Phd courses - tips and advice for making your application

With many TSR members currently studying for PhDs and similar courses there will be loads of tips to share with other people thinking of applying for them. Whether you have advice on how to choose where to apply and which course to go for, whether it tips for writing a perfect thesis proposal or application or whether there is subject specific advice, then it can all go here for prospective postgrads to read.


Tips and Advice for Choosing Universities and Projects/Supervisors

Choosing a University

This is copied more or less verbatim from the guide on the masters wiki page, since the concerns will be similar.

Things to think about

The preceding warning to this section is that there is no right or wrong way to choose your PhD. If something is very important to you, regardless of how silly it may seem to anyone else, then it's worth taking into account. However, there are some common factors that will impact upon almost everyone during their degrees, and you would be ill-advised to ignore them. As such, here are some things to think about:


  • How much? Some courses are very expensive, others aren't. It's very difficult to generalise. The minimum amount that you're likely to need to shell out in fees is around £3,000, but this can rise very dramatically. For unfunded students, this is likely to be a significant factor in making the final decision.
  • Funding. Obviously, if you wish to spend three years or more researching, being funded is a massive advantage. There are other articles on the wiki that cover this in more detail (Funding Postgraduate Study) but if money is an issue, then finding out which departments have funding available will be a priority.
  • Living costs. Generally the South is much pricier than the North. Living in London will require you to shell out far more for food, rent, and transport than living in Hull, although there are cheaper areas in every city if you're prepared to compromise.

The University

  • Facilities. Does the University or the surrounding area have any specific facilites you might require, academic or otherwise? Good gyms, supermarkets, computer labs, bars?
  • Libraries and resources. If you're an arts and humanities specialist, the library resources will be very important to you whilst you're there - are the online journal systems good? Do they have a broad range of specialist texts? Likewise if you're a scientist, ensuring that the labs are up to scratch will be particularly important before committing to your course.
  • Housing. A lot of universities don't provide specialist accommodation for postgraduates, which means looking in the private sector, or bunking with the undergrads. For your first year in particular, neither option may be very appealing, so do check to see what housing is laid on by the university.
  • Location. Campus or city? The differences in location and style between universities can be huge, and both types are like marmite - you either love them or hate them! Likewise, you may need to find a university within striking distance of your home, which can cut down the range of options enormously.
  • Support for postgrads. Some universities have dedicated societies, social areas, and work spaces - all of these things can be very beneficial to your postgrad experience and it's worth asking about what's available.
  • Postgraduate numbers. Again, universities with massive undergraduate-dominance are likely to pay less attention to ensuring the wellbeing of their graduate students, so checking what the ratio is can be a good shorthand to checking the emphasis on providing postgraduate-focused support.

The Course

  • Research modules. Are there any compulsory courses you will need to take alongside the thesis? Will they help you develop academically?
  • Accreditation. If you require professional accreditation, check with the relevant bodies that your course will fulfill these requirements.

The Department

  • Departmental strength. Be aware that university league tables are based on their undergraduate perks, not their postgraduate strength. Probably a better gauge are the recent RAE results, since they rank research quality, which is likely to be a significant factor at postgraduate level. Nevertheless, some of the information available in undergrad league tables can be useful, if you ignore the guff (who cares what the average A level tariff is?). Staff/student ratio, for example, can be a good indication of how undergrad-centered the department is.
  • Significant staff. You will need to build relationships with people in your field. You probably will have identified where the best people are by your final year, and this ought to be an important indicator of where you'd be best advised to go. This may not be one of the 'big name' universities, either. Some smaller departments at less well-known universities feature a stellar roster of specialist staff, and if you're researching something obscure, one may be a perfect fit.
  • Support. Are there plenty of research groups and do postgraduates play a strong role in the department? Are there plenty of dedicated administrative staff?


Narrowing down your choices

The simplest way to draw up a shortlist is simply to find out what universities offer appropriate PhDs! See below for some suggestions about where to start.

