While the number of PhD students is far smaller than undergraduates and other postgraduates, the application process is easily the most intensive. Unlike other courses, a PhD application usually involves writing a detailed proposal for a thesis, including a literature review and a bibliography, akin to a dissertation proposal and often running to over 3,000 words. Make no mistake – the application is a detailed task in itself and it needs to be done thoroughly. Here are some tips to help along the way.
- Be thorough but not inflexible
The quickest way to have a proposal rejected is if it is shallow and unoriginal. Quite apart from fulfilling the literature review required for most applications, it is very important to ensure that the proposal is well-researched and considers its position in the wider field. At the same time, remember that your research will change over the course of the programme, so leave room to manoeuvre.
- Your supervisor is your friend!
There is a reason PhD applications insist you get in touch with your preferred supervisor before handing in your application. Finding someone who specialises in your field gives you someone professional to share your proposal details with and edit them with proper help. More than an institutional brand, PhDs are dependent on supervisor support, so get in touch at the very start. It also lets you weigh your university choices; your proposed supervisor might be thinking of leaving before your course ends which you would not know about unless they tell you.
- Timeline and word count
Not all universities or departments require this, but it is a good idea to plan out a research timeline for your project during your application. It helps you understand whether you have enough work to actually merit a three- or four-year course – or if you have too much to fit in. Along with keeping the thesis’ word count in mind, this helps you finalise your proposed topic.
- Funding deadlines
One of the things that is easy to forget about postgraduate applications is that they have hidden deadlines. While the actual proposal submission usually has no submission date attached, funding applications always do. Since most research grants require a conditional offer to study, at the very least, it is crucial to apply for the course well in advance. This is not easy, but, with the right level of research and supervisor support, it is possible to write an excellent proposal in a few months (including time taken for other work, whether academic or professional).
- Check requirements
Every single university and department has their own set of requirements for PhD proposals. These typically involve a minimum word count and a set of sub-sections (like literature review and proposed timeframe), but can also include font, font size and spacing. Make sure that a proposal written with diligence and meticulousness is not rejected due to formatting errors.
Disclaimer: My experience of writing PhD proposals is determined by my experiences as a Politics student. Other faculties, especially the Sciences, might have slightly different requirements. Nonetheless, the general advice still stands.
Do you have any more advice on how to write a good PhD application? Let us know in the comments below!
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