My Journey to a DPhil in Medical Sciences at the University of Oxford

By Lizzie Horton (@liz.thescientist)


My success story is one of multiple failures. My journey into Oxford has taught me to be thankful for my failures, as they have meant I have ended up where I am now: in my dream lab on an amazing programme amongst world-leading scientists.


From as early as year 1, science has always been my favourite subject (although at this age I mistakenly called it ‘silence’, which my parents gleefully remind me). As I grew older, I realised my passions lay in the realms of biology; more specifically, immunology and the implications in human health and disease. Because of this, I decided to apply to do an undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology. I chose to go to the University of Sheffield, as the course there is specialised from first year, which is what I wanted, rather than starting with biology more broadly.


I graduated three years later with a first-class degree and experience in extracurricular activities: I performed in and stage-managed many university productions, I was involved in two a cappella choirs and sat on the committee for them for two years, I had a part-time job as a STEM ambassador at the university helping run open days and I won 3 awards for my work as a mentor to first year students. I did all these activities for enjoyment (and I had so much fun), but I now realise they make me stand out as a highly motivated candidate on my CV.

My undergraduate degree had consolidated my passion for molecular biology, and I knew then that I wanted to pursue this further through a PhD or DPhil. During my degree I gained laboratory experience from first- and second-year training labs, and then a miniature lab project in my final year. This happened to be on plant biology, and whilst I enjoyed the work, it did not fulfil my desire to research something directly impacting human health and disease. It did, however, provide me with many transferable skills, which I am grateful for. I gained more experience in a 2-week summer student placement at the University of Cambridge, this time in embryonic development and cell patterning. I gained an understanding of how labs work and helped to write a data-note, which is now published.


Armed with these skills, I applied to many PhD programmes. I had 7 interviews, but no success. The feedback I received informed me that I was a promising candidate with potential, but no experience in the specific field I had applied to, and most other candidates had additional experience or qualifications. A fair enough appraisal, but at the time I was gutted.


I knew I needed lab experience in the field I wanted to go into (I had narrowed this down to immunology and pathogenicity), so I applied for the MRes programme at UCL. I applied to this one as it is one of a small handful of MRes programmes around, and I could commute from home. I first landed in a bacteriology lab at UCL for 3 weeks, but I soon realised it wasn’t for me, and I switched to a virology lab at the Francis Crick Institute, dubbed the ‘worldwide influenza centre’. It was here that I discovered my true passion: virology and public health. I learned how a public health lab is run (it is tied to the WHO) alongside so many virus-specific techniques that I wouldn’t have otherwise learned. I knew I had to continue along this path and applied again for PhD/DPhil positions.


This time, I had much experience in the interview process alongside how to write a successful application; this was not my first rodeo. I applied to many different programmes, including Medical Sciences at Oxford. I received interview invitations followed by rejections from universities in London and Cambridge. I was feeling very disheartened until I heard from Oxford last, offering me an interview.


The interview process was much more professional than the previous 11 I’d now had. I knew who the panel were in advance, no one was late (as had been at other interviews I went to), the organisation of the candidates was such that you weren’t directly next to your ‘competition’ - which can be incredibly off-putting - and the interviewers were friendly and relaxed. In addition, I got to meet the lab groups, chat with the PIs (who bought me a coffee) and tour the facilities. It felt like a dream. I didn’t dare feel hopeful, but two days later when I was developing images from an experiment, I got the email saying I’d got in and secured a scholarship.


You can see I faced an incredibly winding path to success. My previous interview and application experience allowed me to be confident in my Oxford interview. My MRes highlighted my true scientific passions and allowed me to determine which lab groups I fit in with. I believe that Oxford, more specifically WIMM, is where I am meant to be. I am thankful for my failures, as they allowed me to get to where I am now.


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