Next, have a think about the factors above. Which are the most important to you? Is there anything that is absolutely vital, or anything that you're really not bothered about? Ranking important factors and then excluding unsuitable universities should dramatically cut the shortlist down. Some people apply to many universities (think 15+) but for most this is completely impractical, not to mention madly annoying for referees. Probably the optimal number to aim for at shortlist stage is 5 or 6, but having more or fewer is not a big problem.

The next step, if at all possible, is to visit them. Yes, many people don't. But if you're planning to spend three years there then it's pretty foolish not to - I'm sure everyone can recount a tale of pitching up a university they thought they'd love only to find that they loathed the 'vibe' - one man's meat is another man's poison, and reading TSR guides about the universities really is no substitute for visiting them.

This is especially' true at postgraduate, since some universities sideline their PhD students. It's really important that you gauge the treatment of the postgraduate community - is there a lot of support? Societies? Departmental administrative facilities? (The 'secretary test' may sound stupid, but the number of dedicated postgraduate support staff a department has relative to their student and staff numbers is a really good test of how they treat their postgraduates. Seriously!).

Having visited them, you're then in a position to revisit your importance rankings. Have they changed at all? Did you fall in love with a particular university? Ultimately, most important choices are made far easier by a gut decision that agonising over prestige or employment prospects - if it felt right, then it's probably the right place for you, irrespective of whether it's two slots down in a league table.

Choosing a Supervisor

Picking a supervisor can make or break your PhD, particuarly in the arts, humanities and social sciences, where research can be a rather lonely experience and the touchstone of a good supervisor is crucial to maintaining direction and sanity.

The critical questions to ask are: is your supervisor a good fit, academically and personally? Academic compatibility seems fairly obvious, although it is vital to ensure that your supervisor is interested in supervising your PhD - in the case of non-science subjects, simply because they themselves write on a topic, does not necessarily mean they want to walk someone else through something very similar. Indeed, having a supervisor with a left-field take on a topic can be just as valuable as one who's spent 20 years writing on very similar matters.

Personally, it is important that you get on with your supervisor. This doesn't mean that you have to be best buddies, but if you have a fundamental personality clash, the experience will not be enjoyable for either of you. It is therefore important that you meet with prospective supervisors in advance if at all possible, since for several years they are likely to be a large influence in your life. Do they have the time and dedication to supervise you? Are their comments, and style of commenting, on work helpful? (Some are very hands-off, some put red pen over everything - which works for you is a matter of personal taste). In some cases it may be possible to transfer supervisor or projects if things don't work out, but it is unwise to assume that this will be the case, and so putting effort into finding a good fit pays off in the long run.

Bear in mind also that your supervisor will likely be your primary referee when searching for postdoc jobs, as well as a window into careers. Finding somebody who can appreciate your abilities can certainly make all the difference in landing that first job.

General Application Tips and Advice

First things first

Think about what you want to do, the subject you are interested in, and make a list of ideas. A good person to seek early is your current or prospective supervisor, if still at university (or failing that, any supportive staff member who knows your work). They should steer you in the right direction and give you sound advice. But be warned some academics can be out to curtail your plans before you start and are best ignored! By the final year of undergrad most applicants will have built up a relationship with at least some departmental members and, if not, now is a good time to start.

Now to start looking for your subject area. A great place to start for scientists and other STEM subjects are websites listing current projects, such as This lists current PhD courses across subjects and is a great place to see who is offering what.

Then start looking for department specific websites, which is where there are detailed PhD listings. Remember PhD details will be released at different times so contact the postgraduate admissions tutor, and start as early in advance of your proposed start date as possible: for September starts, deadlines are often as early as the previous November.

However, for many in the arts and humanities or social sciences, who take part in self-dictated research, websites do not advertise specific subject areas. As such, awareness of your subject will be necessary to work out which staff are based where, either to act as prospective supervisors or as indicative of the general research direction of a department. In this instance, it can be worthwhile contacting either course directors or potential supervisors directly, with details of your research interests and background, to enquire as to whether they might be able to offer you a suitable environment to conduct the PhD.

At this point make sure you know the funding situation, PhD as this will dictate much of the application process. Increasingly, funding is allocated directly to a department (either to projects or to be distributed to individuals) so do ask the department at the earliest stage possible what awards you might be eligible for. You can be awarded a PhD place with no funding which is very difficult to pursue.

