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PhD Application Tips

Written by Ben Taylor

Applying for a PhD is a time-consuming process with several important milestones along the way: getting in touch with potential supervisors, submitting your research proposal and securing funding, to name a few. That’s why it’s important to make sure you have a clear idea of what a strong PhD application involves before you start.

The tips on this page cover how to get onto a PhD programme, with advice on navigating your funding options, contacting supervisors and writing a research proposal, as well as how many PhD projects you should aim to apply for.

#1 Understand what kind of PhD you’re applying for

If you’re right at the start of your PhD application journey, you might have noticed that doctoral programmes largely fall into two categories: advertised PhD projects and positions where you must make your own research proposal.

Unsurprisingly, these two kinds of PhD will have different application processes – and it pays to know what kinds of skills and experience you’ll need to show for each one.

Advertised PhD projects

For an advertised PhD project, you should make sure that you have an excellent knowledge and understanding of the topic you’ll be researching. You’ll usually need to write a motivation letter or personal statement explaining why you have the ideal skillset for this particular project, which is the perfect opportunity to talk about any relevant experience.

Although you won’t have to worry about writing your own proposal, you’ll still need to work hard to illustrate that you’re an excellent candidate for the project.

Ensure that you tailor this statement to the project in question – don’t be tempted to copy and paste across several applications. After all, the people reading will probably notice that you’re using a generic template.

Applying for a set research project can also give you a chance to find out more about the academic who will be supervising the programme – their interests, specialisms and background. You may even want to get in touch with them in advance to discuss the project and make a good impression.

Making your own research proposal

If you’re an Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences (AHSS) student, it’s more likely that you’ll be writing your own research proposal rather than applying to an advertised PhD project.

This means that you’ll need to spend some time working out exactly what you want your proposal to be about and how you want to communicate its academic significance. Our guide to writing a research proposal has more detail on that side of things.

In terms of the application itself, you should be prepared to spend some time working out what universities and supervisors would work well with your proposal, investigating staff research interests and trying to find a good fit with yourself.

Once you’ve identified a potential supervisor, you should get in touch with them and introduce yourself, explaining your project and finding out if it appeals to them.

#2 Decide how many PhDs you’re going to apply for

It’s a good idea to decide fairly early on exactly how many PhDs you want to apply for. You don’t want be left in a position where you’ve focused all your time and energy on a single application, only to find that you’ve been unsuccessful.

Instead, you should be realistic and hedge your bets as much as you can without sacrificing the quality of your applications (or your peace of mind!). This means applying to as many projects or institutions as you feel comfortable, simultaneously recognizing the importance of tailoring each application.

Ultimately, the number of PhDs you apply for should depend on how much time you have on your hands. You need to be able to strike the right balance between spending lots of time making high-quality, strong PhD applications and avoiding the disappointment of rejection further down the line.

#3 Speak to your academic referees

You’ll need to name at least two academic referees during your PhD application – these will be people who are ideally experts in your field, as well as having first-hand experience of your own capabilities as a research student. Usually you’ll want to pick a previous personal tutor, course leader or someone who supervised your Masters dissertation.

Now, these people will almost certainly be happy to provide an academic reference for you. However, you should make sure that they know about this well in advance of your application so that they have enough time to write you a strong reference.

This means getting in touch with them and explaining your research proposal or the nature of the project you’re applying for, giving them an idea of your skillset, knowledge and ambitions so that they’re able to write something that does you justice.

#4 Consider your funding options

Your funding options will largely depend on the kind of PhD you’re applying for. If you’re applying for an advertised PhD project, this will typically come with funding attached, which is convenient – it saves you from the hassle of thinking about funding later down the line.

If you’re making your own research proposal, you’ll usually need to sort out your funding after you’ve been accepted onto the PhD programme (although finding out more about what financial support is available beforehand certainly won’t hurt).

This is where your new supervisor will be able to help. They’ll have plenty of experience guiding other PhD students through the funding application process and will be able to advise you on making sure that your application hits the right notes (as well as highlighting sources of support that you might not have been aware of).

#5 Reflect on why you want to do a PhD

You should think carefully about why exactly is it that you want to do a PhD – and make sure that you explain these motivations in your application.

It might be a burning desire to expand on the work you completed during your Masters or perhaps excitement at branching out into an exciting, emerging area of study.

It’s also worth considering what you want to do after your PhD. No one expects you to have a plan that’s set in stone, but you should be prepared to give an indication of where you see yourself once you’ve finished your doctoral research – and how this particular PhD will help you get there. Whether you’re motivated by an aspiration to stay in academia and teach the next generation of university students or discover a way to apply your research skills in a non-academic setting, admissions officers will be keen to find out what drives you.

Applying for a PhD

Want to find out more about what applying for a PhD involves? Check out our comprehensive guide to PhD applications.


Last Updated: 25 June 2021