The phenomenal response to guest blogger Tanmoy Ray’s previous post on Biomedical Science Jobs and Careers prompted us to re-invite him for a follow-up post. This time he writes about doctoral level programs (PhD degree) in Biomedical sciences.
PhD in Biomedical / Biological / Life Sciences
by Tanmoy Ray
I assume that the readers are already acquainted with the field of Biomedical Science(s) and are considering doing a PhD in the field. For not so informed readers and those who are a little bit confused whether to do a PhD or an MBA, please refer to the earlier article Biomedical Science professions.
Why PhD in Biomedical Sciences
I had already discussed the advantages for doing a PhD in the earlier blog. To summarize – as a biomedical scientist, you are supposed to deal with the most complex machine in the universe – The Human Body. You will be working on the mechanisms and functions of genes, proteins, molecules, cells and organisms in health and disease.
The human biology is ever evolving, and lots of new diseases come up every year, as new bacterial and viral strains get in to the act because of adaptation and evolution. To successfully diagnose and deal with those diseases, a biomedical scientist needs to have in-depth theoretical knowledge and excellent technical skills.
A doctoral degree a.k.a. PhD is just the paving stone towards a research career in that field. Even if you are thinking about a Marketing role at the top in a Pharmaceutical giant, or wish to start your own biomedical (or biotech) company, a PhD is not only handy but essential in most cases.
Read How to choose your PhD topic
Why PhD Abroad vs India
It is not that there are no good research institutes in India. But, to have good career opportunities within the bio-medical research sector (academia or industry), a PhD from abroad is highly desirable. In the academia, there are lot of prestigious and generous fellowships for foreign-return PhDs and Post-docs.
Prestigious Indian institutes like IISC, CCMB, IISER, NCBS, TIFR, THSTI, NIBMG, JNCASR etc. do give preference candidates with foreign PhD. Biotech companies sometimes even mention that a PhD from US or Europe is desirable. The same goes for the prestigious universities and colleges.
Another factor is that the number of good institutes to provide quality PhD education and training is still limited in India in comparison to the number of PhD aspirants in the field of biomedical sciences.
If you fail to get a good PhD fellowship (like CSIR), you might end up with a stipend too meager to get satisfied. A PhD is of course not about earning big bucks.
But, when you devote the most important five years of your life to something, a healthy stipend is necessary, unless you are too motivated and don’t care about money. Then you will also have better exposure to training, facilities, funding and guidance. Last but not the least; overseas education has its own advantages.
How to get an admission for a PhD abroad
Usually you will need an excellent track record throughout your Bachelor and Master studies. It is possible to get a fully funded MS-PhD (or a direct PhD) position in the US, Canada, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand after a 4-year Undergraduate degree, provided you have got above 80% (or GPA 8.5) in your Bachelors, excellent recommendations and have conducted one or two solid research projects. Additionally, you will also need very good scores in GRE and TOEFL (or IELTS).
To get in to the top universities in the US and Singapore directly after Bachelors you will ideally need 150 – 155 in Verbal, 160 – 165 in Quantitative and 4.5 – 5.0 in the Writing section. Desirable scores in IELTS and TOEFL would be 7.5 – 8.0 and 100 – 112 respectively.
In Europe, a Masters degree is essential to get in to a PhD program irrespective of the length of your Bachelors degree. GRE is not mandatory for European PhD programs, but they do ask for more extensive research experience.
Top institutes like Max Planck or Oxford favor candidates with 2 – 4 years of research experience (excluding the project experience during Bachelor or Master Thesis project) and 1 – 4 quality publications.
When it comes to publications, candidates get more credit for two quality publications (e.g. PubMed indexed and/or with Impact Factor of at least 2.5) over candidates with eight papers in non-indexed journals.
Read PhD in USA for international students
Applying to International PhD Programs in Europe
One of the important issues Indian students face when applying to PhD programs abroad is the availability of funding to cover their tuition (or bench) fees, living expenses and research consumables.
Hence, it would be really wise to target the International PhD Programs in Europe. These programs, also known as Structured-PhD, come with automatic funding for students irrespective of their nationalities, and cover all the expenses.
The PhD students get supervised by some of the top-notch scientists in more than one lab due to the rotation programs and extensive collaborations. But, please bear in mind that these programs are also extremely competitive.
On an average 100 – 160 candidates compete for 1 position. More often than not, around 60 of those applications come from India & China combined. Some of the best programs have been listed below along with the links to their respective pages.
Best PhD Programs in Europe
We’ll break this up by geography, so it’s easy for you to refer to for further research.
PhD in Germany
- IMBS Germany
- IMPRS-MCB Germany
- IMPRS-LS Germany
- MPI-Tubingen Germany
- MDC Germany
- HBRS Germany
- TUM Germany
- IMB Germany
- EMBL Germany
- Helmholtz (All Programs) Germany
PhD in Switzerland
- Life Science Zurich Graduate School Switzerland
- ETH Switzerland
- EPFL Switzerland
- International PhD Program Lausanne Switzerland
- International PhD Program Geneva Switzerland
- International PhD Program Basel Switzerland
- FMI Switzerland
PhD in UK
- Wellcome Trust UK
- Wellcome Trust PhD (Studentships) UK
- MRC-LMB UK
- Crick (formerly LRI) UK
- NDM Oxford UK
PhD in France
PhD in Austria
PhD in Spain
PhD in Finland
PhD in Belgium
- VIB Belgium
Advertised PhD Positions
It would be also useful to keep looking for the advertised PhD positions. Unlike the structured programs, the advertised positions are available all year round. The best thing would be to keep looking at some useful search portals and sites regularly.
