Applying for a PhD studentship is a strange cross between applying for a job, and applying to a university. Your studentship application is crucial to joining the list of final candidates, so use this opportunity to present yourself in the best possible way by following the guidelines below.
Studentship applications are usually long and tricky, and the most common reason that an application does not make it past the first hurdle is not providing all of the information requested. Ensure that you understand what the university or other funding organisation wants, and craft a careful and complete response to every single question on the application (even if the correct answer is “not applicable”—do not leave anything blank).
Follow the rules
If the guidance says your personal statement must be 250 words or less, do not go over the word limit. Ensure that all answers fit on the form. If attachments are allowed or expected, format them as requested and give them a name that makes it less likely that they will be lost, e.g. “Joe Bloggs – Supplementary material for XYZ Studentship.”
Present your details clearly
Spell-check, and then ask a friend to proofread. If you are not a native English speaker, make sure it is proofread by someone who is. Always type if possible: you can use a programme like Adobe Acrobat Pro to create a fillable form. If handwriting cannot be avoided, type and print what you intend to write first, make sure it will fit in the allotted space, then very carefully fill in the form by hand. Use an erasable pen.
Consider referees carefully
Talk to potential referees before submitting their names, and make sure you choose people who can speak to those of your abilities that are most important for this application.
Think and write strategically
The studentship criteria will guide you as to what the panel or organisation are looking for, so treat these like you would a list of “essential criteria” and “desirable criteria” in a job application. Address each point with reference to evidence: for example, past academic work, academic awards won, publications, conference presentations, achievements in paid or volunteer employment. If you are applying to work on a project in a specific department or with a named supervisor, show through what you write that you know what that department/supervisor does, that your research interests are aligned with theirs, and that you will make a strong contribution.
Sell your project
If you are asked to propose a topic, or to say how you would research a specific topic, make sure your answer is clear, concise, and detailed. Include information about your topic/hypothesis, methodology, plan of work, and key readings, and discuss how and why your work will be innovative and unique. What gap in the literature will your research fill? Why is it important? As you discuss your plan, drop in details about why you are the best candidate to carry it out, such as past research successes, special knowledge, research training you have done, and so on. It’s a good idea to discuss this section with an academic you know well, such as the person who supervised your undergraduate thesis or final project.
Studentships are always highly competitive, so late submissions will automatically be discarded. Don’t wait until the final day to submit, leave at least 24 hours in case of computer or post problems.