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How to Apply For a PhD: Step-By-Step

Written by Hannah Slack

Deciding to do a PhD is a big step and the road to submitting applications can seem long. To help you wade through all the information out there we’ve put together a simple step-by-step guide to the PhD application process.

Complete with top tips and links to further information, applying for a PhD has never looked simpler.

Step 1: choose your research area

The first, and most obvious, step to applying for a PhD is to decide what research area you want to work in. Whether you’re looking for an Arts and Humanities PhD or a STEM one, each individual subject is made up of a vast array of research topics.

Most PhD courses will expect students to have a degree in a relevant field, although your previous qualifications do not have to be in the exact same discipline as the PhD you apply for. Students with a Masters in History, for example, may apply to research within the Religious Studies department. As long as the nature of research is similar and your chosen topic correlates with your experience, it’s possible to apply for a degree in a different department.

It’s worthwhile spending a bit of time considering what department you might want to join and what type of research you want to conduct.

Step 2: decide what kind of PhD you want to do

There are two main types of PhDs: predesigned projects and self-proposed projects. The route you choose to take will mainly depend on your personal preference and situation.

While STEM subjects tend to have more predesigned projects, there are many students who choose to plan their own. Similarly, most Arts and Humanities PhDs are self-proposed but there are also many advertised projects out there.

Predesigned project

Advertised projects usually come in three different forms:

The main difference between these three types of PhDs is the level of industry experience offered to students, DTPs usually having the least industry involvement and iCASEs the most. However, all three do offer internship opportunities.

Some of these terms are used interchangeably, but you can read more about the differences between predesigned studentships in our guide.

The benefit of predesigned projects is that they are typically fully-funded four-year studentships. There are also many that come with an integrated Masters during the first year for those applying with only a Bachelors degree.

You also won’t have to research and plan your own project, which can save a lot of time.

However, as multiple students will be applying for the same advertised PhD opportunities, places can be competitive. Your choice of projects will also be limited to whatever research is currently advertised.

Design your own project

Many students in all fields choose to design and propose their own research project for PhD study. This option can be extremely rewarding as it allows students a lot more control over their work.

The downside is that not every self-proposed PhD is funded. While there are lots of funding opportunities available, there is not enough to cover the amount of PhD applications each year. Students may have to apply for part-time work or small grants throughout their studies.

Additionally, you will have to put in more time to your application as you need to design a viable PhD project.

For students choosing this route some additional steps are needed:

Step 2.1: research

To be able to propose a viable research project, you will need to spend a significant amount of time researching your chosen field. You may have already conducted some research during your previous degrees, giving you a good starting point.

The point of this step is to become familiar with the main academic arguments in your research area. You should then be able to identify a gap in the academic discussion which you will be able to fill in the timeframe of a PhD. This could include discussing an underused or new source base, criticising an academic argument or applying a new or different theory to the current discussions.

You should then look to identify a preliminary source base and decide how you intend to use the information.

Step 2.2: draft a research proposal

After completing a period of research, you should write up a draft research proposal. While this won’t be your final piece for submission with your application, having a draft can be useful when it comes to step three, contacting prospective supervisors.

How to write a good PhD proposal

You can find out more about how to writing a good PhD proposal in our guide.

Step 3: contact prospective supervisors

Once you have decided on which projects you intend to apply for, or drafted a research proposal, it’s time to reach out to prospective supervisors. This is an important step as it allows you to gain more insight into how your potential PhD might go.

For predesigned projects the supervisor will be listed in the advertisement. By contacting them you can introduce yourself and discuss the research in more detail.

If you are proposing your own PhD research then you will have to search for potential supervisors yourself. The research stage of step two should mean that you have a good grip on the prominent academics in your field. This is a good place to start. It is also worthwhile looking through staff lists on university websites to find other experts who are perhaps earlier on in their career.

Contacting a PhD supervisor

Reaching out to academics can seem a little daunting. Read our top tips for getting in contact potential PhD supervisors.

