Are Phds in Oxbridge really competitive? (Biosciences)

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xbiology
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I am working on PhD applications in cancer biology, I have shortlisted some I find interesting and nearly all of them are at Oxford and Cambridge. The Oxbridge ones include individual project studentships, DTPs and MRes+PhD.

I feel a little put off from applying as I am intimidated and think that they will be very competitive and I don't think I stand a chance as an applicant. I have a first and distinction but don't have much lab experience...

How many PhDs should I aim to apply for? At the moment I have shortlisted three at Cambridge, 3 at Oxford and 3 from other universities. How should I whittle that down? If I went by which projects I found interesting I would only be applying to Oxford and Cambridge which seems a little risky...

Does anyone have any advice?
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Racresmol
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A first and a distinction? Hell yeah go for it!
That said, it is competitive and lab experience can be a plus (especially if relevant to the project). However PhDs are long enough for candidates to gain the necessary skills over the first year(s). Applying to 8-9 seems like a good number to me. Maybe throw in a couple more applications more towards the second term of these ones don't really work, but I wouldn't really advise doing more than that, especially if you're not that keen on the topics
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Fredericks1
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Like all PhD's the answer to how competitive it is depends on whether you want a fully funded PhD or a self funded PhD.

Fully funded PhD's are very competitive however If you are self funded then it should be no problem for you to get in as you certainly have the right background!

Good Luck!
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Grizwuld
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Go for all. The experience should help you whittle things down.

Keep looking for tips and tricks and keep slogging away at it.

Good Luck.
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QuentinM
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(Original post by xbiology)
I am working on PhD applications in cancer biology, I have shortlisted some I find interesting and nearly all of them are at Oxford and Cambridge. The Oxbridge ones include individual project studentships, DTPs and MRes+PhD.

I feel a little put off from applying as I am intimidated and think that they will be very competitive and I don't think I stand a chance as an applicant. I have a first and distinction but don't have much lab experience...

How many PhDs should I aim to apply for? At the moment I have shortlisted three at Cambridge, 3 at Oxford and 3 from other universities. How should I whittle that down? If I went by which projects I found interesting I would only be applying to Oxford and Cambridge which seems a little risky...

Does anyone have any advice?
I think it depends what you are applying for-I applied for a range of different project studentships and DTP's and it felt like they were looking for completely different things (although maybe just my personal experiences on applying for different ones)

DTP's can assess your application in a range of different ways, the ones I applied for usually involved me listing several projects during my application, then having the supervisors of those projects choose a student they submit to the wider pool to apply for funding. As DTP's usually (but not always) come with a bit of training money, less lab experience didn't feel like as much of an issue, because you could talk about how good of a training experience it would be.

For project studentships, it generally felt like supervisors were looking more for someone who had decent experience, perhaps even over academic performance, as they may be looking for someone to be able to jump into lab work relatively easily with minimal training. Its worth mentioning that this will vary from supervisor to supervisor-some will be busier than others (and hence probably want someone they have to train less).

If you have less lab experience, was this due to covid? I assume if you just finished a BSc your final lab project may have been curtailed by the first lockdown in spring, in which case I would hope this is taken into account. And what lab experience would you say you have anyway, skills wise?

I would try and whittle down projects not only based on interest, but also suitability. How much can you link your current skillset to a project?
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xbiology
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(Original post by Racresmol)
A first and a distinction? Hell yeah go for it!
That said, it is competitive and lab experience can be a plus (especially if relevant to the project). However PhDs are long enough for candidates to gain the necessary skills over the first year(s). Applying to 8-9 seems like a good number to me. Maybe throw in a couple more applications more towards the second term of these ones don't really work, but I wouldn't really advise doing more than that, especially if you're not that keen on the topics
Thank you for your reply. I will try and apply for around 8 then. One I am applying for has an MRes year and others are DTPs so I feel like they would be good at focussing on further developing my research skills before beginning the actual PhD.
(Original post by Fredericks1)
Like all PhD's the answer to how competitive it is depends on whether you want a fully funded PhD or a self funded PhD.

Fully funded PhD's are very competitive however If you are self funded then it should be no problem for you to get in as you certainly have the right background!

Good Luck!
Sorry I forgot to clarify - they are all funded PhDs.
(Original post by Grizwuld)
Go for all. The experience should help you whittle things down.

