Disclaimer: Most of this information will be specifically for PhDs in Education, Psychology, and Mental Health Sciences, as that is our only reference point.

How does one begin the process of PhD applications? From trying to decide on the perfect programme to writing research proposals, the process can seem overwhelming, before even starting.  

During the Summer of 2021, each of us began preparing our PhD applications, and continued the grueling process whilst studying for the MPhil. Collectively, we truly wished there were more informative and reflective blogs for prospective PhD students. Here, we will reflect upon our journeys of applying for PhDs and how we learned a lot more about ourselves and our research interests, through the trials and tribulations of applying.

1. Finding a PhD programme and potential supervisor

Before you reach out to your potential supervisors, make sure you are well-prepared. Be familiar with their work (at least in the last 3-5 years) and think about how your research interests match their labs.  

Below, we have outlined an indicative timeline for researching PhD programmes during the Summer:

  • Identify a list of programmes of interest, including opening time for applications, links to the personal websites of the supervisors, and any specific requirements. 
  • Prepare an outline of your PhD research plans. It does not have to be very specific or detailed, but this differs across supervisors (see point 2 “Writing a proposal” for more information).  
  • Reach out to PhD students in the programmes you have applied to (especially those supervised by your prospective supervisor) – you will have the chance to learn more about the supervisor’s approaches to guiding you through a PhD.  
  • Contact supervisors via tailored email, wherein you include the following: 
    • attach an academic CV (it is good practise to have PhD students proofread this, or you could find the CV of the PhD students in your “dream” department, referring to how they have written their research background). 
    • some information about your qualifications. 
    • your research interests and, most importantly, how those align with your potential supervisor. For example: 
      • how your proposed project aligns with your potential supervisor. 
      • mentioning some of the work they have recently published or their ongoing research projects. 
      • You can also ask (a) if they are looking for any incoming PhD students for the upcoming academic year; (b) if they are available to talk about possible supervision. If they give you a positive response, follow up as soon as possible.

Note: Some supervisors are very busy. If they haven’t replied to you in a week, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance. You can also contact their students to understand why they are not responding (e.g., research, being on leave etc). It may be a good idea to send out emails at the beginning of a working morning to increase the possibility of them noticing your email.  

While the programmes in the USA usually have application deadlines in January, the timeline for those in the UK can take until April, and some European programmes post their PhD position vacancies in March. 

Here are some useful resources for finding a PhD programme: 

2. Writing a research proposal

When you start writing your research proposal (RP), it is important to consider a few factors:  

(a) What are you passionate about investigating in-depth over 3+ years?  

(b) Do you want to explore a new area of research, or do you want to continue work from a previous degree?  

Your overall aim is to produce an RP that is clear and coherent: 

  • It is important that the RP presents your understanding of the area and your idea of how to research the question with a valid methodology. Also, the RP should be realistic and feasible for the scale of a typical PhD programme.  
  • One important thing to bear in mind is that the proposal does not have to be perfect; it is an indication of your research ideas and is open to suggestions. There is often a debate regarding how applicants should balance their research interests vs the supervisor’s interests and needs?  
  • Importantly, you should write an RP in a field that you are excited about– ultimately, as important as it is to consider your supervisor(s) research interests, the alignment and fit of the supervisory team should be secondary to your RP.

We recommend sending various drafts of your RP to prospective supervisors, as well as PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. In doing so, you gain different perspectives on the RP with students often emphasising points that are more important (e.g., methodology and timeline of the PhD), compared to others. Remember that when you write your application, you are not held to your RP – the panel and your supervisors want to see that you have research potential and have thought through the process carefully.

3. Applying for funding

Normally, there are two types of PhD programmes in the UK, one that is part of a specific, funded project, and one that is entirely open to the interests of the applicants.  

Funding for PhDs is extremely competitive. Therefore, the success in securing funding lies in the quality of your proposal, your prior qualifications and work experiences, the supervisory team, and your research potential. Below we have explained a few key points pertaining to funding: 

  • We would like to emphasise the importance of reading the advice documents and guides for funding – most of them will outline what answers are expected from applicants, and will also have an accompanying score sheet, so you are aware of what is expected.  
  • Funding deadlines are different from the main application deadline and on some PhD programmes – they may automatically consider you for funding (based on your fee status and nationality), whilst others involve a full, lengthy application (including your CV, your personal statement, references).  
  • Funding applications may also ask more challenging questions such as “why is a scholarship appropriate for your project”, where you are expected to give details on research methods training you have previously engaged in. Other questions may include expanding upon your training plans, under the remit of the scholarship and how your supervisory team will support, aid and direct you towards relevant training opportunities and networking. 

