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Applying for a PhD: Step-by-Step Guide

Studying a PhD is a big decision and submitting your application can feel like a long process. Though with the right guidance, applying for a PhD will be a lot more straightforward than you think. 

There is a lot of PhD application advice out there. To help you make sense of it all, we’ve put together a comprehensive step-by-step guide on how to apply for a PhD. We cover the PhD application process, what you need to consider, what to prepare and how to submit your application.

Follow the steps below to understand everything you need to know when applying for a PhD.

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PhD application checklist

Applying for a PhDHere is a checklist of what you need to consider when applying for a PhD:

  1. Choose your subject area
  2. Choose your type of PhD
  3. Check application deadline
  4. Draft a research proposal
  5. Contact potential PhD supervisors
  6. Check PhD entry requirements
  7. Check PhD fees and funding
  8. Make your PhD application
  9. Submit your PhD application 

In this article, we’re going to look at all these different elements in greater detail to help you with the PhD application process.

1. Choose your subject area

You will be studying your PhD for a long time – between three- and four-years’ full time and up to eight years part time – so it is essential you choose to study a subject you are passionate about.

Most PhD students study a subject area that they have studied previously, but in much greater detail. Most PhD courses require some previous academic experience in the research area, for example if you choose to study your PhD on William Shakespeare, you are likely to have studied the works of Shakespeare as part of an English Literature masters degree. Similarly, if your PhD research is in a science-based topic it is likely to be going more in depth into a science-related field you studied as an undergraduate and then as a masters student.

However, your PhD does not have to be directly related to your masters degree, for example an English Language masters graduate could expect to be successful if applying to do research in an English literature PhD if they have achieved the necessary grades.

There are many areas that you can consider when choosing the subject area for your PhD. These could come from the ArtsHumanities, STEM, Social Sciences and Business.

Research the department at your chosen university to find the perfect PhD program to apply for.

2. Choose your type of PhD

Whilst most PhDs follow a traditional route (completing an independent research project under a supervisor), there are alternatives.

The two main types of PhD include: self-proposed PhD projects and predesigned PhD projects.

Self-proposed PhDs are the most common and traditional type of doctoral degree, although universities also offer predesigned PhD courses that integrate aspects of taught study.

Make sure you’ve considered your PhD options fully before applying for a PhD. Here are the main differences between self-proposed and predesigned PhD projects.

Self-proposed PhD projects

Self-proposed PhDs are the most common type of PhD, where students propose and design their own research.

With a self-proposed PhD, the student has a lot of control over their work and can specialise in any area that interests them with the support and approval of their academic supervisor.

Not all self-proposed PhDs receive funding, so applicants will need to make sure they have appropriate funding in place to pursue their self-proposed PhD.

There may also be some additional steps in the application process for self-proposed to ensure success in their PhD application. The student will have to dedicate a lot of time to their PhD application as it will need to include their PhD study proposal.

Predesigned PhD projects (Doctoral Training Centres)

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 area of interest, PhDs run out of DTC centres are worth exploring, as they can have substantial funding included. 

Predesigned PhD projects are usually slightly longer in course length than most traditional PhDs, as they’re likely to include a year of lectures and a variety of projects in the first year, before choosing to specialise in the second year.

This option 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.

Applying for a PhD

3. Check application deadlines

When applying for a PhD it is important to ensure you meet all application deadlines, this includes the deadlines for your PhD application form and PhD proposal as well as any PhD funding deadlines.

Different universities will have different deadlines, and some universities may even have rolling deadlines, this means it is important to check on the website of the university and department you are interested in, to make sure you get your application in on time.

4. Draft a research proposal

It’s important to draft a PhD proposal when you are applying for a PhD. This is a requirement of most self-proposed PhD applications and can also be necessary when applying for other PhDs.

To ensure the success of your PhD research proposal, it’s a good idea to do some research around the subject area before submitting your research proposal. This will give you a better idea of what it is you want to research and will also help you to present your proposal more clearly.

How to write a PhD research proposal

When writing a PhD research proposal, you will need to include the following:

  • A TITLE that clearly conveys the theme of your research project.
  • The main RESEARCH QUESTION that will be the focus of your research.
  • An EXPLANATION of why your research topic is important.
  • Brief LITERATURE REVIEW demonstrating your knowledge to answer the question.
  • Proposed METHODOLOGY for answering your research questions.
  • TIMELINE SCHEDULE of the research project.