Departmental or university scholarships are a possible source, but are generally far less plentiful than research-council funded places, and so it's worth spending time to discover which research projects or departments have already attracted funding in your area. See the [Funding Postgraduate Study] article and its subsidiaries for more information.

PhD Requirements

A PhD at national level requires either a degree to a 2.1 standard or above (e.g. for an undergraduate entering directly into a PhD) or a 2.2 with a postgraduate masters degree. (e.g. not an Msci etc.) This is minimum standard specified for all postgraduate boards at university but consultation with the specific staff/supervisor after grades have been obtained is advisable as it may not be the be all end all.

International qualifications which form equivalents to either a UK undergraduate or postgraduate degree will need to contact the department directly (email, letter or phone). There is not direct conversion chart for grade boundaries with most been estimates. However some universities will post information to this effect on their postgraduate home page.

Paper and Online applications

Increasingly, Universities are switching to online applications - where you fill in your details electronically and submit your covering documents (such as references and transcripts) either via a scanner or subsequently by post. However, many universities still offer you the option of filling in a paper form if you would prefer. Whichever you choose, remember that each form will be different and allow yourself plenty of time to fill it in. If you have a strong CV, filling in a form is made significantly easier.

Tips and Advice for Writing a Thesis Proposal

Applications for a doctoral place are usually highly dependent on your thesis proposal (at least in the arts, humanities and social sciences - scientists have to write one far more rarely at this stage). However, writing a research proposal for the first time can be incredibly daunting if you're used to thinking in terms of essays and exams.

What your proposal should do

In a nutshell, your proposal needs to articulate what you want to research for three years, and why. Additionally, you need to explain why your area of research is important: what gap in the literature are you filling? What broader relevance do your ideas have? Why should they offer you a place (and potentially a fairly large pot of cash) over someone else?

This is clearly a very different rationale to writing an essay. You need to think in terms of answering questions, rather than outlining an argument (you'll be spending a fairly significant part of the three years gathering data or information, and without this, how can you indicate what argument you will pursue to answer your questions?).

What's the format of a research proposal?

This does vary fairly dramatically from University to University, and subject to subject. As a result, you need to find out in advance what the guidelines are for the departments you would be interested in being supervised by. For instance, Cambridge's English faculty ask for a mere 500 words (and provide a good summary of what it should include) whereas ESRC applications typically ask for a two-side proposal (which, if you're canny with font sizes, is about 1500 words).

However, the sorts of things that need to be included in the proposal are typically fairly constant:

  • Your research topic, including your questions and hypotheses,
  • How you plan to situate yourself within the existing key literatures (and your existing knowledge and awareness of these),
  • How you intend to make an original and necessary contribution to this literature - what is the gap? Why is it academically and socially important that this gap is filled?
  • Your methodology: how you plan to answer the questions,
  • How you plan to conduct the research and in what stages,
  • What sources you will use.

It's not necessary to have a very detailed method of interrogating your questions at this stage, but you do need to have demonstrated some level of prior thought about how you will do these things. If you can indicate a vague timescale for your research, so much the better. The important thing is that you demonstrate some level of feasibility - it's fine to be a bit ambitious, but giving no thought at all to methodological issues or proposing something grand and unworkable are both equally likely to be unsuccessful.

Longer proposals should always be sub-headed, shorter ones need not be.

Where do I start?

Just 'coming out with' a research proposal is both very difficult and not necessarily a good idea. A few tips for beginning to phrase your research proposal are below:

Start Simple What's your question? How can you break your question down into a sequence of interlinked ideas that you can empirically investigate? It sounds incredibly amateurish, but I found it extremely helpful to begin with a flowchart to break down how I wanted to approach the topic, which then made it far easier to define my methodology.

Give yourself time Most proposals typically go through umpteen drafts. If you start the week before the deadline, you will be in deep trouble. From initial ideas to final draft can take as long as two or three months if done properly.

Ask for help Most academics are usually only too happy to encourage bright students to look at doctoral study. Taking an unformed proposal to a sympathetic tutor can help you develop your ideas and gain more of a feel for the type of format required.