It is important that you have a prospective supervisor that will be fully engaged in the process of funding applications, as they will usually have several years of experience in assisting and facilitating such applications. There are scholarships that are only open to certain nationalities, such as the CSC scholarships for Chinese students, which require additional materials and additional applications. Most USA PhD positions are fully funded, and there may be opportunities to apply for additional fellowships or scholarships before enrolment.

4. Preparing for interviews

We would advise you to reach out to PhD students (particularly those who are being supervised by your potential supervisor) to ask for tips on the interview process. Remember that they want to hear how passionate you are about your prospective research project, as well as hearing whether you have background reading on the programme, the supervisors, and the training opportunities.

We would highly recommend doing informal interviews with potential supervisors. In doing so, you will be able to formulate a more concrete research plan. Before informal interviews (including mock interviews), consider the following points and questions for preparation: 

  • Think about the reasons for why you are applying – A balance between the institution, programme, supervisors and research, as well as further training opportunities and conferences, are some of the few factors that need to be considered. 
  • Be familiar with the application materials you submit – Ask your fellow classmates, PhD students and prospective supervisor to proofread your documents (the more times, the better!). 
  • Familiarise yourself with the type of methods you proposed in your research proposal, as this is the most frequent question. Specifically, think about whether the methods are feasible and how the resources of the university and the supervisor may help with the project. 
  • Current research projects – Here, you can talk about your prior research experiences and how they relate to work in the prospective supervisor’s labs and ongoing projects. You should also consider asking for the student quota for the supervisor per academic year. 
  • Supervision style: do they engage in students’ work a lot; how often would they review chapters and drafts? 
  • Any specific questions about funding opportunities, as well as the supervisor’s previous papers and projects. 

5. Looking after your mental health

Applying for PhDs comes with the stresses and strains, from the time of applying to the ‘waiting game’ of hearing back about the outcome of your application. During these times, it is important to reach out to your friends, your family and the people who have helped you (including your potential supervisor, who will support you throughout the process and beyond). Overall, looking after your mental well-being will involve careful planning and preparation, ahead of the PhD deadlines, but also building rapport with supervisors, PhD students, and other researchers. The PhD application process is mentally taxing, so disengaging from the application process to look after yourself is key to being both healthy and successful, regardless of the outcome.  

Don’t be disheartened if you face rejections during the process, as PhD applications are full of uncertainties. Rejections may simply be linked to the lack of funded positions and not the quality of your research proposal. Having backup plans including applying for several programs at different universities is often a good strategy to adopt, so if plan A doesn’t work out, you will still have other programmes that you are passionate about, which could ultimately be successful! 

We hope our article has offered both insights and inspiration for prospective PhD candidates and we believe that other students can learn something from our collective, yet varied, experiences!

Evelyn Antony is an MPhil Psychology and Education student and a fellow FERSA blog editor. She received her Master of Arts (Hons) degree in Psychology from The University of Edinburgh in 2021. Her research background mainly focuses on utilising advanced quantitative methods in large multidisciplinary cohorts to investigate mental health trajectories. In the Faculty, she is supervised by Dr Zhen Rao, and is investigating the associations between emotion regulation difficulties during middle childhood and developing social anxiety symptoms during adolescence. You can contact her by email at emaja2@cam.ac.uk or connect with her on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/evelyn-antony 

Tianyi Zhang is an MPhil Psychology and Education student (2021 entry). She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Sun Yat-sen University, China, in 2021. Her research background mainly focuses on the factors that influence family interactions and mindfulness-based interventions. In the Faculty, she is supervised by Professor Rupert Wegerif and is working on dialogic education with videoconferencing technologies. You may contact her by email at tz334@cam.ac.uk or connect with her on Linkedin at www.linkedin.com/in/TianyiZhangSarah 

Linling Shen is an MPhil Psychology and Education student. She received her BSc in Psychology from Sun Yet-sen University, China. As a researcher in neurodevelopment disorders, her research focuses on the assessment and intervention of reading difficulties. She has experience teaching children with autism, dyslexia, and comprehension deficits. You can contact her by email at ls937@cam.ac.uk or connect with her on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/linling-shen-0b9782238/. 

Featured photo by Richard Cabusao on Unsplash.

Posted by:fersacambridge

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