5. Contact potential PhD supervisors

You want to make sure you choose your potential PhD supervisor 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 will often be applying to a particular supervisor who is a specialist in your area of study.

Therefore, you need to ensure you have enough time to research into suitable PhD supervisors and get in contact with them before you apply for the doctorate.

You shouldn’t rush this research, as getting the most out of your supervisor is the first step to doing well in PhD study – it’s important to make sure you pick the one best for you.

Another important consideration is where you choose to study. You’ll want to look at the department’s reputation, and to make sure it excels in research in the area you intend to study do you get the support you need.

6. Check PhD entry requirements

To be eligible to study a PhD, you will usually need a masters qualification in the subject area or in a closely related subject to the subject upon which you wish to base your PhD research.

However, entry requirements will differ depending on the university, so it is important to check the PhD eligibility requirements of the PhD and university that you are interested in studying at.

Applying without a masters

Some PhD courses will allow you to apply without a masters degree although you will need a bachelors degree. These are only usually offered as integrated masters and PhD programs which include a year of masters study before PhD.

Applying for a PhD as an international student 

If you are an international student applying to study a PhD in the UK, check the visa requirements that you need to meet.

To apply for a PhD in the UK, international students need a Student Route visa.

The Student Route visa is a points-based visa system for all international students – including EU, EEA and Swiss students – who want to study in the UK. This has replaced the Tier 4 (General) student visa.

You can apply for a student visa if you meet the following criteria:

  1. You have been offered a place on a course by a licensed student sponsor.
  2. You have enough money to support yourself and pay for your course.
  3. You can speak, read, write and understand English – you may need to prove this through a recognised English language test.

Student visas can only be issued for certain courses, and if your course is eligible, your education provider (Student sponsor) will give you a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) which you use to apply for a student visa.

The earliest you can apply for a student visa is six months before the start date of the course.

7. Check PhD fees and funding

Before committing to PhD study, it is important to check the PhD tuition fees and these will differ depending on the university and the course.

PhD tuition fees in the UK will be more expensive for international students than for home students. Tuition fees in the UK usually range from £3,000-£6,000 per year for home students and up to £18,000 per year for international students.

As a PhD student you will need to cover tuition fees, living expenses and any other unforeseen costs.

PhD scholarships and studentships are available, as is funding from various research councils, so make sure you investigate all your options and find out what financial help is available.

Funding your PhD

There are various funding options available to PhD students – here are the main ones:

University funding – some universities offer alumni funding support for students continuing their studies at their university. Check funding webpages for details.

PhD loans – PhD loans are available from the UK government.

PhD scholarships – many universities and companies offer PhD scholarships, this includes our Postgrad Solutions Study Bursaries.

PhD studentships – PhD studentships at your university are a great option as they usually include a stipend that covers full PhD tuition fees and some living costs.

Research councils – there are seven research councils in the UK that can provide funding for PhD students, these are:

Their funding can come as PhD studentships.

Self -funding – as a postgraduate student, you may have saved up money through work to enable you to self-fund your PhD.

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!

8. Making your PhD application

Now you’ve done most of the preparation for your application, what about the actual application for a PhD? What does it involve?

When applying for a PhD, you usually apply directly to the university, rather than via a third party such as UCAS.

PhD applications will differ from university to university, so check on the admissions page of the course you are interested in to make sure you include everything they ask for. You are likely to have to include:

  • Completed application form
  • Research proposal
  • Personal statement
  • Academic CV
  • Academic references
  • Proof of English language proficiency
  • Student visa documentation

Ideally, you should have already contacted your intended supervisor and talked about it with them, via email or perhaps in person. They will give you a run through of everything to include in your application to help ensure you don’t leave anything out by mistake. 

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 need to brag, but you shouldn’t hide your achievements either.

PhD interviews

Unlike with bachelors degrees and many masters degrees, you will probably need to have a PhD interview as part of your application. If you’ve not had a university interview before, make sure you prepare 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 will remain open to you after graduating,,so contact them and see what advice they can offer you. 

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 in that particular topic  at that particular university.

You should already know by now what it takes to study a PhD and be able to answer convincingly when asked about these things during your interview.

9. Submit your PhD application

 Now you’ve reached the final step – it’s time to submit your PhD application!

This is likely to be online, although it’s important to check this with your chosen university in case you need to send any hard copies of original certificates or documentation in the post.

Follow the university guidelines. They will usually indicate how to submit your application, what to include, and when you should hear back about the success of your PhD application.

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