28. Masters: Mapping it Out (number 3)-Top Tips when Applying for a PhD

Crossing the halfway mark of your Master’s degree can be both an exciting and daunting prospect, not least because the inevitable questions of ‘what next?’ begin to rear their head. It can seem as though you’ve only just arrived in one place before you have to start thinking about the next step. The short duration of many taught Master’s courses – over just nine or twelve months – means that juggling assignment deadlines and job applications can be a stressful and delicate task. If you’re considering staying in the world of academia, keep reading as the next few blogs are for you! We’ll try to alleviate some of the strain by delving into the world of PhD applications and addressing three questions that may arise when thinking about postgraduate work. To provide the answers, we’ve asked our wonderful RGS postgraduate committee who sit at the coalface of PhD research to give us their key advice and insights. Beginning this week with their top tip when applying for a PhD

Nina Willment – Royal Holloway, University of London

Make sure you have a scout round online to see the funding provision out there and what you can apply for and when you have found something you like the look of, be sure to get help from academic staff in your department and from your potential supervisor on your application. They will have probably done PhD applications loads of times, so are in a better position to know what specific funders may be looking for!


James Brooks – University of Manchester

My tip would be to try and visit as many departments and supervisors as possible. I was lucky in the fact that I didn’t apply for that many PhD projects as I had my heart set on one here at Manchester, but ideally I should have looked around more and looked into visiting more departments. My meeting I had with my current supervisor was excellent; I spent a few hours looking around the labs and then had lunch, giving me the opportunity to talk about the project I wanted to do and getting some tips for the interview stage. Being able to talk to the supervisor helped clear up some of the uncertainties I had regarding the project, and made me feel much more comfortable. Obviously, each department is different and some supervisors are incredibly busy, making it tricky to spend time with them, but do try! They are always keen if they have the time!


Chris Martin – University of Leicester

I’m in a fortunate position in that I didn’t search out and apply to do my PhD. I’d finished my MA and one of the external verifiers liked what I was doing, so actually talked me into doing a PhD with him as my supervisor. He obtained a fees-only studentship and research grant from the University, which, now that I’m half way through I wish I’d been more proactive looking for funding so I could do it full time. I did have to submit a proposal and attend an interview, but since the project was based on my MA I was pretty confident I’d get through the interview successfully, and I did!


Jo Hickman-Dunne – Loughborough University

Make sure you love what you are going to be researching! You’ll be doing it day in, day out for the next 3+ years so it has go to be good. Don’t rush into finding a project, or look for places that will fund your own research idea. That said, remember PhDs can be flexible (especially in the social sciences) and there is often lots of opportunity to take the original brief in your own direction. Don’t forget to let yourself and your enthusiasm shine through in the interview! Potential supervisors are not just looking for someone who is an academic genius, they are assessing whether you are the kind of person who would suit PhD life, fit into the department well, and is self-motivated and curious. You don’t have to know it all before you start, you just have to be prepared to learn!


Dan Casey – University of Sheffield

In my case, persistence was key!! It took me 13 applications before finally being accepted onto a PhD with funding, it was a yearlong process during my masters to apply. Don’t get demoralised through rejections (easier said than done, but if I had I wouldn’t be writing this today). Always ask for feedback, as this will help you in further applications in case you do need to apply again. However, I know people who got funded PhDs first or second time around, so my case is probably rare. I think the PhD project I ended up with though suits me perfectly and my supervisors are great … I think everything does happen for a reason.


So there you have it! Five top tips from those who’ve navigated the application process and successfully come out the other side. Key themes include researching lots of options, communicating with potential supervisors, and staying positive! Negotiating the funding maze can be time-consuming and a real challenge, but ensuring that you’re happy with your project, supervisors, and university is really important. And remember, there’s absolutely no rush in the long run. We’ll be back next week with a brand new blog entry asking our committee to describe a typical ‘day in the life’ of a PhD student… Hope you can join us!


Alice Watson

MSc in Migration Studies, University of Oxford