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Applying to a PhD? It’s not just about the topic of your project

Written by Rebecca Wilks and Heather Selley.

PhDs are hard. It’s important you know what you’re committing several years of your life to and it’s not just about your research topic. Often, starting a PhD involves moving away from your support network and starting again in a new place. The SENSE Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) dedicates significant amounts of time to supporting its students and improving its Equality, Diversity, and Inclusivity. Regardless of if you’re interested in a SENSE PhD project or a different organisation, We’ve put together a list of things it’s worth considering when looking and applying for PhDs, other than just the PhD project topic, from our and other students’ experiences.


Tips of some other things to consider when you are applying for a PhD:

Who will you be working with?

  • Make sure you reach out to potential supervisors AND their current students to find out about their supervision style. It’s important to get an idea of what their expectations are and whether you think it will work for you.
  • Will you be part of a larger research group? Would you like to be? Will there be regular group meetings?
  • It’s also a good idea to look at your potential supervisor’s website page:
    • What are their set of research interests, have they mentored other PhDs previously and are they involved in any other institutions
  • If you love outreach, does your department mention it? Has your supervisor worked on any EDI projects – it’s a good indication that they/the department are aware of issues or barriers you might face and the support options that might be helpful.
  • If you have any questions or concerns about PhDs or applications – ask them of your potential supervisor, their students, centre for doctoral training managers, current students on the programme, your referees, and if they have them EDI champions like me.
Line of rainbow coloured people walking arm in arm (credit:


There can be a huge amount of opportunities available to PhD students alongside your research depending upon your university or funding body, and if there is something you have your eye on, it’s good to check the availability of this ahead of time.

  • Is there any training offered and is this important to you?
  • If you want to, will you be able to undertake a placement?
  • What would your Research Training Support Fund (RTSG) like?
  • How many conferences will you be expected to attend?
  • Would your program allow you to be a Visiting Graduate Researcher at a different university?
  • Are you able to undertake relevant fieldwork? Does the department have previous experience organizing things like this?
SENSE PhD students at the European Space Agency Living Planet Symposium 2022.

Additional support:

  • What support do the Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT), Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) or Departments offer?
  • Does the university have any financial hardship funds?
  • What is offered in the way of financial and social support for people with families, career responsibilities or other such obligations?
  • Look for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI) pages on the Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT), Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) or university websites, it indicates they are investing and supporting diverse students.
  • Does the university have any dedicated student counselling resources?
  • Look for staff, PGR (Postgraduate Researcher) or student networks at the university, for instance: networks for chronic pain and fatigue, Disability, Accessibility and Mental health, and LGBTQIA+.-
  • Equally, if you have a hobby which is important for your well-being – is there a group for this? Communities already exist and finding different support pillars is important. 
  • Fill in the optional EDI survey that comes with most application forms – whilst it can be scary it is illegal for this to be held against you and ensures if you do get a position, you get support. Increasingly interviews are being ring-fenced for applicants with underrepresented characteristics.
  • If any reasonable adjustments during the interview would help you – request them.
People supporting each other and holding colourful puzzle pieces that connect together (Credit:

Stipend Funding Conditions:

Your PhD Stipend acts in the same way as a work contract, and therefore will cover details about annual leave, sickness etc. These will likely vary between funding source, and therefore two students in the same department at a university may have different conditions on their funding. You should be able to request details on this, for example SENSE is funded by NERC and so their standard conditions apply, but more generally you could enquire to your potential supervisor or the funding body responsible on their website (e.g. CDT/DTP contacts, research councils NERC, ESPRC). Bare in mind the interaction between this contract, and university rules.  Things to consider:

  • How much is the annual Stipend? What is the annual expected rate of increase?
  • How many work hours are you allowed to spend per year on secondary income (e.g. demonstrating, other part-time roles)
  • Some students choose to ‘master-out’ after a year if they find the program is not a fit for them, or personal obligations mean they need to leave the program. In this case, would the stipend need to be repaid?
  • What is maternity/paternity pay?
  • What is the sickness policy?
  • What is the annual leave policy?
  • Who owns any product IP generated during a PhD? If you have corporate sponsors, then this may be more complex.

