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    (Original post by andrewo)
    Hi There!

    I would really like to apply for a PhD Political Science courses beginning 2015. My results to date are History and English BA at Oxford (66) and International Relations MA at Warwick (77, thesis and final 25% outstanding). Can anyone off me some much needed advice on what I need to do between now and the end of the year to maximise my chances of getting onto a good PhD programme in the US or UK? With my current record, what quality of and how many UNIs should I aim to apply to? I haven't got much feedback from my current tutors so would be really grateful for any tips from those that have already gone through or are in the process of taking on a similar challenge!

    Much appreciated
    I'm in my third year of a PhD in International Relations, so hopefully my insights can be of use to you.

    Applying for a PhD is only a little bit like applying for your undergrad and postgrad but is different in some key ways. You'll still have to fill out a regular application - much like for your Masters - and be offered admission by the department. However, at PhD level the offer of admission from a department will only be forthcoming if there is an academic willing and able to supervise your thesis. So your specific question about the number of universities you should be applying to and their caliber brings me to the most important difference and the most crucial part of any application.

    The central part of a PhD application in Political Science is your research proposal. Different departments will have different requirements for how long this document needs to be, but the research proposal is where you set out for a potential supervisor what your research project is for the next 3 years, a rough (at this stage it can be very rough) idea of your methodology, how your project fits with the current literature on the same topic in your field, and what sets your particular project apart - what makes your project different from what has already been done on the same topic. Without this you won't get a supervisor and won't get admission to a program. Most departments will state that they want at least a 2.1 at undergrad and merit at Masters - for some institutions this may be a First and a Distinction. You have the grades to satisfy the requirements of the overwhelming majority of universities in the UK, so you don't need to worry about that. You need to focus on what is different about a PhD application.

    There is a never-ending debate about whether a supervisor or an institution is more important. I have been lucky enough to secure the supervision of a very well respected academic in my field at a very well respected university (both in general and in my field). But you need to apply to a department with an academic who you know has the subject expertise to supervise your project for 3 years - if for no other reason than you won't get an offer of a place without someone able to supervise you.

    What you should be doing now:

    1. Begin work on a research proposal. I'm sure you know by now what interests you and what you think needs to be researched in your particular field. So start reading around that topic more and thinking about methodology.

    2. Research potential supervisors, and make email contact with the ones you think would be promising. It can just be a short email explaining that you are planning on applying to do a PhD in topic X, you have become familiar with their work and feel that they might be a good supervisor for your project, and would they mind taking a look at a draft of your proposal to see if they would be interested in being your supervisor should you apply.

    3. Make a list of supervisors, institutions, and funding opportunities available to you including deadlines for both - many institutions have rolling deadlines for PhDs but some have strict deadlines in Nov/Dec/Jan. It is much easier to gain admission to do a PhD than to get funding. ESRC is the main funding body for Political Science, but many institutions also have departmental scholarships. but it's important to stay on-top of deadlines.

    4. Come up with a contingency funding plan - not a CDL as I don't think they are for PhDs. If you're applying for entry in 2015 this gives you a year to save some money. Funding is increasingly scarce and it's a good idea to have a rainy-day fund to get you through the first year at least if you don't get funding.

    These, I would say, are the most important things to begin working on now. If you have any questions then feel free to ask

    Good luck!
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    Thanks so much for your help.

    I'm particularly interested in your emphasis on methodology. What exactly do you mean when you use the term? Underlying ontological assumptions, constructivist, realist, etc. or more questions of research design? Is specifying a chosen methodology more important than, say, identifying relevant empirical areas of interest?

    More broadly, are you enjoying your own IR course? What kind of temperament would you say make one well suited to such a pursuit?
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    (Original post by andrewo)
    Thanks so much for your help.

    I'm particularly interested in your emphasis on methodology. What exactly do you mean when you use the term? Underlying ontological assumptions, constructivist, realist, etc. or more questions of research design? Is specifying a chosen methodology more important than, say, identifying relevant empirical areas of interest?

    More broadly, are you enjoying your own IR course? What kind of temperament would you say make one well suited to such a pursuit?
    Hi,

    What I mean is more the questions of research design. Are you going to do archival research? Surveys? Semi-structured or structured interviews? Data analysis? In other words, how are you actually going to conduct your research? It is also good to include a short section on the ontology of your project - is it informed by a particular theoretical perspective? Is it intended as a critique of the dominant theoretical perspective in your field? Etc. Basically, it's one thing to say to an admissions committee and potential supervisor that you have an idea for an interesting area of research, and another to tell them how, at this stage, you plan on actually carrying out that investigation.

    I'm loving my PhD experience. It's tough - emotionally and mentally, and therefore physically sometimes. I knew it would be hard before going into it, but I think most people discover that their expectations weren't that realistic in the end. I love what I do, and I love my topic and still (3 years in) find it fascinating. But what I find tough is that you can't get away from it. Because it's such a labour of your mind, you take it everywhere with you. In my experience, maybe others have had a different experience, I can't leave the office at the end of the day and leave my thesis behind. I think about it all the time - I even find myself, when I'm drafting a chapter, waking up mid-sentence, like I'm writing in my sleep!

    You often hear that the life of a PhD student can be a solitary one, but I haven't found that. My colleagues on my program are great, and we all have a great time together - it's a real community. And that makes everything so much easier to handle. Although we do all end up talking about our research a lot! It's just nice to know that we all experience similar issues, and that we can support each other through the whole process.

    There is one other aspect that I think it's important to emphasise - more so if you want an academic career: the PhD process isn't just about cranking out 100,000 words that can pass a viva. It's about meeting people and making contacts; presenting your work at conferences so that you get experience talking about your research to others, and to 'get your name out there'; teaching (if your department has the opportunities); and publishing. In order to do all of this you need to be self-disciplined; but also realise that you're not a robot. You can't be productive all the time, and you don't get points for finishing quickly. So temperament-wise, I would say that you need to be passionate about your research, self-disciplined, patient, willing to learn and take criticism, and not be afraid to ask for help!
 
 
 
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