Preparing a PhD Application: 10 Tips
A PhD application is an important process, but there's a lot you can do to make it easier. The time and effort you put in now can also have huge benefits further down the line. In this post Gaia Cantelli offers a checklist for students considering applying for a PhD.
If you finished a Bachelors or Masters over the summer, now could be the time to think about applying for a PhD position.
This can seem like a daunting and intense process (especially if you’re also working hard on your current degree). But there are a few things you can do to make your life easier! Here are my top 10 tips and tricks to navigate this exciting time!
While most deadlines for applications aren’t until late autumn (and there are still many opportunities accepting applications until the spring) it is a good idea to start thinking about your application before term starts.
Make sure you understand the different types of doctorate on offer. Then take advantage of any down-time to research potential PhD places and programmes (Christmas, Easter and summer holidays are all great for this). You'll soon start getting ideas about the sort of work you want to do!
Many of the other tips in this blog assume you've started thinking about your PhD application early. You won't be able to complete them all at once, so give yourself enough time.
#2 Decide what area you want to specialise in
If you're even considering a PhD, you’re clearly very passionate about your subject and committed to making a difference. So make sure you spend a few weeks zeroing in onto the exact area you want to specialise in. Bear in mind that this could be your bread-and-butter for the next half-decade (or thereabouts)!
Make sure you consider not only how interesting you find the theory of a specific subject, but also the practical aspects of researching it.
If you're a Science or Engineering student, think about whether you'd rather get your hands dirty in the lab and workshop, or work on theoretical and conceptual principles. And would you prefer to stay on campus, or do you want to spend more time on field work?
If you're in the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences you'll still need to decide how to balance theory and practice. Do you want to focus on more creative work? Would you prefer to interact directly with people to examine their views and experiences, or work on existing records and materials?
#3 Spend time researching potential supervisors
Deciding who to do your PhD with could be the most important decision you make at this stage. So spend some time looking up the person (or people) who might be supervising you.
Are they an established academic? Or have they just started their own research group? What is their publication record like? Are they supervising lots of other PhD students or would you be on your own? Can you speak to one of their current or future students? Can you speak to the supervisor themselves and discuss your project in advance?
Researching supervisors can be easy if you’re applying to a set project (as is common in Science and Engineering subjects). But Arts and Humanities students can still investigate potential supervisors at their chosen university and perhaps contact them to discuss ideas. In fact, this can be even more important for these kinds of projects. After all, it doesn’t really matter how good a university is if there’s no one there who can supervise your project.
Now is also a good time to think about what you'll expect from a PhD supervisor and the kind of support you think your project needs.
#4 Think about your non-academic life as well
A PhD is obviously the ideal time to follow your scholarly passions, get to know other academics and start thinking about a possible career in your field (if that’s your goal).
But you're also going to be doing other things during the 3 to 4 years of your PhD that aren’t related to your research. Keep this in mind as you make decisions that will affect other aspects of your life as a PhD student.
For example, if you are thinking of moving to a new town for your PhD, make sure you would enjoy living there! And don’t take substantial changes to your social life and routine lightly. You need to be happy and stable for the duration of your doctorate. Sacrifices are understandable, but so are compromises.
#5 Do some reconnaissance
Unless you’re staying at the same university, starting a PhD probably means adopting a new home as well as a new place of work. This means you need to enjoy your new university and home city on a personal and professional level. The best way to ensure this is check them out for yourself!
This is easy enough to do (unless you're studying abroad). In many cases you can also take advantage of postgraduate open days and events.
But don’t just settle for a visit to the university campus and a quick walk around the city centre. If at all possible, email the academic you are considering working with and ask if you can visit their lab or work space informally.
Many supervisors will be happy to meet up and show you around! On the flip side, if you do visit and decide to apply, having already met your future supervisor can give you an advantage when applying to very competitive programmes.
#6 Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket
You’ve found the perfect place. You love the town, the academics are great and you find their work both stimulating and exciting. You’ve gone to visit and you feel a great chemistry both with the boss and with the rest of the group.
The temptation to put all of your eggs in the one basket and only prepare one or two applications is strong. Resist that temptation!
Apply to as many places as you can! This will be time-consuming and rather painful, but having several backup choices will give you more confidence.
On the other hand, make sure you never apply anywhere you wouldn’t actually choose to go. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you have several offers you don’t care for and feel pressured to accept at least one of them.
#7 Ask yourself what sort of programme you’re interested in
There are a lot of PhD options out there – and things can even vary quite a bit within different subject areas.
An Arts or Humanities project could involve lots of time spent doing original archival work, or it could be more concerned with re-evaluating well-known materials.
A Science or Engineering project could be very flexible, with the freedom to continue with your own specific research. Or it could be more structured, with the requirement to complete specific ‘rotation’ periods doing research in different laboratories (or different parts of the same laboratory).
Some projects will involve formal teaching responsibilities, others will treat this kind of work as an optional professional development opportunity. Some universities will set specific guidelines for PhD students, including the way they work with supervisors and the targets they need to meet. Others will be much more flexible.
Make sure you know what you’re applying for!
#8 Make sure you're prepared
Your previous degrees should qualify you academically for a PhD, but advanced research can also require more specific training. It's a good idea to check what sort of previous experience is expected of candidates in your research area.
For example, students in the life sciences are sometimes expected to have completed at least one 3 month period of lab experience before they apply. You may have acquired this as part of your MSc (particularly if you've completed lab work as part of your dissertation). But, if you do not have the necessary preparation, find out how to get it!
In some cases it may not be a bad idea to defer your PhD application until you’re ready.
There are many, many people involved in the process of applying for a PhD. Your current advisors and lecturers, other academics you’ve met during laboratory work experience, the supervisor you are hoping to work with, the head of the graduate school or research department you are applying to, admissions staff and many more.
Most of these people will the thrilled to help you put together a successful application. Make sure you ask as many questions as you need to, especially before you make any important decisions like deferring your application or accepting an offer!
#10 Spend enough time on your actual application!
It seems obvious, but this is probably the single most important piece of advice anyone can give you!
If you start early enough you should have plenty of time to think about your application and take advantage of the extra research and preparation you're doing.
Have you taken time to visit your university and meet your supervisor? Use examples to explain why you're a great fit for the department and its work.
Have you sought out additional opportunities to prepare yourself for PhD research? Mention them.
Have you carefully compared different projects and programmes? Don't be afraid to show that you've put some thought into that process: justify your decision to apply to this PhD, at this university.
Above all, make sure you spend plenty of time writing your personal statement and research proposal as well as updating your CV. And, when you’ve done, ask a few different people to read them!
Get as much feedback as you can from people you trust and try to apply it to your work. Make sure you choose the right people as your referees and let them know with plenty of notice so they can prepare something in advance.
If you get invited to a PhD interview, think about the questions you might be asked and don’t be afraid to rehearse! Practice makes perfect.
Editor's note: This blog was first published on 31/08/2016. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
Gaia Cantelli completed her PhD at King's College London in 2016 and now works at European Bioinformatics Institute. She publishes a personal blog with advice for aspiring scientists.
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Last Updated: 13 October 2021
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