7 PhD Application Tips

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You may think from the title of this article that it will concentrate on how to prepare application documents but if that were the case then you would miss out on some vital stages of the process of applying for a PhD. If you do move very quickly from “I want to do a PhD” to submitting an application then this could affect the standard of your application and could also have effects on your subsequent PhD experience.

In another article, “Why should you do a PhD?” a number of academic colleagues stressed that PhD students need to have passion for their subject or research topic. This is true but does this “passion” also need to be managed especially during a PhD application phase? The dictionary definition of passion is “an intense desire or enthusiasm for something”. Sometimes being so focussed on the “something”, i.e. the PhD can mean neglecting some of the detailed preparation needed for an effective application or not considering enough about what a PhD will involve and demand of you. Therefore the rest of this article will offer tips that will utilise your passion but also offer some checks and balances that will control it and help to move you to making a well thought out and effective PhD application, as well as a commitment to three to four years of intensive work.

Tip 1- Start early

As with any career or personal decision the more time you can give yourself to explore options, find out about opportunities and explore your own motivations the better. Although it’s difficult to give an exact amount of time required for the research and exploration stages of applying for a PhD I would advise that thinking a year to 18 months ahead may be realistic.

Here are some suggestions of the type of actions you could take to get started:

Current students could start by talking to PhDs in their department about their experiences. They could also find out if there are relevant postgraduate study talks and events offered by the careers service or your school/department which may cover application processes, funding and opportunities.

For those who have graduated quite recently can you contact your final year or dissertation tutor and talk to them about what a PhD involves?

UK universities may also attend postgraduate study events in different countries which may be useful for anyone thinking of coming to the UK to undertake a research degree.

Tip 2 – Do your research

Research what you would like to research but also be prepared to adapt this to what is possible. This, as one of my academic colleagues, stated may be about achieving a balance between keeping an open mind, whilst listening to what potential supervisors or sponsors know about what is happening and retaining passion for, and knowledge about, the area you want to target. Keep checking the balance between the desire to apply for a PhD and applying for the right PhD.

Research who is working in the topics that interest you, read journal articles, blogs or other online resources, move beyond your current knowledge. Are there research seminars and public lectures that you could attend to enhance your knowledge and understanding in emerging areas? Maybe this will also give you the opportunity to meet and talk to potential supervisors? You will also be able to utilise this research or contacts when you are preparing an application and at any subsequent PhD interviews.

Research funding - it is important to understand how PhDs are funded as well as knowing about funding sources and opportunities for PhDs. Good places to start are: 

PhD Funding - A Checklist Of Possible Funding Sources


In my experience prospective students leave the question of funding until late in the decision making process possibly because they fear it may be a block to their ambitions or because they think potential supervisors may doubt their motivation if they raise any financial questions. If you are being offered funding make sure you understand what it will cover, for example, fees only or fees and living costs.

Do some practical preparation - set out a monthly budget for accommodation, food and transport costs. If you are moving to a new country or area, use local websites and newspapers to find out about housing and transport costs. Your application may be affected if you are already concerned about financial issues.

Tip 3 – Explore the reality

When I ask PhD students at my university to talk to prospective PhDs they all stress how much they had to adjust to a different work environment and culture. This happens whether they have moved immediately on from a previous degree or have had employment experience. The common themes they want you to consider are adjusting to working intensely on a specific area, the frustrations of research such as obtaining disappointing results and that progress can be slow. Some also talk about isolation especially if they have just moved from another university course or a team at work. They also mention that it can be difficult to know whether or not you are doing well enough. It’s not all doom and gloom though as they will speak with passion and excitement about being involved in original work and how much they have developed personally through their PhD experience. Make sure you find out as much as possible about the working life of a PhD student in your academic discipline. 

You should also explore the skills and behaviours PhDs need to have and develop. For example:

  • Are you curious, dedicated, visionary or controversial?
  • Do you accept criticism, get bored by easy work or have the ability to self-teach?

These are just a few of the skills and qualities highlighted by Peter J Bentley in his book “The PhD Application Handbook” (Open University Press 2006). There are more for you to consider in Chapter 1 “Before you start”. Which of them do you have experience of, or strengths in, and which will you need to work on? You will be able to use these reflections in your personal statement and at interviews where supervisors will want you to provide specific and realistic assessments of what you will bring to a PhD. They read and hear a lot of very general and overarching statements from candidates so you will need to be more specific and insightful if you are to convince them to take you on.

Tip 4 – Make contact

Academic colleagues stress how important it is to make contact with potential supervisors as early as possible. Colleagues from the arts and humanities, offered the following pieces of advice, “once you have a specific research area … be brave (and it does take a bit of courage) write to the academics concerned…”, “get in contact formal/informal … and write a research proposal as a collaborative process … try and get some sort of working relationship with them before you submit your application” or “the best thing is to pick up the phone ….personal contact is invaluable.”

