CAREER COLUMN

Design your own doctoral project

Instead of looking for PhD positions, designing your own project offers advantages and challenges, says Jesko Becker.
Jesko Becker is a doctoral candidate at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

Search for this author in:

Colourful toy blocks on blue background

Credit: Getty

Browsing for funded PhD positions on the Internet and beyond can be time-consuming and exhausting; the constellation of topic, supervisors and location must fit together to suit the individual candidate. Creating my own project from scratch allowed me to choose a topic, supervisor and location separately. But it is certainly not a path for everyone: self-doubt, setbacks and the risk of not getting enough support for your plans are inevitable. This undertaking also requires strong autonomy, determination and perseverance to overcome the initial obstacles alone.

After I finished a master’s thesis on a fisheries-related topic at the department of oceanography and fisheries at the University of the Azores in Ponta Delgada, Portugal, I wanted to keep working in the field. But my personal plans were to move back to southern Germany — specifically to the small city of Freiburg, 400 kilometres from the sea. I hoped to work on an idea that arose from my master’s thesis: an investigation of fisheries around islands and the factors that influence them (such as remoteness or human activities on land). But such a project required geographical and statistical programming tools that I was only vaguely familiar with. The marine aspect and global scope of the project, combined with the prospect of interdisciplinary work on human geography and fishing, piqued my interest. However, these factors made it difficult to find potential supervisors (not to mention PhD positions) in Freiburg. So, I decided to craft my own doctoral project. During this process, I learnt five important lessons that might help others interested in this often-untried track.

Start early to create an interesting topic

Developing your own project is laborious, but it can be fun to dive into a subject and get creative. I started brainstorming more than a year before I began my project. It takes time to become familiar with your interest, find research gaps and compile a neat proposal for funders and other stakeholders — let alone to complete administrative steps, such as registering at a university and possibly running through several stages of the funding application process and waiting for decision letters. Nevertheless, the time spent on cobbling together an interesting work plan is small (it took me a few months) compared with the time spent executing it. The doctorate will take years of demanding work, so the project must drive your curiosity until the end.

Write a catchy proposal

A good proposal is an excellent way to show that you are qualified, and to convince others of the worth of your idea. It is addressed to potential supervisors and funding agencies, and might even be required for you to register as a doctoral candidate at a university. In addition, it will act as a guideline for your overall programme by outlining what you want to do and when. Five to ten pages might be enough, and this length will increase the chances of your proposal being read. Once you start the project, you can usually still specify and expand your plan within the scope of the overarching research question. If you plan to apply for a scholarship, it is worth reading up on the funding agencies’ preferred text structure and language, and any length restrictions, beforehand. Add graphical illustrations to make the proposal eye-catching and comprehensible.

Choose a location, and get familiar with administrative requirements

Pick a place at which you can have a balanced and fulfilled lifestyle while completing your PhD. The research institution should have employees working in fields related to your project. Crucially, the institution should accept doctoral students outside pre-structured study programmes. Note that this might not be an option everywhere, and you should check early in the process of choosing a country or location. Read up on the specific regulations (which could be at a university or faculty level) and procedures for external PhD students who come with their own project. Make sure you fulfil all requirements.

Find the right supervisors

A good relationship with the people taking part in your project is crucial for productive outcomes. If a phone call, personal meeting or lecture visit convey a gut feeling that your ideas and those of your prospective supervisor go in different directions, it is a warning that you should keep searching. People might doubt your project’s potential, challenging your plans and your tenacity. I saw many doors close before I found the right supervisors. I ended up with three: one ecologist in Germany opted in, then a leader in the field of my project who was based in Canada and finally a third supervisor in Portugal, a fisheries scientist who went on to enrich my project while I stayed at her institution for a few months during the course of my research. Having that committee assembled allowed me to register at my first supervisor’s faculty as a doctoral candidate.

Do not bet on a single horse when applying for funds

From here, I was back to the track of other doctoral candidates who found a non-funded position. There are many ways to finance a doctorate, and none is easy. One way could be to integrate your topic into an existing working group to benefit from their funding umbrella, or to take advantage of their paid part-time positions, such as teaching opportunities. Often, however, your supervisors will not have funding available for you. To attract external funding as an individual is a potentially rewarding path, but can be daunting. I received five funding rejections without even being invited to an interview, before an acceptance letter arrived. Websites that compile all sort of funds and allow you to filter them by access criteria, research areas and so forth can help you to find suitable funding agencies. Adjusting the proposal to meet the individual criteria of several agencies, such as their length or language requirements, will boost your chance of success, but does not negate the substantial need for luck.

The time invested in designing my own project in the beginning was partly compensated for later on, simply because I knew exactly what to do on the day I started. Don’t get me wrong: tendered PhD positions can be an efficient way to get into great projects (especially if they are funded), although the high prevalence of depression among PhD students justifies making careful choices about where to work, with whom and on what. My path to a doctorate might help others to avoid initial stumbling blocks from the start.

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.