EMBL International PhD Programme

Unique in the world and waiting for you!

Tips from EMBL students

Current PhD students share why they chose to study at European Molecular Biology
Laboratory and give their advice to those applying for a PhD at EMBL.

Sara Formichetti – PhD student in Boulard group at EMBL Rome
Tips from Sara
Q: Why did you choose to do your PhD at EMBL?

When I applied to do a PhD, I had known of EMBL for a while, both from my university professors and from my master’s thesis internships. I applied to EMBL because of its reputation for excellence in molecular biology, and especially in training the new generation of scientists. However, it was only during the interview week that I really started loving this place. This happened mainly for three reasons: 1. the spirit of collaboration and absence of barriers here, which I had not experienced in any other research centre I visited. 2. the fact that there are almost no limits to the ideas you can pursue at EMBL – you can find support from experts in an incredible variety of techniques; and 3. the motivation of the young group leaders. I have been here for almost a year and I can say that EMBL has fulfilled all my expectations.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to apply for a PhD at EMBL?

My main advice to new candidates is “Be yourself and show your true interests, both in the online application and in the interview week.” If there is a suitable place for you at EMBL, it will find you. Unexpected things can happen during selections! My other piece of advice is “Abandon noxious competition. Otherwise you could miss the chance to know and learn from so many friendly aspiring young scientists.”

Guillermo Martinez Ara – PhD Student in Ebisuya group at EMBL Barcelona
Tips from Guillermo
Q: Why did you choose to do your PhD at EMBL?

I’ve always been interested in how cells communicate and organise to give rise to tissues and organs. Having studied for a master’s in synthetic biology, I wanted to work on its application to understand these fundamental processes. Therefore, it was a great surprise to see that a new EMBL site with a focus on tissue biology had opened in Barcelona.

I had known of EMBL for a long time: during my BSc, I learned about the databases managed by EBI and I learned about many of the breakthroughs and new technologies developed at EMBL. Moreover, I knew people who had done internships at EMBL and they gave very positive feedback.

Taking all of this into account and, knowing that new groups were being formed at EMBL Barcelona, including applications of synthetic biology to tissue and developmental biology, it was clear to me that I should take this chance to apply for a PhD there!

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to apply for a PhD at EMBL?

First, start early! Filling in the application form takes time. For the interview week, it is useful to have clear preferences. Be honest about what you would like to work on, but keep an open mind! During that week you will meet many group leaders with very interesting projects. Take advantage of it and enjoy it!

Charlie Barker – PhD student in Petsalaki Group at EMBL-EBI
Tips from Charlie
Q: Why did you choose to do your PhD at EMBL-EBI?

At my undergraduate university there were a couple of really nice people I knew who applied to EMBL. I was more interested in Bioinformatics so I applied to EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute. Working in Biochemistry, it’s an organisation you are very aware of, especially all the freely available databases and resources. As a student, and then later as a researcher, having all these free resources and databases is not only very useful, but very cool!

That was the first thing that made me choose EMBL-EBI but after that, having looked at the research that was going on here, that was something I wanted to be part of. My project is working towards whole cell modelling, basically creating an in silico version of the human cell so that we can do all of our tests on a simulation programme as opposed to a real organism. This has obvious ethical advantages, as well as being more convenient. There are also things you can’t measure in a real organism that you are able to directly gauge on a simulation.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to apply for a PhD at EMBL-EBI?

The interview process is three full-days, which is intense but fun. So my advice is to just be yourself and relax as much as possible! You also meet a lot of cool people during that process, so I highly recommend making the most of it.

Harald Bernhard – PhD student in Kowalinski group at EMBL Grenoble
Tips from Harald
Q: Why did you choose to do your PhD at EMBL?

I am highly fascinated by proteins and how these molecular machines work so accurately. Since my bachelor studies in molecular biology, I have been enthusiastic about structural biology. Having completed both my bachelor’s and master’s theses in structural biology, I was certain that I wanted to stay in this field and start a PhD.