Contacting prospective supervisors is a good opportunity to receive feedback on your ideas and research proposal. You should first ask if they are able to take a look at your draft after briefly explaining who you are and summarising your project. Any feedback can be extremely useful as their expertise and experience could help them notice any holes in your proposal that you should consider and fix before applying.

Receiving feedback from an inhouse academic will also help you tailor your proposal specifically to the expertise of your prospective institution and supervisor expertise.

Step 4: check entry requirements

The next major step is to check the entry requirements of the institution or project. Most PhD applicants should have a Masters degree in a relevant field as well as a history of strong academic achievement.

PhD without a Masters

Some funded studentships will allow Bachelors graduates to apply. There is also the possibility to apply for an integrated programme that will include a year of Masters level training before beginning PhD research.

International applicants

If you are applying as an international student, make sure to check what visas may be required and how to obtain them. To study in the UK, international applicants will need a Student Route visa. To apply for this, you will need:

  • a confirmation of acceptance into a university
  • proof of sufficient funds
  • proof that you meet the English language requirements

Make sure to check beforehand the eligibility criteria of the visa you need to apply for in case you need to undertake a language exam or entry test.

Step 5: check fees and potential funding options

Once you have decided which PhD opportunities you want to apply for, and know that you’re eligible, it’s time to look more deeply at the financial practicalities. PhD study is not cheap and often has many unforeseen costs such as books, equipment, travel and conferencing fees. Knowing your potential funding options can help you plan ahead.

Funding options

Practically all PhD applicants hope to be fully-funded. If you are applying for an advertised project then you will typically receive full funding if successful. This funding most commonly comes from Research Councils who outline their own restrictions on how the money can be used and deadlines for thesis submission. It’s a good idea to read the funder’s terms and conditions and make sure you understand what would be required of you as a researcher.

Those designing their own PhD are likely to apply for Research Council funding. Unfortunately, there is only a set amount of money available from Research Councils for self-proposed projects and so some PhDs are unsuccessful in their application. However, this does not mean you can’t go on and complete a successful PhD.

As receiving fully-funded studentships can be very competitive, it’s important to know other potential sources of funding. These can include:

  • Universities – Many institutions offer their own funding, ranging from small fee discounts to full studentships. Make sure to research any financial support your chosen universities may offer and what you and your project could be applicable for.
  • Charities, trusts and societies – some independent organisations offer to partially (and sometimes fully) fund PhD students if their research correlates with the groups’ interests. Support is available for a large variety of subjects so make sure to do some research.
  • PhD loans – The UK government offers doctoral loans to English and Welsh PhD students who were unable to secure a full studentship. This will not usually cover the full cost of a PhD. Students wishing to self-fund with the help of a PhD loan will potentially have to take up part-time work such as teaching within the university.

PhD funding

Find out more about PhD funding options and how it works on FindAPhD.com.

Step 6: prepare to apply

Now that you have thought about the practicalities of PhD study you can start to gather the required documents to apply.

Deadlines

The most important thing to note down when starting to prepare is the PhD application deadlines. Many universities will have different deadlines and if you are applying for funding, applications may need to be submitted even earlier.

It’s a good idea to aim to submit your application with plenty of time to spare, taking into account any difficulties that might arise gathering together the relevant paper work.

Checklist

The documents you need for your application will depend on the university and funding you are applying for. Some things you may be asked to provide are:

International students may also need to provide:

Step 7: submit your application

Once you have written, polished and gathered all the documents you need, it’s time to apply. Most PhD applications are done through the university’s application portal. Many also allow you to start your application and come back to it at a later date, so don’t feel like you have to submit everything all in one go.

If you are applying for funding separately make sure to read the details of how to apply on the funder’s website. Typically, Research Council funding is applied for with the same application you submit to the university. Other sources of funding may have a different application system.


Last Updated: 25 June 2021