The place and sense of place:

Enjoying the place you live can play a huge part in your day-to-day happiness, and so if you have to relocate for a PhD, it’s good to get an idea of about your potential new city and if it’ll be a good fit for you.  Some great resources for this include reading travel guides to towns, blog posts of students living there and general pros and cons lists online.

  • Can you see yourself living in the area for the next few years?
  • What are the transport links like in the city?
  • What are the transport links out of the city to home/family/friends?
  • If you have a car, how easy/expensive is it to get a permit/space?
  • What’s the social life like?
  • Is it cosmopolitan/isolated?
  • What is the weather like?
  • How close will you be to nature?
  • Cost-of-living: Will you be able to rent solo, or need to flat-share. Different areas will be able to afford you different setups with the PhD Stipend.
Illustration of a map with a large red pin marking a location (Credit:×612&w=0&k=20&c=k70y-GYfXRUiuSdq7ie_BF9Mvry6XlgZV3ENFR-TDJk=)

Working Environment:

  • Where would your department be?
  • Does the location have things you may need – bike storage, places for lunch etc?
  • Would you be in a shared office?
  • What commute will be required?

PhD Ways of Working:

A PhD marks a significant change in ways of working, from classes within a structured undergraduate syllabus, to exploratory independent research with supervisor guidance, including:

  • Managing your own time
  • Meetings to work with supervisors to build out ideas, get support on outstanding questions and present findings from hypotheses tested
  • Supervisors will provide guidance, but ultimately you are in the driving seat to get outputs
  • Classes if you require them
  • Sometimes there is no ‘right’ answer – you’re defining what should be done 

There are many things to consider when applying for PhDs and this is a list compiled a few key areas, to hear in more detail and more perspectives please check out our “Demystifying PhD Applications Webinar”.

Slide with a rainbow coloured interferogram stating SENSE CDT PhD applications Webinar 2022 and with pictures of the panellists.

You can also watch previous years webinars here:

If you have any questions about applying for a SENSE PhD please email

SENSE Internship Blogs 2022

Isabelle Wicks

Project Title

Using remote sensing to analyse Himalayan glacial lake thermal regimes 


Professor Duncan Quincey & Alex Scoffield 

Nathaniel Edward-Inatimi

Project Title

Using machine learning to predict the timing, magnitude and impact of solar flares from satellite imagery 


Professor Kathy Whaler & Dr. Ciaran Beggan

Sara Bennie

Project Title

Using big data to identify glaciers that surge 


Professor Duncan Quincey & Liam Taylor

Thomas Gilliespie

Project Title

Designing future lidar satellites for monitoring Net Zero 


Dr Steven Hancock

Arnav Sinha

Project Title

Multi Satellite Weather Files for Net Zero Developments 


Dr Daniel Fosas De Pano 

Qiusi Zou

Project Title

Using machine learning to identify buildings and land cover from very high-resolution satellite images  


Dr Sohan Seth  

Save the Date: 16th November 2022

SENSE Industry Event @ University of Edinburgh

SENSE and Space and Satellites @ The University of Edinburgh are planning a special in person event in Edinburgh on Wednesday 16th November 2022. This event will be for our students and academic and industry colleagues.

The purpose of the event will be:

  • To showcase the work in Earth Observation and environmental science already being done by SENSE and other areas of the university
  • To explore opportunities for collaboration between the centre, industry and the university
  • To network with students, companies, academics and other staff working at the forefront of EO
  • To explore future directions for research in Earth Observation and environmental science

Full details and registration information will be available in mid September however if you would like to register for updates please complete this form

For informal enquiries please contact

We look forward to meeting you in November

Polar Impact Polar Portals Outreach Project

Workshop 1 at the Alun Turing Institute 

Polar Impact is an inclusive network of racial and ethnic minorities and allies in the polar research community. In autumn 2022, we will send Polar Portals (Augmented Reality (AR) enabled postcards) via the Antarctic to schools in the UK to inspire and engage children to consider a career in polar research, especially among the target audience of 8 – 12-year-olds from racial and ethnic minorities. We will be commissioning original works from BIPOC artists living in polar regions which will be printed into several postcard designs. The postcards will present visual artworks connected to the theme of polar regions, exploration and science. On the reverse of the postcards, pupils will be able to access a QR code to learn about the postcard’s journey and bring it to life through AR. 

