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Applying for a PhD in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Written by Hannah Slack

Applying for a PhD in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) can be quite a different experience to applying for a PhD in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). To make sure you get the best advice, we’ve created a subject-specific guide to the application process, focused on AHSS PhDs.

This page will take a look at some of the most important things prospective PhD students should consider, the application process itself and potential funding options. You will also find plenty of links to our other guides with more information.

What should I consider before applying for a PhD in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences?

Applying for a PhD is a big step and there are a lot of things to consider before you begin your applications. It’s a good idea to take a step back and think about some of the practicalities involved.

The first thing you will have to think about is what subject you intend to study. Some examples of Arts and Humanities disciplines include:

Social Science subjects include:

The biggest difference between the two departments is that Arts and Humanities research is predominantly concerned with human culture whereas Social Science focuses on human society.

Research idea

The most important thing for your application will be your research idea. This will dictate which universities you can study at, which supervisors you might be able to work with and it could impact your funding opportunities.

Unlike in STEM, AHSS students do not usually apply for readily approved projects. Instead, most students will propose to research their own project in line with the expertise of a university’s department.

Ultimately your research idea must be a subject you enjoy as you’re applying to spend the next three to four years studying it in intense detail. You must also choose a field you know (or will soon know) very well. Good research ideas are ones that can fill a gap in the current academic knowledge. It does not have to be a large gap, but your idea must be something original.

At this stage you should be doing a considerable amount of research. Brainstorming topics and research questions is a good method to help you find your niche.

Where to study

Deciding where to study will come down to a couple of factors. Most importantly, you need to find out which universities have academics who could support your research. If a university has a strong department in your field, then it is more likely to have the necessary resources available.

A good match between student, project and supervisor can help you secure Research Council funding.

The final thing to consider is your current situation. Both personal and financial commitments could limit your geographical options, and so it’s important to first lay out your limits. Consider the average living cost you would be able to afford and the distance you are willing to travel. Identifying boundaries can help keep your search for an institution more focused.

Eligibility

Most PhD programmes in AHSS will require students to have a Masters degree. The Masters should usually be in the same subject as the PhD, although there is some flexibility as long as the subjects are similar. Someone with a Politics Masters, for example, may be able to study a History PhD with a political focus.

The result of your Bachelors degree will therefore be less important, although it could impact your funding applications, particularly when there is a lot of competition.

For more information, take a look at our guide to PhD entry requirements.

Potential supervisors

Finding and getting in touch with a supervisor is extremely important and will likely dictate which universities you apply for. Working with a supervisor who is a specialist in your area means they will be able to offer more helpful and targeted advice during your PhD.

You should already have a good idea of the key figures in your field. Researching their location is a good starting point.

Staff pages on university websites can be a useful tool. Most universities will list staff members alongside their research specialisms and whether they are willing to supervise students.

Considering the reputation and career stage of a supervisor is also important. Academics at the peak of their research career might be extremely busy. While they could offer a wealth of information, they might not have much time to spend with their students. Alternatively, academics in the beginning of their career might not yet have the same level of expertise but will have more time to lend. They are also more likely to remember the ins and outs of completing their own PhD and so might be able to offer more general support.

Choosing a supervisor

You can read more about finding and choosing the right supervisor in our handy guide.

Funding options

The last major consideration is how you intend to fund your PhD.

Most PhDs in AHSS are not advertised with funding readily available. Instead, students usually apply alongside their application.

The main source for funding comes from Research Councils. The two funding bodies for AHSS subjects are the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Not every student, however, will receive Research Council funding and so applicants should consider other options.

  • University funding – Most universities have their own internal scholarship and bursary opportunities to help support a range of PhD students. Make sure to check your eligibility.
  • Charities and trusts – There are many organisations that help fund PhD research. Although most won’t offer as much financial support as Research Councils, you can usually apply for more than one grant.
  • Self-funding – Lots of AHSS students self-fund their studies. The UK doctoral loan is a good option for extra financial support and many students also work part-time.
  • Re-apply – If you were unable to secure Research Council funding you can always reapply the next year. This might involve taking a year out to refine your research project. Students are also allowed to reapply for funding during the first year of their PhD, although you should make sure you have the financial means to finish your PhD if you are unsuccessful.

Deadlines

The final thing to consider is deadlines. If you have already decided which universities to apply for, make a note of their application deadlines. Some universities might also have earlier deadlines if you want to be considered for Research Council or internal funding.

Make sure to write these down and begin your application early. A good guide is to have most things sorted by Christmas as most scholarships have an application deadline in late January or February. You will then have time to tweak and improve your research proposal over the Christmas holidays.

How do I apply for a PhD in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences?