Keep looking for tips and tricks and keep slogging away at it.

Good Luck.
Thank you.
(Original post by QuentinM)
I think it depends what you are applying for-I applied for a range of different project studentships and DTP's and it felt like they were looking for completely different things (although maybe just my personal experiences on applying for different ones)

DTP's can assess your application in a range of different ways, the ones I applied for usually involved me listing several projects during my application, then having the supervisors of those projects choose a student they submit to the wider pool to apply for funding. As DTP's usually (but not always) come with a bit of training money, less lab experience didn't feel like as much of an issue, because you could talk about how good of a training experience it would be.

For project studentships, it generally felt like supervisors were looking more for someone who had decent experience, perhaps even over academic performance, as they may be looking for someone to be able to jump into lab work relatively easily with minimal training. Its worth mentioning that this will vary from supervisor to supervisor-some will be busier than others (and hence probably want someone they have to train less).

If you have less lab experience, was this due to covid? I assume if you just finished a BSc your final lab project may have been curtailed by the first lockdown in spring, in which case I would hope this is taken into account. And what lab experience would you say you have anyway, skills wise?

I would try and whittle down projects not only based on interest, but also suitability. How much can you link your current skillset to a project?
Thank you for your reply. I think based on what you wrote I will definitely prioritise applying to DTPs.

My master's project is linked to all of the projects I am applying to in terms of the research area, but it was a short project so I only used a few techniques so my skill set is not very broad. However, I have done most of the techniques mentioned in PhD descriptions at some point or other but usually they were in lab classes as an undergraduate - I'm not sure that counts.

I graduated just before COVID so luckily was able to complete my courses as normal. However I had planned to have a gap year and get research experience by applying to be a research assistant this year but have not been able to get a position (likely at least partially due to COVID) so instead I have been working in a completely unrelated job in the meantime.
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QuentinM
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(Original post by xbiology)
Thank you for your reply. I think based on what you wrote I will definitely prioritise applying to DTPs.

My master's project is linked to all of the projects I am applying to in terms of the research area, but it was a short project so I only used a few techniques so my skill set is not very broad. However, I have done most of the techniques mentioned in PhD descriptions at some point or other but usually they were in lab classes as an undergraduate - I'm not sure that counts.

I graduated just before COVID so luckily was able to complete my courses as normal. However I had planned to have a gap year and get research experience by applying to be a research assistant this year but have not been able to get a position (likely at least partially due to COVID) so instead I have been working in a completely unrelated job in the meantime.
To re-iterate, this was my perception of DTP's from my own experience of applying for several, so please take my experience with a pinch of salt, however yes I would probably recommend applying more for them.

If you have at least some experience of relevant techniques, mention it! I frequently applied for PhD's talking about my experience in a specific technique, even if I hadn't done it in years or had only done it once or twice. Its better than not having done it at all, which will increase the learning curve at the start quite a bit. I'd avoid mentioning techniques you do in undergrad practicals, as they are usually heavily modified to fit certain timescales and aren't as representative of the actual technique.

I was in a similar situation post-masters, don't be afraid to talk about the job you are currently doing. This was one of the things that cost me my first few PhD's, not being able to talk confidently about the fact I was in a slightly unrelated job in the meantime, which still developed some useful skills (e.g. communication).

Any other questions let me know
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xbiology
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(Original post by QuentinM)
To re-iterate, this was my perception of DTP's from my own experience of applying for several, so please take my experience with a pinch of salt, however yes I would probably recommend applying more for them.

If you have at least some experience of relevant techniques, mention it! I frequently applied for PhD's talking about my experience in a specific technique, even if I hadn't done it in years or had only done it once or twice. Its better than not having done it at all, which will increase the learning curve at the start quite a bit. I'd avoid mentioning techniques you do in undergrad practicals, as they are usually heavily modified to fit certain timescales and aren't as representative of the actual technique.

I was in a similar situation post-masters, don't be afraid to talk about the job you are currently doing. This was one of the things that cost me my first few PhD's, not being able to talk confidently about the fact I was in a slightly unrelated job in the meantime, which still developed some useful skills (e.g. communication).

Any other questions let me know
Thank you so much for your help and advice.
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