Applying for a PhD in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
Written by Hannah Slack
Applying for a PhD in a STEM discipline (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) works quite differently to subjects in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. To make sure you get the best advice, we’ve created a subject-specific guide to the application process for STEM PhDs.
This page will look at some of the most important things prospective STEM 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 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics?
The first thing you will have to think about is what subject you intend to study.
The field of STEM covers Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Within each of these academic disciplines there is a huge amount of specialised topics available.
Typically, the science part of STEM refers to the natural and formal sciences. Some examples include:
Other STEM subjects include:
The research project
The most important thing you should consider before applying for a PhD is what kind of research project you want to do. Most STEM PhD students are part of a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) or a Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP). Both PhD routes advertise research projects rather than asking students to develop their own.
CDTs are formed by a group of industry and university partners. Typically, they will offer four-year funded studentships in high demand research areas. They also have a strong focus on industry collaboration.
DTPs are similar, but the projects available usually cover a broader range of topics. Industry partners also play a lesser role although students will usually still be offered an internship or placement.
A more industry-focused studentship is an iCASE. These have a much stronger emphasis on industry collaboration. Each student is allocated directly to an industry partner by a Research Council where they will complete an internship of at least three months. These are sometimes also referred to a Collaborative Training Partnerships or Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships (CTPs or CDPs). Internships are typically allocated to non-academic industry organisations.
It is sometimes possible to apply to research your own project. But this route is a lot less common as students have to secure their own funding, which can be especially tricky in STEM subjects owing to the expensive equipment usually involved.
Before searching for a predefined project, you should have an idea about what kind of field you want to work in and the level of industry experience you want to gain.
But it is also a good thing to remain open minded and explore all the available options. Then you can start to narrow down your choice depending on the project details, location, eligibility and industry work.
If you decide to propose your own project, then you must spend a considerable amount of time researching what you want to achieve and how you plan to do it. Then you can begin to reach out to potential supervisors.
Where to study
The next important consideration is where you intend to study. It is likely that you will have limited options as you are bound to the research expertise of each university. You will therefore probably have to be flexible when it comes to location.
It’s worth first thinking about your boundaries. If you were willing to study abroad then that opens up a lot more opportunities to you. However, commitments might mean that you are not able or willing to leave the country. It’s a good idea to understand your potential boundaries before you start looking so that you can keep your search more focused.
If you’re doing a standalone PhD, you’ll usually need a Masters degree in a relevant field. Students should also be able to demonstrate a history of strong academic achievement.
However, it’s also common for STEM PhDs to be integrated programmes that include a Masters. Often termed 1+3 PhDs, these courses allow students to complete a year of training a Masters level before starting their PhD. You won’t need to have completed a previous Masters to apply for one of these PhDs, but you should have a good Bachelors degree in a relevant subject.
It is also possible for students to go straight from a Bachelors into a full PhD programme, but you will need to have a strong history of academic achievement and show that you have the necessary research experience to complete a research degree without any further training.
For more information, take a look at our guide to PhD entry requirements.
Once you have a selection of potential research projects to apply to, it’s important to get in contact with the supervisor. They will be able to offer more details on the PhD project as well as discussing their role in aiding your development and supervision style.
Supervisors will approach their role differently and so it’s helpful to talk about how much time and aid they will be able to offer you. Some academics might be extremely busy and so will expect you to receive more support from your peers or industry partner. Others might be more hands on. Neither method is better than the other, but it’s about working out what kind of style could work best for you.
If you are proposing your own project you will have more control over your supervisor choice. Once you have a detailed proposal you will probably already have an idea of who the key figures in your field are. It is then worthwhile reaching out to these academics to discuss your ideas and find out whether they would be willing to supervise you.
If you are applying for a pre-planned project, there are a few elements to consider when it comes to funding. Firstly, you should check how long the funding lasts. Most projects will have a thesis hand-in deadline of between three to four years. Some may offer unfunded extension periods. Usually these are around six months.
You may also be offered additional stipends for activities such as travel. Make sure you’re aware of any budget restraints and what activities you can or cannot claim. You should also find out their procedure when it comes to providing travel money. Many use a reimbursement style scheme so you could have to pay for your own costs upfront.
If your project is self-proposed, then you will need to consider how you intend to fund your studies. Many STEM PhDs are incredibly expensive due to the amount of advanced equipment needed.
It is sometimes possible to integrate with existing working groups to benefit from their funding and equipment. Paid teaching opportunities are also a popular option among PhD students. But it’s likely you will need to apply for external funding so you should spend some time researching where you might be able to apply.
The final thing to consider is deadlines. Individual projects will have their own deadlines and so you should make sure to note these down so that you can begin your applications early. It can be easy to mix up dates when juggling multiple applications.
External funders will also have their own deadlines that self-funded students will need to be aware of and work towards.
How do I apply for a PhD in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics?
Applications for a PhD in STEM are usually done through the university’s application portal. Information on what you will need should be included on the project advertisement and on the department’s website.
Although each project may ask for slightly different things you should expect to provide a combination of the following documents:
What makes a strong PhD application?
A strong PhD application is one that demonstrates you are the right person for the position. You should show your interest in the research and its broader implications, and your suitability for the role. The best way to communicate this is through the personal statement.
The personal statement is there to provide information about your academic background, relevant experience and motivations behind your application. Some universities may ask for a specific format, so make sure to check if there are any requirements before you start writing.
The statement should be well written and show that you have considerable knowledge in the project’s research field. You should only list your relevant academic and extra-curricular experience. This could include certain modules from your undergraduate or Masters degree, internships and placements.
Other examples of extracurriculars and hobbies may also be used to showcase your wider experience and personality, but make sure to keep these to a minimum.
If you are designing your own project then the most important document you need to produce is a research proposal. The project must be coherent and viable to be completed in the given length of a PhD (three to four years full-time). You should also contextualise your proposal with recent research in the academic field, identifying how your work will contribute to the academic discussion.
Most universities will ask you to provide two references from an academic or relevant employer. It is best to choose someone you have worked with so they can include relevant detail in their reference.
Make sure to notify them beforehand and discuss the research project and your overall motivations. This can help them further tailor their reference to make you stand out as a viable candidate.
How do I apply for PhD funding in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics?
As most projects in STEM are advertised as funded positions, you do not need to make a separate funding application. But it’s still good to know the process that your application will go through.
Research Council funding
Overall, there are seven Research Councils, six of which fund STEM positions:
Many of these Research Councils also fund interdisciplinary PhDs and so a project may receive funding from multiple places. If you are applying for a predetermined project you will apply through the university, not through any of the Research Councils. Your application will then be considered by the academics involved with the research and department heads.
Other sources of funding
Not every PhD in STEM is Research Council funded. If your preferred project isn’t funded by a Research Council, you’ll have to secure your own funding. While some universities may have internal funding available for some subjects, this is unlikely to cover the full costs of a PhD. Instead, you will need to secure additional external funding.
External funding will require a formal application. This could be to a charity, trust or academic society. There are many resources online that list funding opportunities from lesser-known sources. You should then make sure to read the details of each funder’s website carefully to check whether you are applicable and what they require in an application.
It is also possible to self-fund through a doctoral loan. This can be taken out in any year throughout your studies. The deadline depends on your start date as you must apply before the last nine months of your studies. To apply for this loan, you won’t need to write an additional application but only provide proof of identity and some information about your course.
Bear in mind that you’re not eligible for a PhD loan if you’re already receiving funding from a Research Council.
As STEM research often requires expensive resources it is unlikely the doctoral loan will cover all your costs. You therefore might want to consider taking up part-time work such as teaching.
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