Concept postcard designed by Emma Armitage.  

With Royal Museums Greenwich an under-18s Postcard Design Competition will be held with local schools in East London. The winning postcard will be stocked in the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust Penguin Post Office and available for purchase. A temporary exhibition for all entries to the competition will be hosted at the National Maritime Museum in December 2022. 

Working illustration by Farid Hussein (2022). 

Polar Portals Workshop 1 – supported by SENSE and the Alun Turing Institute 

On Friday the 29th of July the SENSE EDI Champion Heather Selley led a workshop at the Alun Turing Institute to kick off the project. The volunteers included Prem Gill (Polar Impact Founder), Heather Selley (Project Lead Organiser), Kirsty Flockhart (Art and production officer), Keiron Bally (Augmented Reality Officer), Priscilla Wong (Digital Content Officer) and Farid Hussein (Illustrator). The workshop allowed the volunteer team to come together and meet for the first time after working virtually on the project for the last few months. The team includes polar scientists, art curators, illustrators, web developers and PhD students with a wide variety of skills and backgrounds. It also gave the team the opportunity to discuss the more technical aspects with the Alun Turing Community, who are data science specialists. A key aim of this project is to make it scalable and be able to be as automated as possible to ensure longevity. This workshop focused on automating the process of getting the polar explorer’s geotagged digital diary which can be shown on a map, tools for QR code tracking, and expanding the project’s augmented reality concept. They also got to try out the mythical Alun Turing Institute coffee machine. 

SatSchool Launches the Classroom into Space

On 6th April the SatSchool outreach project was launched at a hybrid meeting, showcasing the results of the team’s hard work over the past six months to put this fantastic program together. SENSE students and outreach representatives from each of our institutes, as well as from NERC, ESERO-UK, UKSA and IRIS were all in attendance. 

SatSchool is a high quality school outreach program which aims to introduce Earth Observation (EO) concepts to 11-15 year old (KS3/S1-S3) pupils, highlighting the relevance of school subjects in EO and future STEM career pathways.  We have developed 12+ hours of engaging classroom resources in collaboration with teachers to ensure they are closely tied to the UK school curriculum. Pupils will have the chance to learn about satellites and how we use them to study the Earth from space, as well as getting hands on with some EO data! 

The outreach package also aims to ease the pressure on EO experts when doing outreach as the SatSchool materials are ready to take into the classroom. We have established a network of EO Ambassadors based in Edinburgh, Leeds, Southampton and Cambridge who can take these resources into schools and act as role models to inspire the next generation of EO experts. We hope this network will expand in the future!

The program contains six different modules, each with cross-curricular links across six STEM subjects:

  • Introduction to Earth Observation (Physics / Geography)
  • Hands on with Data (Computer Science / Maths / Geography)
  • Cryosphere (Geography / Maths / Physics) 
  • Biosphere (Biology / Geography) 
  • Atmosphere (Chemistry / Geography / Physics) 
  • Oceans (Geography / Biology / Physics)

Each module contains an introductory presentation to the subject which the presenter can use to introduce the topic. It also contains a self-guided ArcGIS StoryMap where students can work through the activities on a laptop/tablet/smartphone or it can be led through by a single presenter. The modules have worksheets for pupils to complete whilst doing the activities to keep them focused, as well as a  guide for the presenters on how to run the session. The sessions run between 30-60 minutes and activities can be adapted to the kind of session you want to run or you can follow the lesson plan provided. 