For those in other academic disciplines this advice also holds true as you should talk to tutors and potential supervisors about the areas that you are interested in. Even if the initial contact is with someone who is not directly working in that area they may be able to refer you to others who are. If you are contacting someone new make sure you know something about their work and use this to make a more specific approach to them, for example, referring to a paper you have read and using this to illustrate why you want to work in this area.

Try not to open any conversation, written or telephone, with “I’ve always wanted to work with you”, realistically this is probably not true. “I’ve recently become very interested in the work of your group as my final year project has been examining ….”, could be an example of a more realistic approach and will also allow you to begin to write as a potential PhD student. Supervisors will start to assess you as such from the first contact you make with them so take note of the points in Tip 5.

Tip 5 – Presenting yourself effectively on paper

Before you begin preparing your CV, personal statement or research proposal make sure you understand the application system, don’t rush in. If you have any queries contact the postgraduate admissions team at the university you are applying to.

Your CV should concentrate on your academic record, highlight achievements such as a distinction in a Masters or other awards or prizes. Make sure you include details of projects at masters and/or undergraduate levels, as well as other relevant skills and experience, e.g. lab or programming skills. If you have been fortunate enough to publish your work in a journal or at a conference then this should be referenced in your CV.

A personal statement should be focussed and specific but also convey enthusiasm and conviction for your subject. Don’t use overspecialised vocabulary especially if you do not really understand its meaning! You could look very foolish if you are asked about it at the interview. In the words of a colleague, “Avoid excess detail, be concise and absolutely clear. Lucid presentation speaks volumes.” “Get someone rigorous to read and criticise your draft – don’t ask friends they tend to be too polite.”

If you are submitting a research proposal (not all applications require this) the advice is similar to that for personal statements in terms of style. In addition academics would advise being realistic about the scope of your proposal, “a PhD dissertation needs to fulfil certain sensible criteria and so it isn’t an opportunity to change the world”. “It is not a good idea to pretend you know exactly where the research is going. If it really is research then the outcome can’t be known at the application stage …….yet the student needs to have a fair grasp of what is going on in the field and why the proposal matters.”

It is difficult to prepare these documents on your own and especially not the research proposal. Make sure you get feedback and comment from your tutors. University careers services will offer CV and personal statement reviews and may also run PhD application workshops. There are, of course, on line resources such as those on jobs.ac.uk as well as books on applying for and getting a PhD. Factor in time for drafting and re-drafting all of these documents and then double it, they always take longer to do than you think. Make sure you allow for other factors such as assignment or work deadlines that may take priority. Above all do not rush your application it will be very obvious to the reader especially as you are likely to miss some of the obvious problems – typographical or grammatical errors – even one of these could lead to your application being rejected immediately.

Tip 6 – Interviews

Not all PhD candidates will have an interview but if you do whether this is a face to face interview or via the telephone or skype then as with all interviews you MUST prepare. For questions related to the research you are going to be involved in, can you demonstrate that you have already started to consider how the research will be conducted, can you state thoughtfully why this research matters, are you aware of existing work and why there is a gap that needs to be filled?

Remember that the interview will provide an indication of the way you need to work as a researcher, so for instance your interviewers may ask you to explain research methods you have used before or intend to use in the future. They may challenge some of your views or thinking or offer an alternative for you to consider. They may not be expecting a perfect answer but will be assessing your ability to listen, consider quickly and either adapt or defend your approach.

You may also be asked more general questions about the skills and behaviours you have that will make you a good PhD candidate and why you want to do a PhD? If you have worked through Tips 1 – 4 then you should be well prepared for these questions and able to answer confidently, enthusiastically but realistically.

Interviews are two-way conversations and are also an opportunity to assess your potential supervisor(s)! In fact a colleague at Nottingham asks PhD candidates if they are happy to work with him, his team and in the department? You may not always get this direct approach but it is important that you consider these things during or immediately after an interview. You could also use the opportunity to ask questions of the interviewers to find out about their style of supervision and what their expectations of you will be, should you work with them?

Tip 7 – Make informed choices

All of the tips above relate to this final aspect of applying for a PhD, it is about making informed choices and using the research you do to make a realistic and well thought out application. So at the risk of being repetitive:

Give yourself TIME

Consider whether there is a step between undergraduate and PhD, a masters or other career experience that would be beneficial for you in making an informed choice or a better application?

Think ahead either in terms of applying for the right PhD or considering what it may lead to - the life beyond a PhD

Make contact with potential supervisors and get help when you are preparing application documents or going for an interview.

Finally at all stages of applying for a PhD keep checking that your passion is being channelled effectively and is helping you towards preparing and presenting yourself as someone who is looking forward, with enthusiasm but also realism, to the challenges of undertaking original research.

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