I'm hoping to commence a PhD as the first step on the ladder to achieving this and although i've had a few interviews already, got another one in a week's time which i'm really keen on, so if any current PhD's or post-docs have any advice, I'd really appreciate it.
Good stuff. Great to see keen and well-qualified people on the up.
I completed a PhD recently and have six weeks of an unpaid postdoc left before I start as a lecturer, so my advice would be this. At the moment, it seems to be a seller's market in terms of getting onto courses, be they undergraduate, masters or doctoral. A couple of years ago it was the reverse. At the undergraduate level it's most obvious with the introduction of student quotas. At your stage in the game it will become even more profound with cutbacks in funding. As you'll know, in the UK, NERC is the major funding agency in your sector. Word on the street is that they're planning for budget cuts of about 25%. I put in a grant in to the round which closed last week. Competition is anticipated to be exceptionally stiff as most of us anticipate it to be the last-best-shot of getting stuff funded outside of thematic programmes. In writing grants, academics often write in a studentship at the cost of about 50-60k, which NERC (or EPSRC, BBSRC etc) will bear 100% the cost of. Firstly, less grants will be awarded. Secondly, although institutions prefer to pick these up, it's more likely that the research councils will ditch the studentships - and even more so for postdocs which are more expensive, even at the 80% of cost picked up by the council. So the prospects are bleak for the foreseeable future, even in what might be considered vital fields such as yours and even mine, which is far more important, naturally.
Your best option is to get in right now. Keep applying for studentships in your field that you consider viable propositions for your interests. Keep in close touch with tutors etc. that you have worked with as part of your studies and think are good potential supervisors. Advertised studentships are but one route. A lot are written with a specific person in mind. Be that person.
Notice how I said it's a sellers' market. I didn't specify which side of the table is the seller and which is the buyer, because in a very real sense the academic business is permeated by a duality that the university offers a product (a degree) but also by virtue of training, the buyer (the student) is also the product. And that the buyer has to sell him/her-self to the university to get in and stay in. So the university is also a buyer. You can tell I'm not an economist, but neither were the selection panel for a lectureship I've just been appointed to judging by their excited response to the above comments, so they have some merit!
I would say that to get the best chance of getting into a good PhD programme you have to really sell yourself. At the time when I got on to one, it seemed that "just" a first or upper second was good enough. Coupled with the devaluation in degree standards leading to a substandard product coming off the assembly line, using this as the cornerstone of selection criteria meant I saw a lot of people suffer as a result of being let into studentships that weren't right for them. Others were let in with the idea of treating it as a three year tax and career break. This is changing. I would be looking for a prospective doctoral student to possess the following as a minimum
1. Qualifications and experience in (considerable) excess of the 1st/2:1 first degree.
2. A sincere, sustained and overarching commitment to the topic (or what I really want them to do). Are they keen enough to crack on despite it all?
3. The potential to become a self-sufficient researcher in academia. Yesterday.
4. A mature and professional attitude to working as part of a research team. You may be called a PhD "student" but this is really for tax evasion reasons. The truth is you are not a student anymore, but an apprentice researcher.
5. The ability to produce for me at least two good REF-returnable papers.
6. Is not looking to get a PhD for the sake of getting a PhD and/or any kudos they may delude themselves it brings.
7. Is tough enough.
8. Is not an obvious mentalist.
Number 5 there appears selfish, but it is very much in the student's interest as well in terms of postdoctoral employability and developing skills, and is ultimately what research is all about - it is nothing without sharing its outcomes effectively.
Number 7 is there as the process of getting doctored in the UK remains Darwinian. If you get to the point that your thesis is bound and remain conscious in your viva voce, you have a good chance of passing. The tough bit is the 3-4 years before which will select by destruction, professional, academic, mental and social.
Your mileage may vary. But be smart, but be yourself as well. Don't bluff. Academics often have a finely tuned bullshit sensor in these respects.
If the boot were on the other foot, I would be looking out for several things in a PhD project. The first would be how resilient is the project description to change? Very few PhDs follow a linear trajectory, sometimes the real world intervenes. Sometimes the supervisor has proposed one thing out of good grantsmanship and done another to do good science. You may even change fields (I started in molecular biology and ended up in polar ecology, for example). Can you sustain an interest in the directions it may take you? So if this PhD is one that is *just* exactly the one you want to do, think carefully if that is really the case, because you will probably end up doing something entirely different. If it's the more prestigious kind, for example a research council project tied studentship, the supervisor will have made the case for it in a little box just like this, but with a 4000 character (incl. spaces etc) limit. That gives considerable latitude for project drift -which may take you well away from what you'd like to do. Is the project feasible, realistic and achievable in your opinion? Don't be fobbed off by a Gantt chart. Does it all sound likely to work, or is it dependent on some big expensive kit, or the conjunction of Mars with Uranus or something. Or require you to do outrageous amounts of work in return for some small dataset. What you think will take a day, takes a week. A week, a month, a month, a year - and a year - fuggedaboutit.
Given that, the rest has to do with training environment. Is the studentship linked to a grant? Is it linked to a multidisciplinary/multi-institutional/multi-national project? Does it give you the opportunity to network and develop collaborations, and feed into further grant proposals? How much skills training and GRADschools do they plan on inflicting on you? International conferences? Seminars? What is your supervisor like? Do you really think you'll be able to maintain a professional relationship with him or her in three years time when you've aged about eight years out of the stress the project brings? Look behind his or her shop front on this. How is the supervisor regarded in the department? Are they the faculty clown? What is his or her four year completion rate? What are the destinations of past PhD students? Macdonalds or the Met Office? Is there a second supervisor, and how involved are they going to be in project management? What is the supervisor's group like? First, in terms of financial input and research output. More importantly, in terms of structure and personalities. Meet with and talk to their postgrads, postdocs and technicians if you have the chance (they will be assessing and reporting on you too!). What do they have to say about the group? Is the group's "family planning" poor - lots of postgrads running around with no technical support or involvement from postdocs? Or is it very hierarchically structured? Do the postgrads have to bring tea for the postdocs at the ringing of a bell, as happens in one group I've heard of? Are there opportunities to contribute to undergrad teaching/tutoring/demonstrating? If so, how much? Etc.
Finally, and most importantly. Accept that you are not going to save the world by a career in academia. It sounds like you know this already. A successful career in academia is judged by the idiots in terms of the amount of dosh you pull in or the number of papers you churn out - your career will depend on pleasing these idiots. But the more reasoned indicator of success is the quality and rigour of the science you produce and the insight it gives to the natural world, and perhaps feed in to a big picture which helps society make informed choices about it. If this provides no satisfaction to you compared to plans on making the world A Better Place, I recommend you do not pursue a career in academia as the overwhelming probability is it will leave you a prematurely bitter and twisted individual, and there are too many stalking corridors in universities already!
I hope this brief advice based from my mistakes in academia helps you. Good luck and let us know how you get on!