Calum Hoad and Sol White presenting the Intro to EO module at Bathgate Academy on 16th March 2022.

On March 16th we ran a successful first SatSchool visit to Bathgate Academy, where we trialled the Intro to EO module to two classes of S3 pupils. Co-founder Calum Hoad and Module Leader Sol White presented the module to two classes and the resources were well received. We are hoping to roll out SatSchool to more schools in the near future.

SatSchool team members Emily Dowd, Bryony Freer and Morag Fotheringham presenting our SatSchool poster on the final day of ESA’s Living Planet Symposium in Bonn, Germany. May 2022.

The SatSchool team was grateful for the opportunity to present a poster of the outreach project at the European Space Agency’s Living Planet Symposium in Bonn, Germany during May 2022. It was a really great opportunity for us to share SatSchool with an audience outside the UK and people were excited by the resources. We hope that the exposure at Living Planet will help to expand our EO Ambassador network and reach more schools.

Finally we would like to thank a lot of people for their support in their project. These include: 

  • NERC for awarding us an ‘Engaging the Public with Environmental Science’ grant
  • The SENSE CDT for their support in the project.  
  • ESERO-UK for their guidance, outreach training and putting us in contact with the Ogden Trust. 
  • The Ogden Trust and Chipping Campden School for arranging and taking part in the teacher workshop. 
  • IRIS & Bathgate Academy for the school visit
  • Space Hub Yorkshire for the extra funding to help advertise SatSchool
  • The SatSchool Team for all their hard work

You can explore the modules and find out more about the project on our website: 

You can also follow us on Twitter @SatSchool_ or email us

SENSE in Bonnie Scotland– Field Skills Week @ Firbush, May 2022

In May 2022 SENSE cohort 1 and 2 students made their way to Firbush the University of Edinburgh outdoor centre near Killin in Stirlingshire for a week of field skills training. This is part of the core training for the CDT students which due to Covid had been delayed on several occasions.

Although most of our students use satellite data for their research collecting ‘ground truth data’ in the field is an important part of research as it can be used to validate satellite data in gaining a better understanding of the area being analysed.

As team SENSE headed north spirits were high as this was going to be the first time all together as a full group and everyone was looking forward to spending time together and getting to know each other properly.

After settling into the centre and trying out some watersports on Loch Tay the group were ready to start out activities which were led by staff from the school of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh.

Drone operation was led by Tom Wade (Airborne Geoscience) and Liz Poulsom (E4 DTP) who explained the risk assessment required for flying drones, discussed planning missions and gave practical demonstrations. There is a lot to consider when flying drones and everyone was surprised how much you have to consider including informing the military who may be using the area for operations. Once the safety aspect sorted then it was time to fly and the students all managed to have a shot of the smaller drones and some even got experience of the larger more complex ones (while avoiding the pesky fishermen).

The group were joined by Jack Gillespie from the NERC Field Spectroscopy Facility. Field spectroscopy relates to the measurement of the optical characteristics of a surface and provides quantitative measurements of radiance, irradiance, reflectance or transmission. Analysis of specific areas of the spectral data can infer properties of the sample material, and various indices exist to quantify various parameters. Jack had brought some of the portable equipment used by the unit and the students had a great time looking at different spectral properties of things they could find around the site. The FSF facility lends out spectroscopy equipment to the research community and some of which is carried on drones and Jack had brought along some of the equipment to show us including the headwall camera.

The third activity was forest inventory and tree measuring with Dr Ian Davenport and Wequan Dong from the Mitchard research group. Forest survey is used in calculating the biomass of a forest and is important in validating satellite data although often in exotic locations than a Scottish forest. Ian also shared some work he had carried out using Lidar on a fixed wing UV looking at peat in the Congo forests.

The final activity was a walk up Creag Buidhe a nearby hill overlooking Loch Tay where we were able to discuss the forestry around the area and find out more about the history of the area from the Firbush staff including hydro schemes and crannogs. It was quite a steep walk but more than worth it for the amazing views and also the chance to take a drone selfie thanks to SENSE student Sam Bancroft.

