air ticket to your
destination (some universities also reimburse that amount as well!). Once you
start your PhD, you no longer have to depend on your parents to finance your
studies. Neither do you have to work part time in a café to support yourself.

much stipend will I get during my PhD?

The amount of money varies from
place to place. It depends on the source of the money. Some PhD students are
funded through a research grant. Some have a scholarship, while some are paid
through the institute they are associated with. Generally, the amount of money
ranges between € 1000 to € 1900. It is more than sufficient to manage your
daily expenses. You may not have great savings or enjoy a lavish lifestyle but
it’s an experience in independent living.

I have to learn German/French/Spanish to do a PhD in respective countries?

No. Research is mostly communicated
in English. The courses, seminars, workshops and other activities are conducted
mostly in English. However, it is always better to have a working knowledge of the
language spoken in the country where you live. Even though it is not required
for your academic activities, it can be very helpful in managing your
day-to-day activities. You should at least be able to understand how to order a
coffee and how much to pay for it.

there be any problems in acquiring a visa?

If you have a letter from your
prospective advisor or the university administration clearly stating that you
have been accepted as a PhD student, and all the other required documents,
there will be no hurdles in getting a visa. Unlike the UK or the USA, visa
procedure for Germany or other Schengen countries is quick and easy.

applied to 10 different positions but failed to get selected. What should I do?

First of all, do not get
disheartened. There can be various reasons behind the failure. There could have
been a lack of funding or a limitation on the number of people to be hired from
a specific country. The competition might have been very tough. If you are
determined to go to Europe for a PhD and not willing to move on to other
options, keep applying until you get in. The better option is to join a Junior
researcher’s position in India, gain some research experience, improve your CV
and recommendations, and try next year. It is certainly not a waste of time,
but an investment in time for better future. 

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