The past year — 2018 — was an important one for several reasons. A primary reason being I successfully completed my PhD in Medical Image Analysis at the University of Copenhagen. I will try to delve into what completing the PhD means to me etc. in a different post. During the course of the PhD I must have garnered some experiences that can be useful to aspiring candidates from across the globe — in particular from the Indian subcontinent. In first of a series of blog posts, I will try to document the process and the journey that landed me a position at the Department of Computer Science, University of Copenhagen.
Needless to say, this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to aspiring candidates but only a recollection of my own experiences. Hopefully, these experiences can shed some light on some broad aspects of academic career in Northern Europe.
Motivation to take up PhD
Pursuing a doctoral degree cannot be a back-up option. It is a strong commitment and would not serve well, except for in rare cases, to take up a PhD position because other options did not work out.
While writing motivation letters is seen as an external exercise to convince the recruiters to grant you the position, it most certainly must be introspective. If the prime motivation is not earnest, working on a focused task for 3-5 years is almost impossible. Having a strong motivation not only aligns you to your work on a daily basis, but also can sail you through those rough seas when the going gets bad due to several reasons that are commonly encountered in research.
So, an honest and strong motivation that is earnest to yourself is a core starting point.
In my case, this core motivation — and almost basic driving factor — has been the passion towards academia. In fact, it has been my dream (I have actually dreamt about it several times) ever since I quit my industry position in 2011 and took up lecturing in Bangalore until 2013. Those were the years I really discovered my interests for signal processing and teaching. I have wanted to pursue a life doing these and I thought pursuing a Master’s degree and then a PhD would work well. And spoilers: it has worked out this far.
Quality of Master’s degree
Doing an MS in Communication Engineering, with a strong focus on Signal Processing, in Sweden helped me immensely. Apart from the quality of education that goes correlated with Chalmers University, it was also an indication of my ability to move to a new country and do well.
Also, when applying for PhD positions in Europe, having studied in Europe becomes a clearer indicator of the grades, which I started to realise was a big advantage when compared to perhaps far better students than myself, who were applying with an Indian (or non-European) MS degree. For instance, each time there is an opening for a PhD position at my department, just due to the scale there are a large number of applications from India. Other than the top 5 institutions (IISc, and some IITs) the academicians here have little or no insight into the plethora of colleges and universities in India. So it makes it harder to gauge the quality of the grades and hence the application itself. It is unfair, in some sense, but then the quality of degrees are also so diverse and varying in India, that an easy way out is to look out for students from reputed institutions. Again, this is not the case always, but when deciding between two equally qualified students, the one who has studied in Europe has an advantage.
When applying for a PhD, while it is assumed that the MS grades are easily above average, the most important factor is the MS thesis. A strongly research oriented thesis that might have generated publications is far more impressive than the highest grades with a less ambitious thesis.
As I was focused on a research career, and that Chalmers University had this amazing opportunity to work on one-year long theses, I was quick to sign up for one of those. This decision was primarily focused on grooming a profile that would be appealing for a prospective PhD position and to a small extent due to my aversion to broad and general courses.
My MS thesis advisors were amazing and groomed me well in a scintillating research environment. It was hard and enjoyable (as it should be), resulting in a pretty good thesis with two publications (one got accepted, the other we could not revise unfortunately after a rejection). Nonetheless, the overall thesis demonstrated that I was already engaged in conducting research, although based on collaborations, and was a good indicator of my research skills.
Of late, there are so many highly skilled applicants that already at MS level publications are seen as a filtering factor. This is unreasonable in my opinion; but there is a surge in number of applicants across the domains and again a practical way of screening candidates is based on the quality of publications related to the MS thesis.
A versatile CV with diverse work experiences perhaps can help your application stand-out. After I started my PhD position, one of my advisors said that my blog was also a factor. Not because of what was written in it (although that also gave a peek into my personality) but that it showed I could write and in research, academic writing is very important. From advisors’ point of view, it is better to work with students who can already formulate their ideas and communicate, than them doing it on the student’s behalf. Of course, writing a blog is different and has its own limitations when it comes to academic writing (my papers would tend to be verbose and not efficient), which I have improved by now, I guess.
The position itself
In Denmark (and other Nordic countries) PhD positions are advertised as job openings. This is a great feature, because not only the positions are put out throughout the year, as a student you do get full employment benefits, including a full salary. The working conditions in Scandinavia are some of the best in the world; while researchers are notorious for their unscrupulous work-life balance, it is still the best in Scandinavia.
Once a job that suits your interests is advertised, it is a straightforward application procedure involving CV, motivation letters and recommendations. A strong recommendation from a relevant reference is an important last factor. In most cases, it is your MS thesis advisor.
I appeared for a Skype interview, wherein I gave a 30 minute research talk about my MS thesis and another half hour of general interviewing from both my advisors. It was about two months after this interview that I heard from them that I was being offered the position. I had applied unsuccessfully to one other position in The Netherlands (declined in the final round, as a more specialised student was available) and was in talks to start a PhD position at Chalmers University. I took up the one in Denmark, first because the project was exciting, it was a three year contract (unlike upto 5 years in Sweden), and that I would get to live in another country.
Thus began my PhD journey on the 1st October, 2015.
In the next post, I will try to talk about the bulk of the PhD itself: the struggles and the triumphs.
PS: Feel free to write to me if you’d like to know more specifics of any part of the process.