As well as the training activities the students were able to take advantage of the excellent facilities at Firbush and enjoy cycling, walking, football, windsurfing, sailing, kayaking and swimming in the loch. Evenings involved games, a quiz and a taskmaster event as well as time to chat and get to know each other. With conferences coming up there was also time to work on talks and posters and it the first chance for the full team for Sat School our amazing outreach programme to celebrate their hard work (and model the very cool Satschool t shirts).

Cohort building is very important within SENSE as forming professional and personal bonds during their PhD will be essential to our students as they continue their journeys in science and the group took full advantage of this week to do that.

Thank you so much to the Tom, Jack, Liz, Ian, Dong, Eleanor and the Firbush staff for making this such a memorable trip. It was an amazing week with lots of fun and memories made and the group look forward to getting together again soon.

International Day of Women & Girls in Science

SENSE student Charlotte Walshaw will talk about her passion for satellite data and environmental science for International Day of Women & Girls in Science. Charlotte studies vegetation change in the Antarctic as the climate changes at the University of Edinburgh.

IRIS (Institute for Research Into Schools)’s is hosting a webinar for 14-18 year olds, follow the link in the tweet below to get a ticket.

SENSE Students Win Funding For SatSchool

Four second year SENSE CDT researchers (Bryony Freer, Emily Dowd, Calum Hoad and Morag Fotheringham) have won National Environment Research Council (NERC) funding for their proposed outreach project “SatSchool”. This bid was made as part of a wider NERC initiative to engage the public with environmental sciences.

The project aims to create a high-quality school outreach package consisting of a general introduction to Earth Observation and five specialised modules – Getting Hands on with Data, Atmosphere, Oceans, Cryosphere and Biosphere. SatSchool will highlight the cross-curricular nature of environmental science and STEM careers, address the digital skills agenda and promote NERC science highlights. 

SatSchool will run in two phases. The first phase is the funded development of SatSchool between now and March 2022. SENSE PhD students will use their expertise to build the outreach modules by creating new resources and collating existing ones. Consultation with a high school teacher will then allow the modules to be tailored to the school curriculum. We have also partnered with ESERO-UK, who will aid in the development of materials and contribute to outreach training for SENSE PhD students. This collaboration means SatSchool will contribute to ESERO-UK’s One Million Interactions initiative.

After March 2022, SENSE students will use the resources and guidance developed by SatSchool to deliver outreach throughout their PhDs. The preparation time and stress associated with school outreach visits will be reduced, while allowing the delivered outreach to be consistent and of high-quality. SatSchool should empower SENSE students to become role models for the next generation of Earth Observation Scientists.

Nick Homer wins Alan Turing Enrichment Scheme

Huge congratulations to SENSE student Nick Homer, for his successful application to the Alan Turing Institute Enrichment Scheme. Nick will be spending 9 months from March 2022, working part-time at the Alan Turing Institute in London.

The Turing Enrichment scheme offers students currently enrolled on a doctoral programme at a UK university the opportunity to spend up to 12 months at the Turing in London. The Enrichment scheme has been designed to give students undertaking a PhD the opportunity to support and enhance their current research by accessing the facilities and opportunities available at The Alan Turing Institute and its partners. Students usually join in their second or third years of a typical doctorate, to further the work they are undertaking for their research project and support the completion of the PhD.

Applications for 2021 have now closed, but if you’re interested in applying for next year you can view this information session on Turing’s YouTube channel

The Alan Turing Institute logo

SENSE nominated for Leeds partnership award

SENSE are delighted to have been nominated for a Leeds Partnership Award this year for our work on improving equality, diversity and inclusion in recruitment procedure.

The SENSE team were nominated for going ‘above and beyond’ in their work on improving equality and inclusion in SENSE’s postgraduate recruitment procedure, and for continually pushing this agenda in the School of Earth and Environment and across the University.

So thank you for our anonymous nominator, and congratulations to the winners!