Applications for a PhD in AHSS subjects are usually done through the university’s application portal. Information on what you will need should be on the department’s website.

Although each institution may not ask for the same things, you should expect to supply a combination of the following documents:

You will also need to have organised a member of staff willing to supervise you, who you will name in your application.

Make sure to check what documents are required by your institution early so when it’s time to apply, you have everything ready.

What makes a strong PhD application?

A strong PhD application is one that is coherent and outlines a viable project to be completed in three to four years. The best way to communicate these values is through the research proposal.

The most important thing that makes an application strong is its viability. The PhD is not intended to be a life’s work. Your proposal should outline a project that is completable in three to four years. Applications that are too ambitious will likely be refused.

A coherent application will also show that the student has thought about their research interests in depth and planned accordingly. Your university and nominated supervisor should both have expertise in your proposed project.

You should also be able to demonstrate how you and your work will contribute to the department. To do this you should consider and highlight both the academic and wider public impact you believe your work will have.

Social Science

A good Social Science research proposal will likely have a strong emphasis on data. If you are planning on collecting original qualitative or quantitative information through questionnaires or interviews, then you will need to have thought about the ethical implications. You will also need to clearly indicate how you intend to collect, store and use the data.

Your research proposal should also contextualise with recent research, identifying how your proposed research will contributed to the academic discussion.

Arts and Humanities

Research in the Arts and Humanities may also collect new human data and so will need to follow the same ethical guidelines Social Science students must. However, it is more common for students to reassess existing resources. Students should therefore identify their intended source base and its location. This could include detailing historical archives, library collections or research sites. If you also plan to conduct research trips, details regarding the place and length of these trips must be included.

How to write a good research proposal

For some more in-depth tips, make sure you check out our comprehensive guide to writing a good research proposal.

Contacting supervisors

When contacting anyone for an application, it’s important to give them plenty of time to respond.

It’s worthwhile contacting potential supervisors early as many are willing to offer feedback on your proposal. This can help you tailor your project towards their expertise and the department’s resources. They can also advise you on the breadth of your project and any useful literature you may have missed.

How to contact a PhD supervisor

If you would like some help drafting that first email, take a look at our guide to contacting potential PhD supervisors.

References

Both references should come from academics or a relevant employer. It is best to choose someone you have worked with so they can include relevant detail in their reference.

You should also notify them beforehand and discuss your research ideas and motivation. This can help them further tailor their reference and make you stand out as a viable candidate.

How to choose you references

If you’d like to find out more, we explain all about references in our guide.

How do I apply for PhD funding in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences?

Applying for funding in AHSS is relatively straightforward. Most students will apply for Open Doctoral Awards (DTPs) which are projects that the student have proposed themselves.

There are, however, some opportunities for Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDPs) where the host institution will advertise a pre-defined project they want to be completed. Applications for CDPs can be a little difference than DTPs as you will not need a research proposal, though you will still need to demonstrate in a personal statement why you are the right person for the project.

Research Council funding

Most students apply for Research Council funding. The main funders of AHSS subjects are the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). You do not apply for funding from these bodies directly.

If you are applying for a DTP then you will probably be asked to provide a separate proposal detailing why your PhD should be funded. Your application will then be considered by the university who will pass on the top submissions to the Research Council.

Usually, you will be notified around March time whether your application has been submitted for funding consideration. By Easter you will find out whether you have been successful.

Make sure to check the university and Research Council’s websites for the exact dates.

If you are applying for a CDP then you will also apply directly to the university and they will decide whether you are suitable for the advertise position.

What is Research Council funding?

You can find out more about how Research Council funding works in our guide.

Other sources of funding

Other sources of funding can be internal or external.

You will usually apply for internal funding from a university in the same way you apply for Research Council funding. During your application you will be prompted to note which scholarships and grants you would like to be considered for.

Make sure to only apply for ones you’re eligible for. The university will then let you know if your application has been successful after review.

External funding will require a formal application. If you apply for funding from a charity, trust or society, make sure to check their website for details on the application process. Usually, you will be asked to provide at least a research proposal and cover letter.

Self-funding

Most self-funded students in the UK will take out the government doctoral loan. You only need to apply once, and you will receive the money throughout the entirety of your degree.

The doctoral loan can be taken out in any year throughout your studies. The deadline will depend on your start date, but you must apply before the last nine months of your studies.

The loan and application works the same as other student finance loans so does not require you to submit many documents. All that is needed is a proof of identity. You may also be asked to provide some supporting documents such as a proof of residence and acceptance letter onto the course.

Want to learn more about funding?

If you still have questions about funding we have a whole page dedicated to funding advice, tips and answering FAQs.

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Last Updated: 25 June 2021