Scientists in the World

Living and studying in Manchester, UK

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Why I went to the UK for my PhD

In 2011, an Erasmus exchange to the University of Manchester. I wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen to go there, honestly! All I knew about it was that it had a fairly successful football team (which I knew from watching the film “Eurotrip” and I completely missed the other kind of successful football team…anyway) and that it was industrial, dirty, and kind of large. I was not wrong in that assumption, but I learnt how little I knew about the city and what it meant to live there.

When I finished my degree, I have to admit, I knew very little about doing a PhD in the UK. I just assumed it would be similar. I knew I had to find a stipend and I vaguely remembered one of the professors in the UK telling me to apply for something called the Wellcome Trust. So, that is what I did.
The cover letter I wrote was dreadful. It was full of sentences like: “I am very interested in molecular biology” or “I like doing science”. I did not think I would have been even invited to the interview if I had not, randomly met a postdoc who was British, had done his PhD with the Wellcome Trust, and is now working at my University, at a conference, at which I served coffee! He offered to read my cover letter and he helped me change it. He told me that almost everyone  used sentences like: “I am really interested in…” and that, instead, I should sit down and think about what I actually liked about my subject. My very personal reasons, why I chose to study biology in the first place and why I wanted to continue to do so. So, thanks to him, I did get invited to an interview and was told, at the end of the interview day, that I had one of the six places.

I had another nine months to go before moving to the UK, back to Manchester, for the next four years. It was what I always wanted ever since I did my Erasmus there. I was over the moon. I sold all my belongings and left. I never regretted it.

The Wellcome Trust PhD programme
The Wellcome Trust is a foundation that offers different funding schemes for researchers at different stages in their career. Their headquarters are in London, close to Euston Station, where you can go and visit the Wellcome collection for the “incurably curious”.

The Wellcome Trust was founded by Sir Henry Wellcome who, in his will, , left money to establish a charity for “the advancement of medical and scientific research to improve mankind’s wellbeing”. The funding for the four-year PhD programme was as follows: EU and UK students get a stipend which covers laboratory rotation expenses in the first year and research expenses for years two to four, tuition fees for the four years, monthly payments covering living expenses, transferable skills training, and travel costs to attend conferences. International students are allowed to apply too, but, as the tuition fees for international students are higher than for EU/UK students, living expenses have to be covered by the students themselves.

There are a lot of other funding opportunities which you can usually find on the websites of the universities that you want to apply to. You can also find which funding schemes support the university and how you can apply.
Some of the other schemes include: BBSCR (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, which is funding projects all over Europe,  A*Star, which is split between the UK and Singapore, and many more.
As a PhD student in the UK, you are considered a full-time student, so you will have to pay tuition fees unless you are on one of the funding schemes, that will cover them for you.

Living in Manchester
Manchester has, so far, been the place I enjoyed living in the most and, at the same time, has been the roughest place I have ever lived in. I love the city and the people are generally very welcoming and open-minded. Manchester is very diverse, as is the University of Manchester, and there is a great level of acceptance and a much larger notion of togetherness, especially after the 22nd of May 2017 episode, where twenty-three people died in the Manchester Arena attack. Maybe Manchester’s reaction to this tragedy underlines the overall feeling of this place: taxi companies offered free rides away from Victoria Station (which is partly under the Manchester Arena), people offered shelter to others, the next day, people gathered in public places and spontaneously sang “Don’t look back in anger”. The overall reaction to what happened was not trying to blame a specific group of people but rather trying to underline that the people of Manchester stand together and that everyone who lives here is of Manchester. We were all kind of personally involved in what happened, not because everyone of us knew victims of the attack, but because the preparations of the event had happened so close to us, amidst us. This is what I would give as an example for what Manchester feels like, it somehow manages to be an amazing place where you feel so welcome, but at the same time, it can very quickly be very scary with a high rate of crime. However, I generally felt very secure most of the times. I guess it is, after all,  a fairly big city and much like any big city has its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ areas.

Would I make the same decision again?
Definitely yes! I can only recommend to anyone who has the opportunity, to go abroad to study or work for a while. For me, it was the UK, maybe, with the current political situation in the UK, I would have decided to go elsewhere, but I guess it doesn’t really matter where you go. Just go, if you can. It was an eye-opening experience that shaped my personality and the way I think (whether it was about science or about the rest of the world) for good. I  learnt so much about different cultures, not just the British culture (which can often be a little amusing… I mean, who has two separate taps, one for freezing cold water and one for scorching hot water?) but about the cultures of all my international friends. Maybe for you, it won’t be the UK, maybe doing your PhD in France has always been your heart’s desire. I recommend you to take the plunge, this experience will offer you perspective, self-confidence and a sense of belonging to a larger, global community.   


Written by Jana Schepers; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

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