5 Things a PhD Supervisor Wants to See From Applicants | FindAPhD.com
Posted on 17 Oct '23

5 Things a PhD Supervisor Wants to See From Applicants

Applying for a PhD is more than just applying for a research project, you’re also asking to work with a particular academic (or sometimes multiple). As supervisors, it’s their job to support you throughout the years and guide you to completion. But, in order to do this, they need to know you’re capable of getting to the end.

We’ve taken a look at five key things supervisors look for in applications. Whether you’re submitting your own research proposal, applying to a predetermined project, or gearing up for an interview, make sure to meet these key requirements.

#1 You understand the project and its originality

The very purpose of a PhD is to provide a significant original contribution to knowledge. You therefore need to know exactly what the point of the project is and what you’re hoping to achieve with the research.

If you’re proposing your own topic, you’ll need to clearly explain the value and impact your research could have. For instance, my PhD looked at human-animal interactions to explore the development of violence as a cultural indicator of success in sixteenth century English Atlantic travel narratives. Understanding new ways in which violence was encouraged helps us as a society unpick the later and lasting impacts of the British Empire.

For those applying to a predetermined project, this step is still crucial when writing a cover letter and answering interview questions. You need to demonstrate that you know why the research needs to be done and that your own expertise can bring value to the project.

#2 You understand the scholarly field you plan to engage with

In order to understand your project fully, you need to know the scholarly field(s) well. Understanding where you want to have the most impact will help you contextualise the importance of your own research.

I pitched my research as a contribution to the field of Atlantic History. This particular area is quite young and still faces multiple methodological challenges. My own project followed the call to include more environmental history and to consider both the north and south Atlantic together, rather than separately.

Understanding where research has been will help show you where research needs to go. This demonstrates to a supervisor that your project will actually be original and worthwhile, and that you understand the importance of the research they want completed.

#3 You’re good with time and project management

Perhaps the most important skills a PhD researcher needs in their arsenal is both time and project management. Three to four years full-time (in the UK) is not that long to complete a research project and write it up a 80,000 word thesis.

Your supervisor will want to know that you’re capable of managing your own time and have thought through how you’ll conduct the work.

Will you need to undergo research trips? Where are the sources you need to access? How are you going to access them? Will you need certain approvals?

#4 You have relevant experience to the research project

As part of your application, you’ll have to submit a CV detailing your academic experience and achievements. Make sure to tailor the document to highlight anything particularly relevant to the project. Have you worked with some of your proposed sources before? Have you used similar experiments or methodologies?

If you’re writing a research proposal, it’s also a good idea to mention your direct experience with any sources, theories or methods.

Applying for a PhD is more like applying for a job than an undergraduate or taught Masters degree. You therefore need to highlight your experience so the supervisor knows you’re the right person for the project.

#5 You know how to reference

Lastly, if your application asks you to include academic references in your research proposal or cover letter, make sure you write them correctly. Supervisors will spend a significant amount of time reading and editing your written work. They won’t want to have to teach you the basics, like referencing, grammar or formatting.

Check the house style of the university you’re applying to. The institution’s website might even have a downloadable guide for you to follow.

Overall, a PhD supervisor wants to know that you’re the right person for the research (whether you’re applying for a set project or proposing your own), and that you’re capable of completing the degree within the given timeframe. You’ll need to put in the work to be able to talk about the project and field with confidence, while being open to learn from the experts.


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Last Updated: 17 October 2023