How I (Eventually) Won a PhD Studentship - and How You can Boost Your Chances of Success |
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Posted on 28 Oct '22

How I (Eventually) Won a PhD Studentship - and How You can Boost Your Chances of Success

In many ways, a PhD studentship is the Holy Grail: being accepted onto a PhD programme whilst having your tuition fees paid (or waived), plus a contribution towards your living costs.

However, being accepted onto a funded project can be a long and difficult process. So, here are some tips from my experience – hopefully they’ll help you succeed too!

Applying for a studentship – the basics

There’s another benefit to winning a PhD studentship, besides the financial support: the fact that your department actively wants to pursue research in this area.

Most likely the proposed supervisor is currently researching in the same area and the PhD project will complement their work, or the project might be part of a larger research group within the university.

This means that you know they are interested in the area, but you still need to submit a PhD proposal that catches their eye.

Given that the university/ funding body will be supporting you financially throughout your PhD, they are keen to see proof that you are capable of completing the project well.

This means that one of the most important things your application has to do is demonstrate that you have the right skills and experience. (Don’t rely on doing this at your interview – or you might not get one!).

When detailing the background/ objectives in your proposal, clearly state any previous research or experience you have in these areas. You could also mention in your methodology section any previous experience or training using your chosen techniques.

This all helps the university recognise that you have the high level research skills that a PhD needs. Obviously these skills will be greatly improved upon throughout your project, but it’s important to show that your foundation is solid.

Dealing with disappointment (if it happens)

Hopefully you will apply for the PhD studentship of your dreams and be chosen. For some people this is exactly what happens. However, that’s not the case for everyone – including me.

I applied to two other funded PhDs a few years before finally being accepted onto my PhD. My applications had been strong and both times I was interviewed, only for someone to beat me to the finish line.

At the time, I was really disappointed and struggled to see how to approach applications going forwards.

Learn from these experiences if you do suffer a rejection. Ask for feedback on your proposal and interview technique so that you can improve these areas for next time.

Looking back on the proposals that I had submitted, my methodology sections were weak and I had not clearly broken down the research question/ objectives. If you struggle with this, ask a friend (outside your research field) to go through your proposal and see if they fully understand what you are hoping to achieve, why you want to achieve this and how you plan to do it.

Most importantly though, if you are turned down, take time to look for another project that really excites you before submitting an application. Don’t rush into applying for another project just to start doing a PhD.

As it turns out, I am glad that other people were chosen to carry out the PhDs that I had originally applied for, as my topic suits me perfectly, as do the supervisors.

Top tips for applying for a studentship

So, what should you look for when applying for PhD studentship? And how can you boost your success? Here are my tips:

1. Check the details of the studentship

Some projects are partially funded and amounts can vary. Although any financial support is always positive, make sure that you have enough funding to support yourself throughout the project.

2. Be aware of any additional duties or obligations during your PhD

As you are being funded, there are likely to be more rigid requirements placed on you in terms of attendance at the university, teaching seminars/ lectures and participating in conferences.

Whilst all of these things will add value to your research and CV, make sure you are happy to carry out any expected duties.

3. Understand the specific application requirements

Universities / subjects all have different requirements concerning studentship applications (i.e. the length, content, format, etc.); make sure you’ve carefully read through what is expected.

4. Survey your field

I found making a mind map of all of the individual topics within the field really helpful when deciding what the exact focus should be. It helped me see what was being heavily written about, and which areas had been left unexplored.

This was also invaluable in preparing for the PhD interview, as I had a one page overview of the whole field that I could discuss.

5. Make contact with supervisors

Contact the supervisor(s) before submitting an application outlining your interest and your proposed research question. They will probably be happy to provide you with guidance as to whether your proposed research question ‘fits’ with their current research in the area.

That is not to say you should always avoid submitting proposal that differs from their focus if you have researched the field and believe there is a genuine gap in the literature, but be wary of submitting an application that the supervisor did not think was suitable.

6. Consider the time and resources your application will need

This is a tricky subject: how will you carry out the research for the literature review/ background of the proposal?

As I was no longer in full-time education when I submitted my proposal, I did not have access to the large library and online journal databases that I wanted to use. I was therefore reliant on Google Books, journal articles with open access and journals that academics had linked onto their university staff profiles.

Working in this way is still possible, but you’ll need to give yourself more time to write the proposal: it took me a while to find the resources I required.

7. Make your proposal specific – and structure it accordingly

I cannot stress this enough. Your application needs to realistically address the aims (and limitations) of your research and contain a clear, logical methodology.

Break your research question down into several mini research questions This shows that you know what’s involved in your project – and that you’ve thought about how to approach it, practically.

8. Sell yourself as a candidate

In some ways a PhD studentship is a bit like a job: you apply, you interview and – if successful - you do specified work and (hopefully) receive a stipend in return.

So, make sure your application shows you’re the best person for the job:

Clearly state any practical or voluntary experience you have in the field/ any high level research that you have conducted in the area in the proposal.

Editor's note: This blog was first published on 06/09/2017. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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Last Updated: 28 October 2022