I am 28 years old and currently looking for a zoological PhD. I gained a first class BSc in Zoology in 2008, and an MSc in Animal Behaviour with distinction in 2011.
After I finished my MSc, I thought I would rather get a job than a PhD, and got a number of interviews without success. I was unemployed for eight months before eventually getting a job as an administrator in a non-science-related area. Around this time, after giving the matter more thought, I decided I would like to get into academia and so I have since focussed on PhDs, though I still look for related jobs as well.
In about 3.5 years, I have managed to get seven PhD interviews, still without success. When I ask for feedback, it generally goes along these lines: "You interviewed very well and are clearly a strong candidate; unfortunately, somebody else was more qualified for this project." In some ways, this is more frustrating than if I was doing something wrong which I could improve upon.
I understand how competitive things are at the moment, and I know I should keep trying, but at this point I'm afraid that no matter how hard I try, someone else will always be better on the day. I've been looking for opportunities to maybe improve my CV, but these are limited due to the time demands of my admin job and my location; there just aren't any places for relevant work experience near me. The best I've done is helping on a couple of zoological volunteer projects overseas; I'm going on another in May.
Is there anything more that I can do to improve my chances?
Caveat - I know nothing about research in the field of zoology or the funding situation.. I'm a Computer Scientist.
That said, for science-based subjects there tends to be 2 different routes for PhD funding - First, applying for a position to work on a project that has received funding (from your post this seems to be what you are doing). Second, some departments in some subjects receive bulk funding (e.g. Doctoral Training Account studentships) which they can choose to give to a student who they want to fund.
With this latter option, the student will put together a proposal with a supervisor, and then the department decides which project/student receives the funding. Have you looked to see if any of the departments you are interested in offer this type of funding? It's extremely competitive, but rather than applying for a job you are working closely with a supervisor in that department so it can be easier to get as that supervisor will be invested in you and will help with the application.
If you got a distinction in your MSc I'm assuming you did an outstanding thesis. Have you published from it? If not, that's pretty much the only thing I can think of that would improve your chances assuming there is nothing "wrong" with your CV/applications otherwise.
Would it be possible to get something published this early on, perhaps in co-authorship?
I'm also a zoologist (well ecology). Can I ask what kind of topics you are applying for PhDs in? Is there something specific you are interested in? As it may be that the people who are getting the PhD's are showing a lot of passion for that particular topic/project as most supervisors will go for a student who shows specific interest in their project over another student even with perfect grades.
Competition is very tough, not just to get a PhD, but even more so to get a post-doc afterwards and then even more so again to get any kind of permanent job after that (it is probably something like 1 in 40 people with a PhD get a permanent academic job). Think really carefully about whether you really do want a PhD.
If you still do, look up universities and look at the staff there and see if they do topics you are interested in, you could contact them and ask if they will have any PhD projects in the near future and give them a little overview of yourself. Getting to know these people can really boost your chances. Maybe go to a conference if you can - great place to meet academics! You say you aren't near anywhere you can volunteer? Is there any way you can move to somewhere that is if you could get another admin job elsewhere? I hope you find something soon!
IntoTheSpiral - I haven't ever encountered the exact option that you describe in zoology, but I have previously applied for Doctoral Training Partnership PhDs. I haven't published my thesis: my supervisor never really raised it as an option, and it wasn't an ideal setup due to various issues. The only indication I've ever had of problems with my application are from one interviewer who gave me advice on how to improve my personal statement rather than my interview technique; I've always tried to apply her advice since.
Caro - thanks for your point about the difficulties of this career path; it does give me food for thought. While academia would be my ideal career, I've been trying to keep my options open and have applied for a range of things over the years. Sadly, these options aren't much less competitive.
The topics I generally apply for are animal behaviour, evolutionary biology and herpetology. I always aim to express genuine enthusiasm so I can't see how that's a problem - however, I've done so much work with amphibians and reptiles in the past that if the PhD I'm being interviewed for doesn't involve them (i.e. behavioural work on another model species), I tend to be asked about why I'm doing something different. My supervisor recommends applying for a broad range of PhDs and I've tried to do so. I also do attend conferences and make an effort to network at them.
Hi Squamata, it does sound like you have just had some bad luck then as it sounds like you are a great candidate. You're right that everything is competitive, and I didn't mean to sound too negative about academia (although I have been put off from working in it myself). Most people with PhD's go on to use them in their careers some how, even if it's not directly in academia, I'm still glad I am doing a PhD even though I'm now going to go into a career where I don't need one, because I love my subject loads and I'm so glad I got the chance to work on it! So I hope you get a project you love too so that no matter what, it'll be worth it in the end =)
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