I felt I had everything that was relevant for starting a PhD. I had obtained a master’s degree, secured a supervising professor, the opportunity to work in their lab and funding from the university which all accumulated to a super exciting project.
I was very ambitious to get started with my PhD journey. I knew I would learn a lot and it would be challenging, which were two great motivations for me. In the first week, I had a meeting with my professor where we discussed the project and how we would begin. At the end of the meeting, he recommended that I apply for a PhD scholarship which was initially overwhelming. He told me that it would stand me in good stead for a scientific career and could imagine me as a scholarship holder.
Indeed, I thought about it and checked out the scholarship in more detail. I was anxious but also positively excited. On the scholarship page there was a list of guidelines and requirements, that were all applicable for me. However, there was a huge list of application and project documents which shocked me.
I took a deep breath and started reading. A CV, previous university qualifications, letter of recommendation by a supervisor. In all honesty, these are not difficult to prepare. Update the CV, search for diplomas, ask my professor to write a recommendation. In sum there were 11 points, with long descriptions. Only two of these were challenging; the letter of motivation and the project exposé itself. The letter of motivation included my previous academic activities, a career plan, what the fellowship would mean for my future career and the motivation for the chosen field of research. I believed I could do this and in the end it was the only document of the proposal I doubted. The challenge ahead motivated me.
Troubles getting started
Although I was initially motivated, I didn’t begin right away. In the first few weeks of my PhD there were many different things to organise and I was still working on projects that I had begun during my masters’. Alongside this I was reading up on the literature, and detailing the project for my PhD.
In the first few months, there were also two conferences coming up that I had to prepare presentations for introducing my project. I was doing a lot of reading, preparing for presentations, thinking about how to make it sound exciting to others.
Weeks passed and I was completely disregarding the scholarship. In the middle of preparations, I suddenly remembered that I wanted to start writing. I was checking the submission deadline and I suddenly felt very stressed. I knew that I had to start now or never.
Finally, starting to write
On the website, I once again had a look at the exposé guidelines which suggested around 10 to 20 pages excluding the bibliography. That is a lot!
The proposal ought to include the general aims that define the problem, with a detailed discussion of the problem, methodological considerations to solve the problem and finally the steps that would be taken to achieve resolving the issue, with a corresponding timetable.
I was further delving into the literature and set up a bibliography which re-motivated me relatively fast. I recognised that the preparations for the presentations were in-fact useful. For example, designing figures was beneficial to explain the project scheme pictorial. For the time being, I stopped working on the project to read and write more. After some weeks I had finally written an introduction, however when reading it back I felt it didn’t read well. Some parts were too detailed, without covering everything I would like. I reviewed it, and soon I had a first paragraph. The second part wasn’t too difficult as it was just detailing the first.
This was the most difficult part. For the last chapters I had a rough outline but it had to be more specific and detailed. After I had met my professor for a project discussion, everything was clarified and it helped me a lot. However, time seemed to be flying by. When considering what was still missing for the exposé and which other documents were required to organise, it made me worry again. I was torn. I did not know how to manage finishing the application and it made me feel weak. I was working a lot could not see the end in sight. I seriously considered stopping writing and just working on my project.
One weekend, distraction helped me by stopping me continuously thinking about the application. But, the next week I didn’t want to continue. However, a supervising post-doc asked me how I was doing. As I wasn’t really satisfied with the progress I had made, he said I could show him what I had done so far. Basically, he brought me back to writing with his support. He liked it a lot and had a few ideas to improve. I was trying to trust in myself and continued. Between writing, I made breaks which I used to prepare the other missing documents. I learned to use my time more efficiently.
While writing the motivation letter, I was close to give up again. I felt like I was not motivated or good enough to apply for the scholarship. Everything I wrote to express my ambition sounded overdone and exaggerated in a way.
Finally, I finished everything and gave the proposal to my professor. I was very happy about his comments and the short message he left for me. I was so glad for his recommendation, the things I had learnt while writing and that I made it through the writing process in the end, even with obstacles.
However, I somehow still had the impression that I had lost the last few months.
Why I would write it again!
I didn’t need to write it due to financial reasons as I was already employed. However, even though it was exhausting and fraught, I would still write the application again. Here are the main reasons:
Some important remarks.
“The journey is the destination“ - Confucius
After submission, the PhD continued. I had just had a priceless experience. The most important point was the benefit from intensely dealing with the topic.
Firstly, waiting felt endless, but at one point I even forgot about it. About 8 months later the decision letter arrived. I was a bit nervous opening it, but was prepared for both outcomes. When I realised I received the scholarship, I was so glad that I had not given up while writing and trusted in myself.
Reading some of the reviewer’s comments was disappointing though. I thought the decision must have been wrong. Now I know, one just has to deal with criticism and use it as an advantage!
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