Getting Started With a PhD Application – 7 Steps
Found the perfect PhD? Congratulations! All that's left to do now is fill out a short form and send it to the university along with a passport-sized photo, a stamped-addressed-envelope and. . .
OK. PhD applications are more complicated than that. Quite a bit more complicated, in fact.
At the very least, you're going to need a research proposal, some referees and quite a bit of time. Time to write that proposal, time to make sure your referees are available and – hopefully – time to prepare for an interview.
The good news? If you're starting to think about your application now, you will have plenty of time. This blog will help you organise it.
The other good news? You probably won't need a stamped-addressed-envelope.
Step 1 - Make a cup of tea*
Consumption of warm beverages won't improve your application, but taking a few minutes to reflect on the task at hand almost certainly will.
In some ways this process (the application, not the tea) is going to be a lot like your PhD: it's going to take time, it's going to take commitment and it's going to need to be original.
What this means is that starting to apply for a PhD you aren't 100% commited to is a bad idea:
- At best you'll realise partway through and have wasted a fair bit of time preparing materials for a specific project you're no longer applying for.
- At worst, you'll complete the application, succeed. . . and find yourself facing three years (or more) researching a project you've already lost interest in.
So make sure the PhD you're applying for really is a PhD you want to do. Really.
There are ways to check that. And if you aren't sure? It's ok to keep looking.
*Or coffee. Or whatever other appropriate beverage takes your fancy.
Step 2 - Show the project to your current lecturers
It's always worth discussing a PhD decision with the academic staff on your current course. (After all, you may be new to academic research, but they aren't).
This is doubly true when it comes to considering a specific PhD project:
If you're applying for an advertised opportunity your tutors may spot details you've overlooked or offer insights you aren't aware of. That could be as simple as highlighting something important in the suggested methodology, or it could involve some 'insider information' about the proposed supervisor or department.
If you're proposing your own topic your tutors can offer impartial and honest advice on its merits or limitations. It's better to hear about weaknesses now than have them exposed in your research proposal – or through an interview question.
If you are going to seek advice like this, do it early on. For one thing, this makes it easier to act on any advice you receive. It's also a lot more polite to ask for thoughts on a PhD listing or a project idea than to expect detailed feedback on an application you've nearly completed.
Step 3 - Check the application requirements closely
The basic components of a PhD application are fairly consistent: you'll need some form of research proposal or project outline, you'll need details of academic qualifications and references and you'll probably need to put together a broad personal statement and / or covering letter.
But the details for all of these can differ between projects – and the details matter.
In particular, keep an eye out for things like:
- Word counts – Universities or departments will set their own limits for proposals and statements. Find out what they are before you start writing.
- Statement guidelines – If your university asks you to cover something specific (your choice of university, your career goals, your financial support) make sure you do.
- Proposal requirements – As above, if the university asks for something in particular (methodology, outcomes, impact), be sure to cover it.
- Reference policy – You might have free reign over the referees you supply, or you might be asked for statements from specific individuals (such as a previous dissertation supervisor).
- Interview procedure – Are all candidates required to attend an interview? Is there a date specified for this? What's the format?
Needless to say, you also want to pay close attention to the deadline – or deadlines – for different parts of your application. More about that below. First though:
Step 4 - If funding is involved, read the small print
Does your PhD have funding attached? Or are you applying for separate support?
Some PhD scholarships and awards will be 'charitable' (designed to help capable students fulfill their academic ambitions). Others will have additional objectives that inform the kinds of candidates they look for.
These details may not seem to matter much now (after all, a scholarship is a scholarship, right?). But they can play a big role in selecting applicants for funding - or determining eligibility for it.
The following are worth keeping in mind:
- Some public funding (from sources such as the UK Research Councils) is intended to develop a country's own research capacity and skills. International students may not be eligible for full awards.
- Projects with advertised funding may actually be competition funded. This means that several different PhDs are competing for the same resources. The best project (with the best student) will be funded.
- Ongoing funding may sometimes be conditional on progress. Failure to stay on track with your PhD, or reach certain milestones within a set timeframe could result in this kind of support being withdrawn.
Details for PhD funding will usually be quite transparent, but checking them now can pay off later (quite literally).
As a PhD candidate, you won't just be a student within your department: you'll be a part of that department, carrying out research alongside other academics.
So don't be afraid to introduce yourself before you apply.
If nothing else, this shows you're serious about a PhD and commited to researching at this university: instead of turning up out of the blue, your application and proposal will be part of a conversation you've already started.
That conversation can also be a good opportunity to ask any outstanding questions and confirm that your ideas are a good fit for the department (or supervisor) you want to work with.
Now's the time to get practical. And the first step is to make a list. Preferably one with a first step.
Find out exactly what's required for your application and note it all down:
Research proposal, personal statement, references, academic transcripts, funding information, CV, visa details, form-filling. . . include everything and miss nothing.
Once you've made a list you can. . .
There's more to a PhD application than a single deadline. Proposal-writing, references and other preparations will all follow different timescales.
So make a plan. Work out how long you'll need to complete each part of the application and schedule accordingly.
You'll probably want to start in the following order:
- Begin with references. This is polite as well as practical. You won't know how long reference-writing will take (or how busy your referees are). So give them as long as possible.
- Similarly, get the ball rolling early with any academic documents and transcripts you need to supply. Your current or previous university may need time to produce these.
- Once you've the things that are out of your control, you'll have cleared some space to get on with the most important part of your application: the research proposal. You'll know how much time you have for proposal-writing alongside other commitments. Give yourself as much as possible.
Other parts of the application can normally be left until later, but make sure you've checked the fine details. You don't want to discover that your CV is out of date at the last minute - or notice that there's space for a substantial personal statement hiding on page two of the application form.
Step 8. . .
At this point you're ready to move from preparing an application to applying. Good luck! And perhaps make another cup of tea.
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