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Everything (?) you need to know about the PhD application process in the UK

The last year has been very productive. I managed to complete my MSc in Political Theory from the LSE and survive the nightmare that is the PhD and funding applications. Fortunately, in the end everything went well and I am now in the fourth month of my PhD.

Someone has to say a few words about the application process and it might as well be me. The first thing to say is that failure is part of the game and you should not (always) blame yourself for it. One can fail at two levels. The first is failure to get accepted into a PhD program and the second is failure to get funding for the program. For some reason, once you receive an offer of acceptance for a doctoral program you have on average of one month to accept or reject the acceptance offer, even though the outcome of the funding application will be announced in May-June. What does this mean? That you have to gamble.

You can get rejected for multiple reasons. Your application and your CV might be excellent, but it might be the case that there is no one directly related to your research project to supervise it. Or, it might be that most of the spots in the PhD program have been already filled by the university’s own masters students. Sometimes it might be just brute bad luck. So what should you do to maximise your chances?

The first thing is not to take it personal. Failure is an integral part of the academia. Academics get turned down all the time. Articles are rarely accepted for publication by academic journal without corrections, abstracts for presentations are often rejected, applications for grants are (especially in the current economic mess) rarely successful and so on, you get the point. Don’t take it personal.

In what follows I will mention a few important points to have in mind based on my personal experience . Obviously my experience relates to the British educational system, although I am guessing that what I say might apply elsewhere as well.

PhD application

Here are a few ground rules:

  • Make sure that you apply to the correct department.
  • Make sure that the department has one or two persons whose research interests are related to your proposed project.
  • Contact those persons (even if the regulations explicitly say that you shouldn’t).
  • Make sure that your proposal is as good as it can get.

Let us start with the first one. The division of disciplines is a modern and largely arbitrary construct. For example, what (and who) goes into a Philosophy, Politics or Law Department varies according to the University. Sometimes legal and political philosophy is studied in Law and Politics departments respectively, whilst in some other cases it is confined within a large Philosophy department. The same applies to History and English departments where sometimes one can find the most brilliant political philosophers. (By the way, I am using political philosophy as a random example since it is the one that I am familiar with). The admissions board of each department is looking for different things. For example, in the admissions board of a politics department there will almost definitely be people that do not give a rat’s ass about anything that does not directly relate to the real world and therefore one needs to be specific about the non-academic impact of his or her proposed project.

Once you identify the right department, you need to locate a couple of academics whose work is related to yours. I am not saying that it is never the case that PhD students get assigned to supervisors whose work is completely unrelated to that of the student. Universities are profitable organisations and PhD students are a source of revenue. That being said, your chances of getting admitted to a popular PhD program are significantly diminished if no one is particularly interested in your broad topic. Moreover, I don’t think that anyone wants to be supervised by someone who is not interested enough or is not qualified enough to give the best advice possible.

Once you spot the academics of interest as it were, contact them. Many universities urge you not to contact the academics and rather send the application directly to general admissions. Don’t. You may not get an answer by those academics you contact, but you will definitely not get rejected for sending an email. On the other hand, if the academic is really interested she or he might reply back and might actually provide feedback and guidance. In any case, the more feedback the better, and the more familiar your name is to the ‘academic of interest’ the better. Of course, you should not be a spammer. The first email needs to include three short paragraphs: in the first introduce yourself and explain that you want to pursue PhD studies and in the other two (short!) paragraphs give a rough summary of your proposal. Nothing too much, nothing more than 500 words, and say nothing twice. If the academic does not answer the email, send the application anyway but don’t try to contact her/him again.

Funding application

The funding application is often separate from the PhD application and therefore it is important to know your audience. In some cases, the reviewers will be the board members of the funding body, who might not have the slightest idea about what you are talking about. In these cases, you need to keep it simple, precise and explain why what you are doing (which they might not understand) is important and how it will affect the world and advance the reputation of the funding body. Remember, it is not about you. It is about how what you do matters to others.

Recently thought, the decisions about scholarships and awards have been transferred to the relevant departments. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for example, recently created the Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs), where a number of scholarships are allocated to the University, and the University through the departments then decides who gets a studenship. In those cases, it might be better to relate the funding application to the reputation of the department and to the specific ‘research centres’ that are active within the department, as well as to possible group projects that might be currently running.

The advice given in the Warwick’s ESRC DTC website is very helpful. The application should include:

  1. An outline of your research project and its theoretical background
  2. How your project relates to previous and current research in the subject
  3. The significance of your project (intellectual, practical, etc)
  4. The proposed methodology and why it is a good fit for your project
  5. How your project relates to your previous research and experience
  6. How your project fits with your proposed supervisor’s research interests and activities

Make sure that the sections of your funding application are structured accordingly, and make sure that you cover every one of these points in a clear and precise way. When one reads a lot of applications it is easy to skip a line or two, or even a paragraph, so make sure that the reader will not need to put too much effort to understand what you are saying and why it matters. Also, make sure that you do not include any conclusions about your research. Explain why it is important to actually perform the research and not why it is important to have a research that explains what you believe will be the outcome of the project.

Finally, it is important to put as much effort into the application as possible. It might only be 500-700 words or it might be 3500 words. Read the whole thing aloud and give it to others to read and give you feedback. As I mentioned before, if one or more academic agrees to review your paper, then your chances of getting funded are multiplied.

Closing, I want to repeat the fact that failure is part of the game. It is easy to get depressed after a couple of rejections and abandon the effort. Remember, it is not about you, and there is so much that you can do to improve your application. Try your best, and if it does not work out, it is not the end of the world and it does not necessarily reflect your abilities or the quality of your work.

Disclaimer: This post is based on my personal experience and there is absolutely no guarantee that what I say is correct, or that it will work for you. Obviously, this post expresses my personal views and not that of any organisation that I mention or I am affiliated with.

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    • I don’t think that a PhD is ever a waste of time, since it adds value to knowledge, which in itself is enough. That being said, a PhD in humanities can sometimes be a waste of money since post-docs and lectureships are scarce and the graduate student might find herself or himself after 3 years without a job and with a significant student loan that will take a lifetime to pay back. This is the reason I wouldn’t recommend doing a self-funded PhD (unless of course you are rich and this discussion is not for you). A funded PhD is at the very minimum a source of a 3-4 years of revenue.

      Very important skills can be acquired in the course of these 3-4 years. Actually there was an interesting discussion in one of the popular philosophy blogs about the link you gave (and I can’t find it atm). The worst case scenario is that one may “waste” three years, which in the grand scheme of things is not a long time.

      For now, I’m having lots of fun. I don’t know whether this will be the case in 4 or 40 years, but for now, I would absolutely recommend it to those who really want to study a subject they love further. I would absolutely discourage anyone to pursue a PhD in a subject she/he is not fascinated about.

  1. Even if you are funded, which is rare, the money they give you is nothing, if you really thinking about it. If you compare yourself to your friends who moved on to get a graduate job they will be earning easily two or three times more than the funding you receive.

    I know very few people who finish within three years. Usually it is at least four. The beginning is always fun, when you get into the thick of it and you find out that your job prospects are close to zero then you start re-assessing many assumption you have held.

    The notion that knowledge in itself is enough or that your dissertation will add to the general knowledge in your chosen field justifies the decision to throw away four years of your life is quite naive. Realistically how many people will read your thesis? Apart from your supervisor and the two examiners probably a handful of people. There is a lot of effort involved for very little reward if you really think about it.

    One can always read up about his subject without having to suffer through the hell of a PhD course. All you need is a subscription to a good library. As for the skills you acquire during a PhD they are either over rated or prepare you for only something quite specific (teaching) so you actually end up being an overqualified person who cannot get a job.

    So out of curiosity have you received funding? It seems that this is the case, in that case well done. Are you at the LSE? I have some friends who did PhD at the LSE and they had a lot of complaints about the support they got, the quality of the teaching and the supervision. LSE seems to run on the steam of its prestige, but does very little for the actual student was one complaint that resonated with quite a few people. And most of them did not finish within three years. But it could be the case that my friends were slackers lol.

    Peace

    • You are right when you say that “One can always read up about his subject without having to suffer through the hell of a PhD course. All you need is a subscription to a good library”. I see it rather differently though. I see reading and writing about my subject as my hobby. The PhD process is a way to formalise, publicise and actually get payed for my hobby (I know that the same cannot so easily be said about lectureships since there are many duties involved). It is often acknowledged that the period of one’s doctoral research is the only period of uninterrupted research. Moreover, the university is not just a library but rather a live community were people debate, exchange good reasons for their (often competing) arguments and extend their intellectual horizons.

      As far as the skills go, I am afraid I have to disagree again. I think that the ability to engage critically with a long text and challenge all its intellectual foundations is a skill that not many disciplines can offer. Also, there is research that changes the way we perceive the world (the most prominent example that comes to mind is Rawls’s book “A Theory of Justice” in the 1970s which not only established a new discipline – political theory – but also affected public policy. Another example would be the Canadian immigration laws and integration procedures were academia played a leading role in their conception and affected immensely the public debate that followed. The fact that in Cyprus everything is decided by lawyers or random public servants is a local shortcoming not a global political reality.

      As for me, I received the ESRC DTC scholarship at the University of Warwick, which is enough for me to live by the next 3 years without having to worry about money. If I compare myself with my friends who studied subjects in social sciences and the humanities (as you suggested), I find myself the only one to be “employed”. The rest of them are either unemployed, or working without pay being slave-labour trainees (doing internships) without any guarantee that this unpaid emloyment will land them to a job when the 3, 6 or 12 months of the internship finish.

      Although I am not at the LSE and cannot argue in favour or against their PhD programs, what I know is that each department is different, and PhD experiences vary across them. My MSc experience there was excellent. Last year was the most intense and intellectually stimulating year of my life. Both the Government Department and the Gender Institute that I took courses from, employed top-range academics who are leaders in their fields and who actually devote time to their students (in my case, Professor Anne Phillips even though she was not my supervisor, agreed to meet me many times in her office, read my research proposal, discussed my views and suggested universities that I should apply to and academics that I should contact. In the end she wrote many reference letters in support of my various applications despite her very busy schedule).

      Regarding the years of study, most universities say that a PhD is a 3 years study, although it is rarely the case, since most students take up to 4 years (usually 3,5) in the UK. Universities are very very strict these days about PhDs which go beyond 4 years, as it is one of the indicators that affects their research rankings and their potential for receiving grants. I don’t know the specifics of it, but many funding bodies extend the funding for another half year without much trouble (provided of course that the supervisors and the department agrees).