Don't panic It's well understood that your topic will likely evolve over the course of your study. What is important is that you are able to demonstrate a well-worked idea and to think critically about how you will contribute to the literature. For if you are unable to do this with 'topic mark one', why should a university take you on in the hope that 'topic mark two' might be better?

Experiences of writing thesis proposals

In terms of choosing a topic area and writing the proposal, my wholly unscientific process went as follows:

  1. Write a big list of key words for all the areas you're interested in. (Mine was about 2 A4 pages).
  2. Try and meld it into some kind of flow chart to show how you can relate and tackle these ideas.
  3. Take it to members of staff, all of whom say 'sacré bleu! That is unworkably huge!'
  4. Repeat step 2. and step 3. Several times.
  5. Staff members suggest it might be a good idea to actually write something, so attempt to craft flow-chart into a proposal.
  6. It's still too long.
  7. After about 15 re-drafts of the main section, realise that at some point you will have to cover the dreaded 'M' word: methodology. So resign yourself on a Sunday night to sitting in front of House with a cup of coffee and some research books. Curse repeatedly.
  8. Take back to most helpful (ie. least critical) staff member, who says 'ooh, your methods section is really good!'. Splutter in disbelief.
  9. Rework the whole thing a couple of times until reasonably happy with it. Print it off, and then immediately notice several typos, one of which is a misspelling of your academic discipline on the first page.
  10. Take it, proudly, to one of the staff members who will be supervising you at your new university, who says 'it's good, but your methodology is all wrong' (I knew it!).
  11. Try not to cry, hand it in to admissions tutor anyway (since the day before the deadline it's a bit late to change things). Panic about how you've wasted three months working on something rubbish and will never, ever succeed in life.
  12. Get offered place the same day.

--IlexAquifolium 21:27, 6 July 2009 (BST)

Writing an Academic CV

Now you have found your course or have a contact in the department of your choosing sit down and get that CV in order. For PhD places an academic CV is often needed to demonstrate your current achievements. This is a posh term for a detailed subject break down of your undergrad and postgrad (if any) degrees so far. Many people also include a brief summary of their GCSE/A level results, although this is not obligatory.

Academic CVs are quite different to usual, vocational, CVs. There is a fantastic PhDcomics strip that illustrates the process of creating an academic CV: Indeed, the real-world experience if the first thing to be binned!

Include any relevant experience relating to the project, and do not be afraid to tailor a CV for an individual PhD. It helps to be affiliated with a academic society as this shows that you are serious and implies that you are well read (Maybe!). If you have any publications, relevant work experience, awards or prizes, do include them.

Links illustrating the process:

Guidelines on completing an academic CV - University of Warwick

Academic CV building - where to start, by Dr Catherine Armstrong

Academic CV guide by


Covering letters and personal statements/statements of purpose

A personal statement, or covering letter, may or may not be asked for as of the variety of submission processes that each university possesses should imply. They are less common for PhD applications than those for masters programmes, but are still asked for by many universities.

In the case of a covering letter, make it concise: why have you chosen this PhD, and what makes it suited to your skills, experience and academic interests? Do not try to answer the research question, just outline why you want this place and your qualifications and where you currently study/work.

The requirements for personal statement are similar but, as the name suggests, more explicitly personal. They can be taken to be roughly analogous to a masters personal statement, a TSR wiki guide to which is here:

Taught Masters Courses: Tips and Advice for Writing a Personal Statement

DON'T forget your references!!

In some respects the academic references are one of the most important parts of the entire application. Do not underestimate the strength of the Old Boys' Network in academia: within a subject area, conferences bind staff from all over the world and chances are that at least some members of your department will know of a proposed supervisor or project leader. A well-honed reference can emphasise the exceptionality of a great candidate, or make up for flaws in an average academic profile. For this reason it is incredibly important that you pick the right people (some applications ask for three references!), ask them nicely, and give them plenty of time to do you justice.

Ideally, you should pick members of staff who know you well as a person and have read and marked your work; are strongly associated with your proposed subject; and are big names in the field (in other words, the more Professors, the better). However, having all three components in potentially three different individuals is rare and unlikely. As such, you can make up for areas that let you down: always offer your referees samples of your best work, your personal statement, and do sit down and speak to them personally about your goals and reasons for wanting to study the course. The better they know you, the better they can eulogise about you!

