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How to apply for a PhD

| June 3, 2013

Although each university has its specific application process for its PhD programme, there are some common steps in applying for a PhD.[1]


1)      Deciding on the PhD course

  • This is a highly subjective decision and you must carefully consider you reasons for choosing a specific field of mastery.
  • The PhD course is primarily determined by your past research experience, your interest, and your masters or undergraduate course work.
  • Since most universities require a master’s degree in its PhD programme, many students choose to earn a PhD in a field related to their master’s studies.

2)      Searching for a university

  • Choosing a university is again a very subjective decision. There are various things to consider in choosing university such as reputation, expertise, availability of funding, distance, etc.
  • A number of students choose to earn their PhD in the same university where they completed their master’s degree. However, it is generally considered better to study for a PhD in a different university from the one where you completed your first degree, as it will expose you to a different set of academic influences.[2]

3)      Determining the university’s application guidelines

  • You must research the university’s application guidelines. Check the university’s website, call or drop by the office of the department where you are applying for a PhD.
  • Some universities in the UK require PhD applicants to first contact a potential supervisor before making a formal application. You may wish to provide the supervisor with a copy of your Curriculum Vitae and indicate what your proposed research topic is, including the potential start date and how you propose to fund the project.[3]
  • You must take note of the items that need to be submitted (i.e. application form, transcript of grades, dissertation proposal, referrals, etc.) and make sure that you have carefully read and understood the application guidelines.

4)      Assess your chances of getting into the PhD programme and carefully consider how you are going to fund your studies.

  • You can apply for university-based funding, scholarships, or private sponsorships.
  • You may also fund yourself; however, you will need to prove that you are capable of completing the PhD successfully with your own finances.[4]

5)      Preparing a thesis proposal

  • A thesis proposal carries a lot of weight in a PhD application. This demonstrates the applicant’s writing skills and research capacity. However, a thesis proposal is not always required with PhD applications, particularly for students applying for PhDs in science or engineering programmes.[5]
  • There are two kinds of PhD projects – those that have been pre-designed by a university staff member and those where hopeful researchers must formulate their investigations from scratch.[6]
  • If your PhD application requires a thesis proposal, you must remember that a PhD research must be original and must provide significant contribution to the field being studied. Your thesis proposal must be well-written, clear, and concise. It must be good enough to get the interest of your reader, especially your potential supervisor.
  • In science or engineering, the norm is for an academic (usually a faculty member where the student is applying at) to design a project and then find a potential research to carry it out. The project may be put together in consultation with a commercial organisation so that a complete package of research topic and sponsorship is on offer. In some cases, the project may be linked to a specific research funding. The academic who designed the project becomes the student’s research supervisor.

[1] Estelle M. Philips & Derek S. Pugh, How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors. (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), 1-20

[2] Find a PhD. (2013). PhD Study: PhDs explained & FAQs. Available: Last accessed 28th Mar 2013.

[3] Imperial College London. (2013). How to Apply. Available: Last accessed 28th Mar 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Prospects. (2013). Applying for a PhD. Available:!eklfbmF. Last accessed 28th Mar 2013.

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Category: Phd Writing