When I started looking for positions, I came upon the EMBL PhD programme, which I had already heard of. With EMBL’s renowned expertise in structural biology, especially at the Grenoble and Hamburg sites, I thought: this is the right place for me to be! So I gave it a try, submitted an application, and was accepted into the Kowalinski group at EMBL Grenoble. So far, I am very happy with my decision. Besides all the interesting research going on across the campus, Grenoble is also a wonderful city to live in, surrounded by mountains.

A major criterion for my choice of PhD was the opportunity to learn new methods such as cryo-electron microscopy for structure determination, as I only had background in X-ray crystallography. I am very excited to learn electron microscopy, and to use this technique to explore the biological function of my proteins and answer questions about their role in the cell.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to apply for a PhD at EMBL?

First of all, don’t hesitate to apply. Even if you are not invited for the interview week, becoming a member of the shared applicant pool can already be of great help in finding the right PhD position.

For those who get invited, despite the stress of all the interviews it’s definitely a great experience. You can socialise and network with many interesting people. The recruitment is a great opportunity to exchange knowledge, make professional contacts and get tips for your future career.

And probably most important of all: be yourself, have fun and enjoy the time!

Rachel Edgar – PhD student in Zerbino Group at EMBL-EBI
Tips from Rachel
Q: Why did you choose to do your PhD at EMBL-EBI?

I came to the Wellcome Genome Campus for a conference and it was just an amazing environment, from there it was getting to know and use Ensembl which made me aware of EMBL. Because I’m not European it took a little bit more digging to get to know what EMBL-EBI was, but when I looked into it more it got really appealing due to the international aspects of the organisation. Here you get Group Leaders from all over the world and students from all over the world, it’s just a huge international experience which is very eye-opening in terms of all the different perspectives and ideas.

Broadly, my group focuses on gene regulation and how to predict what regulatory regions are doing, why they are doing it, and in which context. Specifically, I am going to be working on inflammatory bowel disease with gene regulatory information, so DNA methylation, gene expression and genetic variation. I will be digging into that in terms of mechanisms and markers.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to apply for a PhD at EMBL-EBI?

In general my advice would be to know what you want to do. Have a really clear idea about the research you want to do. The programme is fantastic and really appealing, but know that you want to be here for the science that you want to do, not just for the environment and the atmosphere. The interview will go way smoother if you have an idea of what you know already, what you want to learn and what you want to do with your time and your PhD. The four years can probably feel pretty long if you end up on a project that you’re not actually invested in! Think carefully about what you want to do and why.

Conor Walker – PhD student in Goldman Group at EMBL-EBI
Tips from Conor
Q: Why did you choose to do your PhD at EMBL-EBI?

EMBL as a whole is a great organisation because it has an incredibly multicultural environment, and I was excited to work in a heavily European scientific community. Specifically, I was interested in the European Bioinformatics Institute because of the purely computational nature of the research.

I was studying bioinformatics for my Masters, and EMBL-EBI is one of leading bioinformatics institutes in the world. As part of my bioinformatics programme, and before that, I was interacting with the data resources and tools at the EBI all the time. I thought it would be a really cool environment to be in, at the heart of the data science community for the ever-increasing amount of biological data.

Whilst I was studying biology, I didn’t yet fully appreciate how a lot of this data was generated and managed. As my work transitioned into being entirely computational, I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to work and learn at the institute which not only manages this data, but also applies and develops many novel computational methods to increase our understanding of biology.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to apply for a PhD at EMBL-EBI?

Based on my experience, the main things would be to relax during the interview process itself and in terms of preparation, really understand and be able to explain any projects you have done previously. I was asked a lot about my Bachelors and Masters thesis work and a lot of the interview hinged on me being able to explain that.

Group leaders want to see that you’ve understood what you’ve done and why you’ve done it, not just for you to say ‘I did it because I was told to’. They want to see that you have some initiative, that you’re a bit creative with your ideas and that you understanding what you’re doing and why. You’re not expected to know everything or wow them with your knowledge on an entire field!