Applying for a PhD

If you are thinking of applying for a place on a doctoral programme, leading to a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree or a professional doctorate, you will need to decide whether doctoral study is right for you and how to go about preparing your application. 

I want to do a doctorate. What do I do first?

Undertaking doctoral work is a very personal decision. Everyone has different reasons why they want to complete one and it is important to be clear about what your motivation might be and exactly what commitment is involved. You may decide to work towards a professional doctorate such as a Doctor of Education or Doctor of Business Administration. Alternatively, you might decide to complete the traditional Doctor of Philosophy programme – or PhD as people usually call it. PhD degrees are available for just about every type of academic discipline and are awarded on successful completion of a thesis, based on a programme of original research and followed by an oral examination or viva. Doctoral programmes can be full or part time (or a combination of both) and last around 3–4 years on average. Students typically enrol for a specified period and would generally aim to complete their work in that time. The very nature of this type of degree means that students need to be extremely interested in independent research and, while a doctorate can be well suited to a very wide range of career paths, it would especially suit those who want to pursue an academic, specialist or research-based career.

How can I get a place?

Once a student has decided on the doctoral programme they wish to pursue, the next step will generally be to secure a place – but what will course selectors be looking for when they are assessing applications for places? Some doctoral programmes will be advertised, whereas for others you may need to write to a particular department indicating your interest and chosen field of research, by submitting a proposal, or plan, of your research intentions. It is important to note that there is no national system for applications for doctoral study programmes. Application systems will vary from one institution, sometimes from one department, to another and it is very important to contact the relevant staff to establish exactly how and when you need to apply. Once you have done this, you need to make sure that you follow application procedures carefully, observing any important deadlines. Whatever type of programme you are applying for, you will need to demonstrate that you are able to succeed and that you understand what doctoral research is about. You will generally be asked for positive responses to questions such as:

  • Are you capable of original thought and do you have an enquiring mind?
  • Do you have a particular research idea or want to answer a specific research question?
  • Do you have a good general knowledge and, more specifically, knowledge of your chosen subject area?
  • Are you a “self starter”, highly motivated to work independently?
  • Can you express ideas using succinct, clear, grammatically correct writing?
  • Can you provide evidence of academic excellence; for example, through a good first degree and so on?
  • Are you organised and good at managing your own time?
  • Do you have a clear purpose for taking on a doctorate and perhaps a future plan of how you will benefit from completing one.

You may be asked to write a formal proposal (as mentioned above), prepare an abstract, complete an application form, submit a Curriculum Vitae (CV) and / or initially meet an expert tutor in the field and decide on a topic for research prior to applying. In any application, it is important to be able to describe your ideas clearly and in a well produced format, explaining what you want to do, why you want to research your chosen discipline and how you intend to go about it. You might also need to provide some referencing for your ideas so it would be essential to have done some reading around your chosen academic specialism. Current or previous study might have provided the opportunity to contribute to academic journal publications or attend specialist conferences. Also, you might have acquired important work, voluntary experience or practical experience “in the field” related to your chosen subject. It is important to keep records of any appropriate experience or attainments such as these (especially any research work which you have completed or with which you have assisted) so that you can elaborate upon them when applying.

For some programmes, admissions staff may look for evidence that you have the potential to lead research teams in the future. This may not always be a requirement, so it is important to check individual departmental requirements prior to completing the application. If you are told that this attribute will be looked for, then it is important to prepare your case thoroughly, gathering and presenting any relevant evidence. Check, too, whether there are any other parts to the application process. For example, will your chosen department have any exercises for you to complete such as being presented with a draft of an academic paper and asked to write an abstract for it so that your skills of concise written communication can be assessed?

What else might I need to be able to provide?

In order to answer this question, it is useful to think about exactly what doing a doctorate involves. Pursuing doctoral study is an experience that will vary according to the individual. Workloads can be high and it is therefore important to think about your reasons for applying. Ensure that your personal circumstances are well suited to the nature of the work. For example, are you going to be able to have the time to visit libraries, conduct research and so on? Do you have sufficient space at home, work or elsewhere to be able to do reading and paperwork relating to your studies? Doctoral study requires a lot of stamina, determination and the ability to work alone for much of the time. 

What are the next steps?

It is essential to speak to the relevant staff in the appropriate academic departments about your plans prior to applying for a place. You may find the following steps helpful:

  • Be clear about your motivation to tackle a research degree.
  • Use relevant sources such as: www.findaphd.com and www.jobs.ac.uk/phd and establish which department can provide you with the necessary support, facilities and supervision.
  • Discuss your plans with the staff and clarify exactly how they want you to apply. Try to seek advice from known leaders in the field if possible.
  • Be clear about any closing dates that may exist – if any exist, observe them carefully.
  • Make early plans concerning funding. It is important to know, and to be able to explain, where the necessary financial support is coming from, and that it is going to be adequate.
  • If you need to apply for financial support, ensure that this is also done according to the published procedures – and in good time.
  • Ask for help if necessary. There are numerous members of staff in academic departments and in the various student services teams who can help you to prepare for your higher degree and make a successful transition on to a future career path afterwards.