Some of the useful portals are – Scholars4dev, NatureJobs, Marie Curie Actions (ESR Fellowships), EURAXESS, FindAPhD, PhDPortal, DAAD. Other than that, you should also check the University and//or Department pages to check the available positions.
Popular countries in this category are Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Korea, Singapore, Japan, China (Including Hong Kong), Ireland, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, France, Austria, Belgium etc.
Once you find a suitable position, try to deal with it as a job advertisement. Read some of the related papers on the project and even those not published by that lab or supervisor.
It would also be a good idea to contact the supervisor via email, and try to get further information. That could help your application after you have submitted the application.
Open or Forced PhD Applications
One of the most effective ways of finding a PhD position abroad is sending open applications to the Principal Investigators, Group Heads or Professors directly.
Basically, you start with browsing through the research profiles of professors and shortlist the ones you find interesting to work with.
Then you send the PI short email containing your brief profile and research interest along with your CV as attachment.
In this case, it will be critical to shortlist only those scientists who are working in the area where you already have some idea and you are really passionate about.
It will be a bad idea, and even useless, if you are from Molecular Pharmacology background and you approach someone working in the field of Developmental Biology.
You will also need to read some of his research papers and get an idea of the lab profile as well. Professors usually receive a lot of emails with such requests. So, do not feel low if you do not hear back from them.
This approach could be very effective if you have work strategically. There is no point of sending the same CV and email to 10-20 professors in a single day.
Suppose you have got experience and interest in protein biology. You could approach PIs who are working in the field of biomarkers and/or drug target discovery. Rather than just sending a vague or generic interest, it would be great if you write that you would like to work on post-translational modifications (PTM) of proteins since the modified proteins could be novel biomarkers and drug targets.
If you are from Chemistry background, you could approach PIs who are working in the field of peptide therapeutics or drug designing. Alternatively, as a Molecular Biologist you could also approach a lab that is working on drug screening and you could propose to work on drug target validation and setting up assays.
Other examples would be – with a background and interest in Immunology, you could target a group working on Cancer Drug Discovery and propose to work on Immuno-modulatory Therapies. Likewise, if you know about Molecular Modeling and Docking Studies, you can join a Biology or Pharmacology lab who is working on drug discovery.
The idea is that you should try to stimulate the PI with your ideas. Mere expression of interest of doing a PhD is not going to work in such cases. After all, PhD is all about working on your own (and new) ideas under the supervision of an expert in the field.
This could be very tedious and lengthy in nature. But, the chance of getting a great project and avoiding stiff competition (like in the case of International PhD Programs) are very high. In fact, few universities (especially in US, UK and Australia) recommend prospective candidates to contact the PIs beforehand and to check if the PI is happy to consider you as a PhD candidate in his/her lab.
Being clear about what you want and impressing the PI with a concise and nice CV will help you to get 1-2 replies after sending 10 emails. It is all about contacting the right person at the right time. So, you will need a good strategy.
Do your research and get familiarized with the techniques in the lab. If you don’t enjoy working with animal models, then there is no point of joining an in vivo Biology group.
Sometimes, you also waste your time and energy if you target a wrong lab while following the Open Application approach. It is very unlikely to get a response from a Proteomics lab if you have not got solid knowledge about Proteins and hands-on experience with Mass-Spec.
Admission Tips for PhD Applications
I would finish this blog with a few PhD application tips.
- Don’t go for PhD just for the sake of doing or just to get a degree under your belt. Staying focused and motivated for 3 – 5 years during PhD is not a cup of tea for everyone.
- It is as important to find a good supervisor as getting a good project. Developing and maintaining a good and transparent relationship with your supervisor or advisor is very critical.
- Do check the lab profile (previous publications, funding and any links with Pharma/Biotech Company. If the PI has got some patents and/or funding from industry – it could be very good for your future, but you might face problems like too much pressure (60 – 80 hours of work and studies per week) or not being able to publish more papers due to commercial sensitivity.
- Do check the profiles of current students and staff. It would be nice to move to a lab where there are people from 3-4 different nationalities. Moving to a lab abroad, where there are people only from one or two nationality, might not be a good idea.
- Do check beforehand if the amount of scholarship is good enough according to the standard of the city you will be moving in. If you have got a lavish lifestyle or moving in with a dependent (not working), then living on a monthly stipend of GBP 1,200 in London or AUD 2,100 in Sydney could be painful.
Also read How to get into PhD programs abroad
Author Bio: Tanmoy Ray (connect with him on LinkedIn) has a Molecular Pharmacology background with 5 years of research experience in the fields of Cardiovascular Medicine, Cancer Biology, Biomarkers and Drug Discovery.
He has worked at the University of Oxford (UK), Utrecht University (Netherlands) and University of New South Wales (Australia).
Please post your queries on – Bioinformatics careers