If you're currently undertaking a masters course where you have yet to have much contact with staff, you may have to be a bit more proactive in seeking out referees. Generally there will be someone in the department who is assigned the task of writing references if all else fails (usually the course head), but also consider asking personal tutors, subject tutors, staff in your subject area, or undergraduate tutors. If you allow yourself enough time, you shouldn't have a problem - staff are usually sympathetic to the difficulties of securing a reference during the early stages of a masters.

Choosing a good referee, who produces a stellar reference, allows a selection panel to see that you are hard working, committed, and have shown significant interest in the subject area. Pick your references carefully as they have possibly the most say in the early PhD selection process.


Not all PhD places will require an interview, but it is increasingly common, so be prepared! Most applicants dread them, but with a little preparation they can be made far less frightening.

The Interview Itself...

This is not a definitive guide and it would be good for other people to contribute there experiences and opinions on the matter.

The "formal" interview and Interview styles

The interview can take two different paths. The first is often an informal chat with the supervisor where the project is discussed generally, or where a detailed disscussion takes place on where the project may lead. The second is usually in front of a board of people, usually 3 to 5, who will ask questions.

Oxbridge is different in this respect they have a series of individual interviews with different staff each asking specific questions.

What to expect

The first question in most interviews seems to be "Why do you want to do a PhD and what has brought you to this position so far ?"

What follows is a series of questions that is designed to test your knowlegde of the basic aspects of the programme, what it entails, and what contibution is expected. The project supervisor will want to know specifics, while the others will want to see how you dealt with the question. They seem to want to see past work, such as dissertations etc, but may not ask directly. It is a good idea to have the work prepared and key places marked. Make sure you know the work in depth and be prepared to ask answer any questions on it.

Usually if the PhD involves a studentship or is funded by an outside body they will have a representative. They will assess how you present yourself and will probably want to hear how the project is likely to benefit the company or the University. Always aim to know at least what the company ethos is and be prepared to answer questions on how you would deal with confidentiallty.

The interview panel want you to express a wider knowledge. It is key you have read recommended references and understood them, as it will just help your case. Also find out what is cutting edge at the moment and bring with you or make a typed sheet with problems you might want to tackle during the PhD.

Remember that you do not want to answer the PhD title, but you are aware of lines of evidence that you might want to pursue.


Many interviews will not require presentations, but it's always worthwhile to prepare yourself for the eventuality.

Be confident and speak fluently. Made the audience know you are confident (even though you might not feel like it!). Focus on your research unless asked not to, and relate this to the project or proposal. Essentially, what can you bring to the table, whether as an individual or part of a team?

Have it practiced and timed. Draw together on a concluding slide, and expect questions - so prepare answers to both obvious queries (why do you want to do this? Why are you the best candidate?) and subject-specific questions (in the arts and social sciences, you're expected to be plugging a gap in the literature - so what is this gap and how can you address it?).

You and yourself!

At the interview they want to see that you are motivated to do the project and are prepared. Be confident and don't be afraid to say "I don't know". This is particularly important advice - nobody expects you to know your subject area inside out at the start, and acknowledging areas where you need to improve your knowledge shows that you are self-aware and engaged.

Wear something smart. Some places are not too fussy, but it never harmed anyone to look smart for an interview. For girls, making a bit of effort with hair and makeup (in a subtle, professional way – avoid the panda eyes) shows you take pride in your appearance, which is often indicative of a careful attitude. Likewise for guys - tidy hair, tuck in your shirt, polish your shoes etc. It's amazing how important appearances are, and as a student, it’s not something you usually have to take into account very often. Where academics are concerned it's often wise to do as they say, not as they do - most have been ground into relative slovenliness by years of turning up to work in chinos, but as an applicant, you should hopefully not be at that stage yet!

Most importantly, try not to be nervous!

Subject Specific Tips and Advice

Also See

Got postgrad questions which aren't covered above? Then visit the Postgraduate Forum to get your answers.

Other articles: