The PhD Application Process Explained


I have written a multitude of articles on doing a PhD, and the whole experience it entails. They are some of my most popular articles, and it easy to understand why. However, it doesn’t matter how many articles I write regarding this manner the question that always comes back up is the following: how do you (best) apply to doing a PhD? It seems that the application process itself is mystifying. And to be quite frank, it doesn’t resemble the process of finding a non-academic job whatsoever, nor does it resemble the process of getting into UG or PG (Msc etc.), so there are good grounds for people becoming increasingly worried. As such, this entire article is dedicated towards just this one part of the PhD experience: Application!


Before the Application


Step 1: The Right Degrees If you thought the application process was rough in itself, hold you heart. The real work starts way before. You can’t just get into a PhD without having the right degrees to match up. At least, it will make it harder to convince a supervisor to take you on, and an institution to let you in. This can be remedied with work experience to some extent, but this can still lead to you lacking the needed skillset to complete the PhD successfully. Or it will just make your life a lot harder. So step 1 is already figuring out the topic (or at least the field) of your PhD and which degrees are needed to ease your way into that field/topic. Some people argue that once you’ve done a PG degree (MA, MSc, MRes) at an institution it is much easier to also a PhD there. The institute already knows you and you are a low risk option, which is often preferred. Moreover, from your PG degree you will have gotten to know several teachers who will be researchers taking on PhDs. As such, there is the advantage of knowing your potential supervisor early on, and figuring out whether you’re a good match. I have also written an article with some tips on “How to pick your supervisor.” Before we even move onto step 2, we should maybe even look before step 1. I would also argue that step 0 is knowing for sure you’d actually want to do a PhD. This is a 3-4 year commitment (in Europe) or a 5+ years commitment (US), so it shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you’re in doubt, please do read these articles on “Whether to PhD or not to PhD,” and “Reasons you shouldn’t do a PhD.” Just to be sure!


Step 2: Knowing Where to Go Granted that you have a topic (or a field of interest) and you have degrees that match up to this topic, the work can begin. This is the selection stage. Where do you want to go? Where is best for studying your topic? Do you have commitments which bind you to stay in a certain area? Is there a specific person you really want to work with? These questions can have very different answers depending on who you are. Some people are comfortable travelling the world, others aren’t, for familial, cultural or financial reasons. That’s all fine, but you need to know where you’re able to go, and where you aren’t. Constraints do actually make this process easier, because you’ll eliminate a lot of options that you no longer have to look at. Sometimes “the world is your oyster,” is problematic at best. In this case, it will require a lot of research. And this is why it’s often smart to have done this before your Msc (or equivalent) because it will guide your MSc and make PhD applications much easier. This research process of finding the right institution/supervisor for you, is unique to each and everyone. Go to google scholar, find people who have frequently written about topics that you can imagine yourself researching for years to come. Or ask your teachers. Who do they know in this field? Which institutions have good reputations when it comes to this type of research? You’ll need all the help you can get so just ask anyone who you think might have any insights. Most academics are quite happy to help you out as a future academic! Also, within this selection process, don’t make the mistake of putting all your eggs in one basket. Make a list of 5 (at least) of universities you’d be happy to do a PhD at. And then, move onto step 3!


Step 3: Knowing Who to Call Some prospective PhD students have their hearts set on working with specific academics to begin with, so they have step 2 and 3 merged. They know “who to call” and don’t care that much about the institution to begin with. However, quite a few people start out with the institution, and then move onto the specifics of a potential supervisor. If you belong to the latter, this section is for you. Once you have a top 5 (or more) of universities you’d be happy to do your PhD at, we need to get more specific. Within the first university, figure out who’s actually doing research in your topic and make a top 3 (or more) of people within that institution. Now reach out to your most preferred person. E-mail them, indicate that you have an interest in a certain topic and want to do your PhD in it. Ask them for a call or online meeting. And then just wait for the response. Also do this with your preferred person from institution #2 and #3 etc. Just because some academics are very slow, and this can be a time consuming process. I wouldn’t shoot e-mails to multiple people within the same institute, because they do talk! Also, make sure to actually reference in the e-mail that you know the work of the person you’re contacting. This needs to be specific and not general. Don’t send out general, run-of-the-mill e-mails, because they actually reduce your chances of being contacted ever again. However, ff it’s becoming clear that your most preferred person is simply not e-mailing you back, and you have e-mailed them multiple times already, move onto the second preferred person on the list. This might seem like a very tedious process for finding someone who might supervise you, before you have even started the application process of the PhD. But this is just the academic equivalent of networking. Having a supervisor, or someone who is willing to supervise your PhD, makes the difference between a cold and a hot application. And guess which is most likely to get you into the PhD? Exactly.

The Application:

Step 4: Getting the Documents Ready Applying to a PhD can be quite a time consuming process. You are going to need to get ready quite a few lengthy documents: transcripts, motivation letter, research proposal, and the much dreaded reference letters. Let's discuss those in turn:

Your transcripts might not be remotely complete. The UK term starts in October, and ends in September. Yet, most of the application deadlines for PhDs fall in December and January. Most institutions are aware of the "lag" between what they are asking for and what you are able to provide. Most of the time, if all the other documents are in order and you have been accepted, you will have been accepted "conditionally." This means that as long as you get grades above a certain level (in the UK this is often above 65 or 70%), you will be automatically enrolled into the PhD program. If you fail to get these grades, you won't be. Your motivation letter is quite easy: it has to outline who you are, why you want the PhD (future plans) and why you would be a good fit (topic, skillset, practice, experience etc,). It's worth it to have this letter checked by multiple of your peers/colleagues. This document is the most indicative of you as a person, so don’t judge it too lightly. You will also need reference letters. It is important to get goods ones, but it seems to be much more important in the US than it is in the UK. These reference letters need to come from people either in or related to the topic of the PhD, and/or people who you have worked with and know of your research experience. Within some MSc programs there will be Personal Tutors available to all students, and they might be good reference writers as well. The key here is to not be hesitant to ask for a reference letter. Most academics expect their students to ask for them, and are properly trained in writing good ones, so don't worry too much about asking for "too much", it's almost expected.


Last, but probably most importantly, you’ll have to write a research proposal. The research proposal is a much more rigid format, in which you have to outline your research plans for the duration of the PhD. You will have to show deeper understanding of the topic, the method(s) being used and to some extent the analysis. If you are applying without a supervisor, you tend to get matched to one on the basis of your research proposal. If you are applying with a supervisor, they often help you write out this proposal, or at least give good advice, improving much of its quality. This is yet another argument to have reached out to potential supervisors way before even starting this application process. Let me outline this once more: When applying with a supervisor, you have one foot and an arm in the door. Someone has already told you they want you to be there doing a PhD. Now, you just have to convince the respective department or University that this is a good idea. With the supervisor, especially if they help you form the research proposal, the department just had to check that you qualify by their standards (grades, experience, previous education) and will let you in more easily (it also helps with getting funding). With a "cold" application (a.k.a you know no one), you will be competing on your cv, transcripts and proposal alone. You won't receive help with the research proposal and that might be disadvantageous to you. You are effectively a stranger to the department and the university. If it comes to you vs. someone they know, you are the riskier option and often, as a result, you will lose out. This is not to discourage you, but keep it in mind.




Step 5: Apply. Then apply again. I hope you weren’t thinking that one application was enough. Because it isn’t. You’ve made your top 5 (or more) of institutions and will now have found supervisors for all of them, hopefully. If there’s an institution that you haven’t found a supervisor for, you can still submit a cold application, just to enhance your overall chances of getting into a PhD. Regardless, in step 4 you’ve gotten your documents ready, now it’s time to put them to work. With all the preparation you’ve done you are in fact ready to apply to all of the universities. Just make sure you have written slightly different documents for all of them (Don’t apply to LSE with documents that say you’re looking forward to attending WBS, for example). Go through the online application process for the first university, fill everything in, upload all the documents, check all the boxes and then take a break. This is truly a long process. Luckily, a lot of these applications can be saved before they are submitted, so if there are any further questions or uncertainties not all your work is lost. My advice? Take a well-deserved break between all these applications. Maybe even spread them over several days (if the deadlines permit). Don’t underestimate the tediousness of it all!


Step 6: Funding Another important part of doing the PhD: where is the money coming from? A lot of universities have built-in funding applications for their regular applications. So within the same system as step 5, you can opt-in to also be considered for university-supplied funding. This is the funding application on easy mode. Issue is, not everyone gets this type of funding. Finding funding when playing “hard mode” looks a bit different. Again, this is where your supervisor comes in. Your supervisor has been in the game a lot longer, and as such knows where they can draw money from. Potentially, they even have a research grant themselves that can fund part of your PhD. You won’t know until you ask. Other ways of getting funded is through companies. This is a very rare source of funding, and often comes from having worked for that company for years already. For some people that is just not a reality. But again, keep it in mind, it might be an option, if not now, maybe later.

Another “source” of funding is to fund the PhD yourself. This is technically possible in the UK, impossible in the US and illegal in other countries (it's against employment laws). Focusing on the UK exclusively: could you do it? Yes. Should you do it? No. Unless you already have millions in the bank, for many people the burden of having to fund your own PhD is too big. Don't underestimate the cost. Regular funded PhD students get about 20.000 pounds a year, of which 4.500 is tuition fees alone (paid for 3 out of 4 years). So, the cost of the PhD is 13.500 already. Plus your living costs. And potentially even having to pay for your participants or methods of analysis. You would massively disadvantage yourself financially by funding it yourself. Your time, effort and research are worth a lot. To you, to the institution and potentially even to society. You are worth more than zero. Don't self-fund. Another thing to consider is the difference in fees if you’re not from the country/continent that you’re doing your degree at. For example, when applying to EU institutions as someone from the EU, getting funding is easier, and the funding you will receive should be able to cover all costs. When applying to EU institutions as a non-EU student, things become more difficult. Often, funding programs for EU institutions fund against the EU rate, so even if you get this funding as a non-EU student, your full costs will not be covered, as your tuition fee for doing the PhD is higher than that of an EU student. Make sure you look into this when applying for funding. It is also important to see if you could get money from your own country to support your research. When it comes to funding, opt-in to all the university funding you can get. Make sure to also apply to all the extra third-party funding opportunities you can find, or your supervisor might be aware of. And don’t self-fund!





Well, this certainly has become a beast of an article, at least in length. It is important to realize that a lot of the application work comes much before the actual application. Once you’ve wrapped your head around that and aren’t comply discouraged, you can start! I wish you the best of luck. And if you were to have any more questions, just reach out to me on the socials. I am the quickest in replying to Twitter (@MoneyMindMerle), but you can find me anywhere really!

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