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Applying for a PhD

The most important thing about applying for a PhD is to know why you want to study one.

It’s a huge investment both in terms of time and money, and the reason ‘because I don’t want to get a job yet’ probably won’t carry you through three or so years of hard research.

If you’re still undecided, take a look at our post on this very subject, and once you’re sure you want to do one, you should make sure you're ready and fully prepared.


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Do your research before you apply for a PhD

Firstly, you want to make sure you do this in plenty of time. Of course, you should always leave plenty of time for any application, but this is especially important for a PhD, as you often will be applying to a particular supervisor. You therefore need to ensure you have enough time to research supervisors, get in contact with them, check for funding, and apply! You definitely shouldn’t rush this, because getting the most out of your supervisor is the first step to doing well in your PhD study, so make sure you pick the one best for you. And don’t forget, another important consideration is where you choose to study. You’ll want to look at the department’s reputation, and specifically, it’s research in the area you intend to go into.

Secondly, make sure you’ve considered your options fully. Whilst most PhDs follow a traditional route (working on a research project under a supervisor for the required amount of time), there are alternatives. Many universities now have something known as ‘DTC centres’, or ‘Doctoral Training Centres’. Many of these are in economic, social or scientific research areas, so if this is your thing, they’re worth looking at! They’re slightly longer in course length than most PhDs, as you’ll have a year of lectures and a variety of projects in your first year, before choosing to specialise in your second. This is great if you know you want to do a PhD, but aren’t entirely certain of what you’d like to do beyond a general area. Best of all, they often offer fully funded studentships.

How to apply for a PhD

Now you’ve got that down, what about the actual act of applying for a PhD? What does it involve? Well, this will vary slightly if you’re an arts or science student. For science students, unless you’re asked to, you probably won’t have to write a research proposal. With arts and humanities students, you will. It’s important to make sure your area of research fits with the department that you’re applying to, and the person you would like to supervise. Ideally, you should have already contacted your intended supervisor and talked about it with them - via email, or perhaps in person.

You should ensure that you’re not too modest in applying for a PhD! If you’ve been published in a relevant area, or if you did exceptionally well, or presented a particularly successful paper at a conference, mention it. You don’t want to brag, but you don’t want to hide your achievements either!

Unlike with many masters degrees, you will probably face an interview as part of the application process. If you’ve not had a university interview before, make sure you prep well for it. Ideally, if you’re still in education, see if a tutor you know can give you tips, or potentially a mock interview. If not, many universities careers service remain open to you after graduating, so contact them and see what advice they can give you. Generally though, ensure you read up on anything you mentioned in your application, and have good solid reasons for why you wish to do a PhD, and why you’ve chosen to do it at that particular university, in that particular topic. You should already know by now what it takes and be able to answer convincingly when asked about these things.

Applying for PhD funding

Of course, the academic side of applying for a PhD isn’t it – you may need to apply for funding as well! We have a bunch of handy resources for you on this, so make sure you spend time preparing for this too. Don’t just apply to the standard big research funding bodies, but do your research and look into charities too. There are plenty of funds, foundations and other sources of money available to people with the right interests – and you might just be one of them!

And finally, if you need a break from the overload of information available on the internet about this, take a look at our debunking of common myths about PhD study.

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