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Posted on 11 Aug '22

How Not to Apply for a PhD

PhD applications are simple enough in theory. You find a project (or come up with one) then convince a university you're the right person to do it. Of course, it's all a little bit more complicated in practice, which is why we've put together an entire section of this website dedicated to PhD application advice.

Even with the best advice though, it's still hard to rid yourself of those nagging doubts: 'Is this really how it works? Did I do that bit properly? Am I actually getting any of this right at all?'.

Under normal circumstances it can be hard to tell (you don't normally know if things have gone wrong until they do) but this post is here to help. If your PhD application follows some or all of the steps below then, yes, you probably are doing it wrong.

Alternatively, if you've managed to avoid all of them then there's a very reasonable chance you're on the way to a successful PhD application.

#1 Assume you've applied when you haven't

Whilst a lot of successful PhD applications begin with you contacting a potential PhD supervisor, they don't end there.

Just because someone said they'd be interested in supervising your PhD after you got talking about research ideas on Twitter, that doesn't mean you've just been accepted for a doctorate at their university. You still need to do all the slightly less exciting stuff (but hopefully with their help and support).

#2 Apply for the wrong type of project, in the wrong way

PhD projects fall into two broad groups:

Projects that rely on specialist facilities and equipment to gather data (mostly STEM) tend to be pre-defined and advertised (often with funding attached). Projects that examine existing material or collect data independently (mostly Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) tend to be proposed by students.

There are exceptions, but you'll probably be disappointed if you expect a university to re-equip its entire Bioscience lab just to check your hypothesis about a type of protein it isn't currently researching. Ditto if you sit around waiting for someone to advertise a funded PhD looking at the exact historical period you want to research in exactly the way you want to research it.

#3 Expect to be accepted because research is really worthwhile and you really want to do it and you won't be able to do it unless you get accepted

Your university already knows you want to do a PhD (you wouldn't be applying otherwise) and it already knows PhD research is worth doing (it wouldn't be running projects or programmes otherwise). It's also true that all prospective students could do with funding of some sort (very few already have their own home laboratory or personal research library).

So an application that just talks about your passion for research isn't really going to cut it. Ditto one that focuses primarily on your financial need (research can be funded by charitable organisations, but PhD scholarships aren't a form of charity).

What would be better would be something that emphasises why you're the best fit for this project at this university, with this funding. But this is a blog about how not to apply for a PhD.

#4 Copy and paste parts of your application

It's definitely a good way to speed things up, particularly if you have more than one application to work on.

#5 Copy and paste parts of your application

But it's pretty obvious when you've done it, and the results aren't very interesting to read.

#6 Only consider one project, or one university

Chances are you'll find what looks like 'the one' quite early on in your PhD search. It might be an advertised project that focuses on the exact topic you want to research (with funding!). It might be the opportunity to work with your ideal supervisor. It might be the chance to stay on for your PhD at a university where you're already settled and comfortable. Or it might be all three.

Should you really put all your eggs in one basket though, and ignore all the other projects that could be out there? Yes, if you want to risk disappointment.

#7 Make things up to sound impressive

Feel like your academic CV could look a bit more spectacular? Not sure exactly what to put in your personal statement? There's a simple enough solution: add a few peer-reviewed publications and maybe claim to be working on a solution to world peace in your spare time. That's bound to catch the attention of the selection committee. You can worry about the interview questions later.

#8 Surprise your referees

A good reference can definitely make your application sound more impressive. But good references take time to write and it helps to be in a good mood with the candidate when you do. One way to avoid these circumstances is just to not bother telling people you've nominated them as your referees. Busy undergraduate tutors will really appreciate this.

#9 Leave funding until the last minute

There's a good chance your funding application will be at least partly separate to your PhD application (assuming you aren't applying for a funded project).

There are two ways to proceed, if so:

You can focus on getting accepted for the PhD, completely ignore any question of how you'll pay for it (including questions asked by your supervisor or university) and hope to find a full PhD studentship at the last minute.

Or you can start researching your funding options at the same time as you start making sense of PhD study. But that would be boring.

#10 Dnt proofreed

Its obvus wen you think abouut it.

#11 Compose your application in the form of a haiku, written in marmite, on the back of a takeaway menu. . . and submit it by fax

If nothing else fails to get you admitted for a PhD, this will. Fail, that is.

Alternatively, you could read some proper PhD application advice, including previous posts on this blog.

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Last Updated: 11 August 2022