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Posted on 27 Jan '21

Some Simple PhD Application Mistakes – and How to Avoid Them

PhD applications are funny things:

On the surface it looks like you're applying to be a student again, doing another degree at a(nother) university. Except, you aren't really.

Instead you're applying to be a largely independent researcher, completing a research project, with the support of a supervisor or research group within the university.

So, while the principle of 'applying to university' might seem pretty familiar by now, the actual experience of applying for a PhD probably won't. It's easy to make simple mistakes, and those simple mistakes can matter a lot more now that the stakes are higher.

This post isn't here to scare you or put you off applying for a PhD. The mistakes we'll cover really are pretty simple and most of them are also simple to avoid once you know to look out for them. The following tips should make sure you do.

#1 Assuming all PhDs are the same

They aren't. Put (a bit too) simply, there are two broad types of PhD application:

  • Applying for an advertised project is a lot like applying for a job. There's a thing to do, a specification for the person a university is seeking to do it and a process for coming forward and proving you are that person. If you're lucky there's also a salary (well, funding).
  • Applying for a self-proposed project within a university's PhD programme is more of a hustle, albeit one with some pretty clear rules. The onus is on you to specify the thing you want to do and 'sell' your idea (along with yourself). There's probably no funding involved (yet).

The first one is a bit like competing on The Apprentice and the second one is more like appearing on Dragon's Den. This is far from a perfect analogy (particularly if you aren't familiar with BBC reality TV series) but it's a start.

The thing to realise is that these applications emphasise different things. It's a good idea to get a sense of the sorts of PhD that are common in your subject area (if you aren't sure) and organise your application accordingly. It isn't such a good idea to spend ages working on the perfect research proposal for your own project only to end up applying to advertised projects with their own pre-set agenda and objectives.

#2 Doing things in the wrong order

You can find detailed information on all the common elements of a PhD application, right here on FindAPhD.

What you won't be able to find here is a specific order to 'do them' in. That's going to depend on your university and / or the kind of PhD you're applying for (see above).

It's pretty unlikely that you'll be asked to complete an interview before you've sent off your research proposal, but you might be expected to approach a prospective supervisor before you formally apply to their university (or for their project). Alternatively, you might be expected to do the exact opposite and let the university match you with a supervisor.

Getting this stuff wrong may not break your application, but it isn't the best start.

#3 Thinking you've applied when you haven't

The tale of a successful PhD application might start a little bit like this: You browse some websites, maybe go along to a study fair, get chatting to a university rep, learn about a potential supervisor, send them an email, discuss your ideas, meet for coffee and plan an amazing PhD journey together. . .

This is all very well but, as far as your application is concerned, it's just the prologue. You haven't applied until you've actually applied and, sadly, that probably doesn't happen in a coffee shop or a book-lined study. Instead it's more likely to happen at a desk, with a computer and some forms. Don't forget the forms.

#4 Leaving it too late

Chances are, there won't be a published deadline for a PhD you propose yourself (there almost certainly will be for an advertised project).

That doesn't mean you can apply when you want and start when you want. A PhD application can take quite a lot of time: time to find a supervisor, time to write a research proposal (and maybe a personal statement), time to get your references sorted (rushed referees rarely make for good references) and so on.

Even if you have some flexibility as to when your PhD registration begins, you should still work back from that point to factor in time for your application. A prospective supervisor or friendly admissions tutor can probably help you work this out.

#5 Not asking questions

Speaking of getting help, the PhD admissions process is not designed to trick you or catch you out. Asking questions is fine. Checking you understand something correctly is fine. Requesting information you honestly can't find for yourself is fine.

The university is not confronting you with a set of slightly obscure and occasionally inconsistent web pages in order to test your research skills; it just hasn't updated that bit of the website quite as recently as it should have. Demonstrating that you know when to corroborate and clarify your sources says more about your research potential than being the person who uncovered The Lost Scroll of PGRadmissionsguidelines.pdf and then forgot to check what year it was from.

#6 Copying and pasting

There's nothing wrong with applying to more than one university or project (or even to more than one project at the same university). But, for the most part, these really should be different applications.

This is really important if you're applying for advertised projects. The university needs to know why you're the person for this PhD and a boilerplate personal statement or cover letter that simply provides a general explanation of your interest in a particular science probably isn't going to cut it.

You should still be wary of duplicating material even if you're presenting a research proposal for the same project at different universities. A big part of what makes a self-proposed PhD viable is its 'institutional fit'. Submitting a proposal that doesn't have anything to say about how you'll work with the staff and resources at this university isn't a great idea. So is submitting one that explains how much you're looking forward to working with the staff and resources at the university up the road.

Next steps

You can read detailed guides to all the common elements of a PhD application here on FindAPhD: from research proposals and references to interviews (and questions!). You can also check out a few other blogs offering application blogs below, or get started looking for a PhD to apply to.

Good luck!

Editor's note: This blog was first published on 05/06/2019. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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